Celebrating the Tree of Life

By Rabbi Jeffrey T. Segelman

In just a few weeks, we will enjoy Tu B’Shevat. Established as a “new year” for trees, the special day marks the beginning of the transition from the rainy winter of Israel to the beginning of spring. Though it is a relatively minor holiday in the larger Jewish calendar, the image and meaning of the tree is a significant one.

The Torah speaks about the importance of trees and the care we must give to preserve them. Later in the Bible and in our prayers, we refer to the Torah itself as an “eitz hayyim,” a tree of life—and we are called upon to nurture it and hold fast to it.

Yet in my mind, the most powerful metaphor is brought in the Mishnah in Pirke Avot – The Chapter (Ethics) of the Rabbis.

“Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: What is one like when one’s wisdom is greater than one’s performance of mitzvoth? Such a person is like a tree whose foliage is abundant but whose roots are few—when the wind comes and tries to uproot it, the wind overturns it entirely….

But what is it like when one’s mitzvoth are greater than one’s wisdom? Such a person is like a tree whose foliage is scant but whose roots are many and deep—even if all the world’s winds come and blow their hardest, they will never move it from its spot…”

There are many cold, hard winds in life that seek to uproot us and our Jewish lives. They include confusion about the fairness of life, the attraction of secular pursuits, and the appeal of financial success. Today, it seems that the cold wind of anti-Semitism blows harshly against us, seeking to uproot us.

Sometimes we can be tricked by the appeal of beautiful branches and lovely leaves. But today, we are reminded that it is the roots that will ultimately allow the tree to survive and thrive.

Let us pay heed to the Mishna. We can never stop all the winds, but we can strengthen our roots. Through his 613 Mitzvot Campaign, Rabbi Arnowitz has led us to think about the power of mitzvah in our lives. As he wrote last month, the official campaign may be over, but the vital importance of its meaning remains.

The image of the tree, Tu B’Shevat, is a reminder that our future lies in the strength and depth of our roots. Roots are not theoretical. They are not feelings and thoughts. Roots are the acts of Jewish tradition that we perform both privately and in the presence of our family and community.

Let us continue the campaign in our own lives and may our roots be firm even against the harshest winds.

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