A Tree of Life: Tithing & Tu BiShevat

Tu BiShevat, the 15th of the month of Shevat, is known as The New Year of the Trees. It may seem odd that we celebrate the trees during the time of year when they are least active: the winter. No beautiful pomegranates hanging juicily on branches, no succulent dates to harvest and enjoy. Why is that? This holiday, among other things, marks the time when the seeds fallen from trees during the summer and buried in the soil are just beginning to awaken from their winter slumber, to start their slow and steady journey upward.

Before it became the holiday that it is today, Tu BiShevat was the date the Israelites used to determine which trees were of age to be tithed for a portion of their fruit. Tithing is the practice of donating a certain percentage of each harvest to the poor. As Jews, we are not only commanded to donate a portion of the fruits of our trees, but a percentage of the bounty of our fields as well. In addition to supporting the less fortunate members of the community, tithing is a spiritual act. Through tithing we acknowledge that the land that sustains us is not ours as its inhabitants at this current moment, but truly belongs to all life and all generations. Ultimately we are but stewards of the land we live on and take from and we are to act holy in our enjoyment and distribution of its produce.

But why decide which trees are ready to be among those counted for tithing during the dark and cold of winter? It seems remarkable that this decision was made not at a time when all the fruits can be seen and a person can tell what his or her harvest might be for the year, but rather when the trees are dormant and barren, before a clear indication of excess or shortage is apparent. Interestingly, we are not commanded to decide what portion we will donate when we are at our fullest, but when we have nothing. Perhaps the more we wait to see how much we’re going to get, the more we attach ourselves to the fruits of our labor, and the more we want to keep it for ourselves. It is a beautiful principle, whether we are farmers or not, to realize that whatever we earn in this world is not ultimately ours. We are fortunate, when we have success, to be able to act as partners with the Divine in sharing a portion of our wealth and helping to even out the inequalities in our world.

In addition to being important sources of both physical and spiritual sustenance, trees are beautiful teachers. Trees do not begin the day we see the first sprouts pop through the soil. Deep and dark underground the seeds of new trees grow, just in the middle of winter when the stirrings of life and growth begin. So much development takes place beneath the surface invisible to our eyes. The ground is still frozen as the seed begins to burst open and shoot out, penetrating the soil and putting down roots.

Once established, trees can appear as though they are competing for resources, stretching past one another for sunlight, fighting to survive. But underground there is a different picture. An intricate and interwoven web weaves itself through the soil; interlocking roots of different trees share water and nutrients and bond together for strength and support against disturbance. What may appear from one angle to be separate, competing entities, from another angle can be seen as essential parts of a cooperative system of life.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Torah, the wisdom of the Jewish people, is proclaimed the Tree of Life, Etz Chayyim (Proverbs 3:18). Like a tree, Torah appears to say one thing through a literal or simple reading, but as each sentence, word, and letter are studied, a deep and powerful message can be revealed. Seemingly separate stories at one reading, at another can be seen as one long, rich tale of our history and our future. As a tree reaches its roots down and its branches up and out to the sky, so too does Torah reach down to the earthly and up to the holy, connecting our daily reality to the transcendent. This TuBiShevat may we each feel the early stirrings in our soul, even as the world around us remains in a winter sleep. May we trust that our bare branches will soon be fruitful, may our stirrings turn to growth, ready to burst forth in the spring, and may we reach our roots ever downward to ground us as we reach ever higher with our thoughts and dreams.

This article was first published in Greentimes in 2008