Tu B'Shvat, the beginning of the new year for trees, occurs this year on
January 22, 2000.
The Talmud (Ta'anis 23b) relates an interesting incident about the sage Choni
HaM'agel (who once prayed for rain during a drought and refused to move from
within a circle until the rain came - which it did). " R' Yochanan said: This
righteous man [Choni] was throughout his whole life troubled about the
meaning of the verse (Psalms 126), A Song of Ascents, When Hashem will
return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers.' Is it possible for a
man to dream continuously for seventy years? One day he was journeying on the
road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it
take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then
further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?
The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my
forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.
Choni sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky
formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to
sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of
the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted the tree? The
man replied: I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: It is clear that I
slept for seventy years."
The commentator the Maharsha explains what exactly troubled Choni, and how
his troubles were allayed. The exile to which the Psalmist was referring to
in the passage that troubled Choni was that which occurred after the
destruction of the first Temple, the exile of Bavel. This exile lasted a
period of 70 years. The Psalmist, in Choni's understanding, was saying that
those 70 years when the nation of Israel was in exile were like a dream, a
fleeting, relatively insignificant period of time. This troubled Choni
because of the significance of the 70 year time period. We find else where in
Psalms (90) that "The days of our years among them are seventy years." The
span of a person's life on earth is typified as lasting 70 years. Choni was
asking "Is it possible that a person's life could be considered like a dream,
of no significance and no substance?"
Choni then came across the man planting the carob tree. Choni saw an
individual toiling, engaged in a task which did not produce immediate results
nor satisfaction. The tree would not bear fruit for seventy years, at which
time the planter would not be around to enjoy the literal fruits of his
labor. Choni saw that although a tree could appear to be valueless and
insignificant for such an extended period of time, it, in the long run, had
value and was productive. Choni realized that people may toil and labor
throughout their entire lives. This time may be like a dream, fleeting and
insignificant for what results occur during that time period. However, upon
arriving at the next world, the World To Come, we can reap our reward and
realize how productive our lives were.
Furthermore, although a tree may not give direct benefit to the individual
that planted it, the individual's children, his successors, will enjoy the
product of his effort. When a person toils in This World, by following the
dictates of G-d and His commandments, the person is not merely placing
himself in a situation where he is deserving of reward, whether it come in
this world or the next. He is also directly benefiting his children. He is
setting forth a lesson. As the planter said " as my forefathers' planted for
me, so too I plant for my children." He is directing his children's path for
the future. He is establishing benefit for his children. Hashem rewards the
children of those that love Him as well. Choni vividly saw this lesson, as
when he woke up after 70 years, he saw the grandchild of the planter eating
the fruits of his grandfather's labor. Clearly, the toil in a short and
fleeting life, seemingly insignificant, could be nothing farther from that.
Choni learned that one's accomplishments are not necessarily valued for what
they produce in the here and now. The days of the life of man, as it says in
Iyov (20:8), indeed "shall fly away like a dream." It is what remains
afterwards that is the judge of accomplishment and success. Did you plant
during your life? If not, nothing remains when you are gone, and therefore
your life does not have lasting significance. However, if we all plant, by
learning Torah, by adhering to the commandments of G-d, by acting morally and
compassionately, and by teaching our children to do the same, fruits will be
borne. We may not see these fruits during our life. We may not get to enjoy
them in this world. But we can rest assured, (unlike Choni, who slept for 70
years to learn this lesson,) knowing that we indeed will be harvesting our
bounty in the World To Come, and our children will thrive because of our
Tu B'Shvat, the New Year for Trees, comes during a dry spell for holidays.
The spiritual high of the High Holidays has waned, and the feverish
preparations for Pesach will not begin (for most people, anyway) for some
time. It is a perfect time to concentrate on the lesson of the tree, and to
remember that now is not just time for physical planting, but the time to sow
some spiritual seeds as well.