Shevat Swarming Towards Perfection
A while ago a close friend told me a fabulous idea that he had seen in Rav Tzadok HaKohens sefer Pri Tzadik. It centered on how each of the Ten Plagues correlated to a different month of the year. I was so intrigued that I searched around until I found it. The month of Shevat being two months away from Nissan (did you start cleaning for Pesach yet?) corresponds to the Plague of Locusts. But what is the connection?
Rav Tzadok explains that before we, the Jewish People, were able to prepare ourselves for the exodus from Egypt, we had to detach ourselves from any misdirected physical desires and cravings. In Tevet G-d sent the Plague of Hailstones. It was so devastating that, with the exception of the wheat and the spelt crops, the entire food supply in Egypt was destroyed. According to our Sages the Egyptians were sure that they were all going to die of starvation. However, once they saw that some shoots had been spared the onslaught, they began to believe that everything was going to be all right. I remember reading in autobiographies of Holocaust survivors that in the ghettoes one of the first reactions of Jews who emerged after having been hidden underground for extended lengths of time was to touch the grass. They could not believe that amidst the death and the destruction there was still potential for anything to grow. That small bit of knowledge was a source of great comfort for many of them. For the Egyptians too the small shoots symbolized hope for the future. The very fact that something could grow in the midst of all the devastation was enough to fill them with optimism.
And then G-d sent the locusts.
As the Egyptians watched the last traces of food disappear, devoured by the swarms of locusts that covered the country, their hopes and aspirations for the future disappeared as well. As the Jewish People watched they came to the realization that everything in the world, regardless of whether spiritual or physical, belongs to G-d. And that, writes Rav Tzadok, is the beginning of the sanctification of the physical and our becoming more spiritual.
Rav Tzadok explains that understanding the significance of Shevat in this way is a prerequisite for comprehending why Adar the symbol of uprooting Amalek follows Shevat. Adar can only be a meaningful continuation by fully understanding that Shevat has been given to us as a means of cleansing our physical desires and raisingthem to a spiritual plane.
Theres a famous story of the Chasid who went to speak with his Rebbe. As they were talking the Rebbe asked him to wait a moment while he made a bracha over a piece of fruit. As the Rebbe did so and took his first bite the Chasid began to think to himself, "You know, I eat fruit just like the Rebbe. I wonder if there is any real difference between us. After all hes only a human being just like me. Maybe Im wasting my time here. What can he offer me that I cant get elsewhere?" The Rebbe looked at his Chasid (who hadnt said a word) and said to him, "Do you want me to tell you the real difference between us? I eat in order to be able to make brachot you make brachot in order to eat!"
The beauty and the depth of the story is clear. Unlike his Chasid, the Rebbe had managed to elevate the mundane and turn it into something very special. Eating a piece of fruit was an intensely spiritual and "nourishing" experience. And that, says Rav Tzadok, is the meaning of Tu BShevat. Shevat on the face of it is a pretty bleak month. It comes in the winter, its cold and wet, the daylight is short and the darkness is long, but it is also a time of incredible potential. Underneath the surface things are beginning to move. Come spring time, they will begin to sprout and blossom and reveal their wondrous splendor for all who care to look. All that beauty, all that magnificence, is being nourished from the month of Shevat. Tu BShevat is the time to elevate the fruit from its physical properties to something that is intensely spiritual.
In the Mishna, Tu bShevat has the same classification as Rosh Hashana. It is the "New Year for the Trees". The same way that Rosh Hashana is "stock-taking" time, a moment to stop and evaluate ones relationship with G-d, likewise Tu bShevat offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on the wonders of G-ds Creation and to ponder if we really utilize the incredible gifts that G-d has given us through His "natural" world to get closer to Him.
And if we do that we are destined for a truly special year.