For the week ending 27 January 2018 / 11 Shevat 5778

Apples vs. Carrots

by Rabbi Binyomin Fishman
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New Year’s Day?

Tu B’Shvat is called “The New Year of the Trees.” While this might draw a mental picture of apple trees gathered around a TV set, watching a ball drop and sipping champagne, it really refers to the demarcation of different years’ crops. Certain agricultural laws require differentiation between each year’s yields. Tithes for one year, for instance, cannot be taken from last year’s crops. Tu B’Shvat is a delineation between years.

Interestingly, Tu B’Shvat is relevant only to trees. The new year for vegetable tithes is a more familiar date, the first day of the month of Tishrei, otherwise known as Rosh Hashana. It seems as though there is some significance to trees that warrants their own New Year, something trees have “over” vegetables. While clearly an apple is not a carrot, we need to identify the relevant differences.

The question becomes more poignant when we view the verse in Devarim 20:19: “For a man is a tree of the field…” This statement is made in the midst of the laws of war, and is used as justification not to wantonly destroy fruit-bearing trees while laying siege to an enemy. In this context the verse seems a bit perplexing. Some commentators explain that the verse can be read differently (though equally acceptable according to the Hebrew original), and read as a rhetorical question: Is the tree of the field a man that you can count him as an “enemy” and cut him down? However, many commentators follow the literal translation, which seems to indicate that man is indeed compared to a tree. This requires further investigation.

Fruits and Vegetables

There are two major differences between a fruit tree and a vegetable, one regarding the planting procedure and one regarding the results. When you plant a vegetable, within the same season you can harvest it. From seeds to cucumbers is a matter of weeks or months. Fruit trees, on the other hand, take years to receive anything. A person can work and sweat, and at the end of the season he still has to go to market to buy his apples. At first glance it would seem that a vegetable garden is a better idea than an orchard.

Now we come to the second difference. That vegetable garden might give results right away, but next season you have to do all of the effort again from the very beginning or there won’t be any produce. The orchard, on the other hand, once it gets started it will provide fruit for years and decades to come. In the short run, veggies are a good idea. But fruit trees are a much better long-term investment.

Herein lies the difference between the types of produce. Vegetables represent more of the “quick fix, instant gratification” module. You harvest exactly what you invested, and quickly. Trees, on the other hand, refer to delayed gratification. It is harder in the beginning, when more work is required without enjoying the fruits of your labor. But in the long run, it is substantially more satisfying.

If we could contrast vegetation to living beings, we could compare vegetables to animals. The Hebrew word for animal, “bahema”, is explained by the commentators to be a contraction of the Hebrew words “bah and ma”, which loosely translated means: “What you see is what you get.” There is very little difference between a one-day old animal and its fully-grown counterpart. Within a very short period of time it reaches full maturation and complete independence. But, while animals mature very quickly, they also hit their potential very quickly. There is only so much an animal can develop.

Humans, on the other hand, are more similar to trees. Initially, an infant is completely helpless. It takes years of investment before children become fully independent. However, humans are also capable of almost unlimited growth and development. As humans mature they become less dependent on their parents and more able to express themselves. Taking stock of almost any great achiever, it is hard to picture him as a new infant needing his parents to diaper him! This is how people are parallel to trees. The years of hard work with no immediate fruits ultimately lead to an independent “tree” capable of providing fruit for many years to come, way out of proportion with the seed from which it started. And like trees, great individuals make an influence that bears fruits for generations to come.

Let’s use this Tu B’Shvat as motivation to think long-term. Instead of being drawn after instant gratification, let’s focus on developing the latent potential inside of us. May we merit the fulfillment of the verse in Tehillim 1:3: “He shall be like a tree planted on abundant water, that give fruit at its time… and everything he does is successful!”

An alumnus of Derech, Ohr Somayach and Ohr Lagolah, Rabbi Binyomin Fishman is the Associate Director of Vchol Bonayich Youth Program and Adult Education, focusing on building vibrant Judaism in all levels of the community.

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