Rooted in darkness, reaching for the sun

Jews who grew up in the Southern Hemisphere, as I did, have something in common: We are used to Jewish holidays being upside down. The Jewish community of Cape Town, South Africa, celebrates Pesach, the Holiday of Spring, in the autumn; folks in Sydney celebrate the advent of rain on Sukkot as their driest season starts; and the Jews of Buenos Aires, Argentina, mark Chanukah with little fanfare — while it is a central holiday on the North American Jewish calendar, brightening the dark of winter, in South America it occurs during the scorching hot summer vacation from school. 

But Tu B’Shevat, the New Year’s holiday for the trees, tends to fall during summer camp season. Children plant trees, play outside and then jump in the swimming pool. It doesn’t matter how much I know intellectually about the holiday: for me, Tu B’Shevat will always be associated with sun, ice cream, cold watermelon and horseplay by the lake. 

Maybe because of that, one of the symbols of the holiday eluded me until I heard a great dvar Torah from my friend and colleague Deena Fuchs, former executive vice president of the Jewish Funders Network and now CEO of the Micah Foundation. In it, Deena reflected on why this holiday falls at what appears to be the most unlikely time of the year.  

Indeed, Tu B’Shevat happens in the dead of the boreal winter. In Israel, it’s the coldest and grayest time of the year. Trees look especially dejected, denuded of fruit. The days are short, the sunlight anemic and the wind batters saplings mercilessly. And yet, it is precisely at that time when we celebrate the “New Year of the Trees.” This is akin to making sure that your birthday falls every year on the day when you get a bad bout of indigestion. 

But when you look at it in depth, it starts making sense — a lot of sense.

As we know, Israel is a dry country. Large-scale irrigation wasn’t practiced there until modern times. Its rainy season is short, and most of the rain falls between mid-autumn and midwinter. Given the rocky surface of most of the country, it is hard to see that the layer of earth below the surface is soaked in water by mid-January, which means that the roots of recently planted trees have all the water they need. What we perceive as problems, like the lack of sunlight, is in fact an advantage for the roots of the tree. There’s less vegetation above ground — no competition for space to soak up the scant energy that the winter sun provides — and nothing underground soaking up the rain. The barren surface belies the bounty underneath. 

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Planting in Israel is timed for midwinter, not towards its end, because the last rains, which may fall at the beginning of the spring, are the malkosh: strong, stormy rains that usher the winter out with a bang. The malkosh bring a lot of water, which Israel needs, but they can wash away a sapling that is not firmly planted on the ground; and since they come at the point in the year when there’s increasingly more sunlight, they result in an almost immediate blossoming of flowers and undergrowth, which would compete with your fledgling tree for resources. In fact, the name malkosh comes from the root of the word “tardiness,” but the sages in the Talmud propose that it’s a combination of two words: maleh (full) and kash (hay). In other words, the malkosh fills the fields with vegetation and puts grain on the stalks. 

So, for all these reasons, the darkest, the saddest and the most despondent part of the year is the best time to plant and ensure a future full of life-giving trees. The roots of the trees grow rapidly, fed by the reserves of life that the land contains. In a few weeks, the sapling above will look frail and weak, sad even. But beneath the ground, it is planting itself firmly, wrapping its roots around the timeless rocks of Israel, making sure that the tempests of the future won’t be able to uproot it. 

When the sun does come out, as it always eventually does, our tree has a strong foundation. It can now grow tall, develop its leafy canopy and start giving us sweet fruit. It doesn’t need to compete with other plants for nutrients. The opposite is true: it helps the ecosystem by fixing the soil, providing shade for animals and serving as a nesting grounds for birds and a burrow for squirrels. It enriches the ecosystem, from which every living being benefits. 

I think the metaphor here is obvious, but I will spell it out nonetheless. 

We are now in the dead of winter, both literally and figuratively. As Jews, I don’t think that we have never felt more dejected, more alone, more dead inside. We are struggling to see the light, which fails to pierce the dark clouds of pain, anger and grief. 

And yet, our traditions tell us that this is the ideal time to plant. It forces us to see hope when there seems to be none, for few things convey more hope than planting a tree. It means that we believe that there will be a future, and the very presence of that tree will make the future better. It means that there’s life and growth beneath the surface of horror. It means that, even in the darkest of times, we’re becoming stronger, wiser and firmer. 

There are so many examples of that under-the-surface growth, so many quiet heroes keeping hope alive by working for Jewish and Israeli unity, striving to help those in need, taking care of the wounded in body and spirit and creating the foundations of a better future. An American politician might have used the slogan “Build Back Better,” but he did not originate it — it has always been the Jewish way. We strengthen our roots while the storm rages, and then emerge into the light stronger, better, more generous, more human, more committed, more creative. 

The heroism, the determination and the commitment we’re seeing all around should give us hope, because, as Australian activist and author Christine Caine said, “Sometimes when you’re in a dark place you think you’ve been buried, but you’ve actually been planted.” 

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.