Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Dad, gratitude and Tu Bishvat

How wonderfully exciting life is for me, and how incredibly kind and loving Hashem has been to me to give me so much abundance.   I learned gratitude from my father, and I'm so  grateful to have been able to celebrate his 90th birthday last month together with him.    Growing up we used to have some wonderful discussions, and in reflection, I remember that invariably he would comment about how lucky and grateful he was for all that he had been blessed with.  My dad was born and raised in Scranton, and I remember how often he would reflect on his enormous good fortune that  his grandparents had decided to leave Europe and come to America.  How easily it would have been for them to remain, as so many cousins did, and be swept away by the holocaust.  He was the seventh of seven children, the only one still alive.  We often speak about his idyllic upbringing in the 30s.  How he was the apple of his father's eye, a ben zekunim (son of old age, much like Yosef was to Yaakov). How despite growing up during the great depression, for a religious Jewish kid growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania,  life was sweet, exciting and without want, due to to wise foresight of his father,my Zeide who I was named for. How he was part of a select group of 5 boys who learned after school, every day,  for years,  together with one of the great rabbinic leaders of pre-World War II America, Rabbi Henry Gutteman, OBM.   During World War II my dad was the only one from his entire company who was miraculously saved an ambush by Rommel in North Africa.  (I'll tell you more about that in the  future.)   My dad had a messenger service business.  He would always tell me that many times he had been solicited by potentially lucrative customers, and he would always turn them down,  because of how grateful he was for what he had, and that he didn't need anything more.  He was the luckiest man in the world, he would say to have my mother, OBM,  his one and only love, and they knew each other for exactly 63 years, almost to the day.  And yes, now, at age 90,  we reflect together on how grateful he is to be alive, and to be loved and cared for by my sister Hope and myself.  Ironically, in the past, when I would ever suggest that Dad consider making changes to his life, or possibly visiting Israel for a simcha for the first time in his life, he would  lovingly rebuke me by saying, "Leo, s'iz shoyn noch ne'ila!"  (it's already after the culminating prayer of Yom Kippur, meaning it's too late, now!). 

Yet, life runs in cycles, and, as the Meiri points out, Tu Bishvat the exact midpoint of the winter, and can serve to give us an awareness, that the barren coldness that we have lived through, can change.   Interestingly, also, 'you know whose birthday is Tu Bishvat?  Rebbe Nosson of Breslov, who single-handedly revitalized Judaism by disseminating the brilliant light of Rebbe Nachman, a light which gets brighter year after year.    So as we approach from a great distance the first glimpses of Spring and rebirth, in honor of my Dad and Rebbe Nosson,   I would like to share with you some ideas and  personal reflections about Tu Bishvat. 
 The Mishna tells us that Tu Bishvat is one of 4 "Rosh Hashanas", the first of Nissan,  the first of Elul,  the first of Tishrei, and the 15th of Shvat (Tu is the numerical equivalent of 15, this according to  the opinion of Beis Hillel), that the Rosh Hashana l'ilan, the New Year's day for trees is Tu Bishvat.    Why Tu Bishvat specifically?  The gemara tells us that since the majority of the rainy season has now passed, fruit now begins to form on trees.  As I mentioned, The Meiri points out that Tu Bishvat is EXACTLY the middle point of winter, which began on Rosh Chodesh Tevet and ends on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  Tu Bishvat then,  is a time when the bitterness, coldness, and  darkness of winter begins to wane and a new hope is felt as manifested by new buds that begin to appear on trees which is called Chanata.  Halachically, Tu Bishvat is the cut off date in two areas:  Maaser (tithing) in Eretz Yisrael (Fruit produced from one year are not allowed to be tithed with fruit from the next year) and orla  (Fruit is not allowed to be eaten for the first three years after being planted, and it has to pass at least 3 Tu Bishvats in order to be allowed to be eaten). 
The Magen Avraham brings down that there is a special custom that  Ashkenazim  have, to eat many kinds of fruit on Tu Bishvat, and the sefer, Shevet Musar, brings down from the ethical will of Rabi Eliezer Hagadol, that he commanded his son to be diligent and careful to make brachos on fruit on Tu Bishvat,  which   is a "minhag Vasikim" (ancient custom).  
From the  Chassidic traditions, the holy Bnei YIssaschar brings down that we should daven to HaShem on Tu Bishvat  for  a Kosher and beautiful Esrog for the coming Sukkot.  He bases this on the fact that the mishna calls Tu Bishvat the Rosh Hashana l'ilan (singular) and not l'ilanot (plural).  This,  he tells us,  is implying that it is a special time for davening and introspecting concerning the unique  tree which the Torah refers to as "beautiful and praiseworthy"--the Esrog.   In the same vein, the Likkutei Maharich from Sighet brings down a tradition of preparing the Esrog from the previous year right after Sukkos, and  eating  it on Tu Bishvat,  as well as wearing special Yom Tov clothes.   The reason behind this, is that the Torah Tells us  "Ki HaAdam etz hasadeh" (For man is a tree of the field) and since this is Rosh Hashana for trees,  one should reflect on this day with a reverence reminiscent of Rosh Hashana.  

As a side, we can also learn a great lesson in gratitude from the context  of this verse:   Specifically,  this verse adjures Jewish soldiers not to cut down fruit trees in the heat of battle, because, as the  Sifri explains, the life of a person can come from a tree of the field,"  meaning that someday, a fruit tree could  save someone's life.  Therefore, as the Torah Temimah elaborates,  even if   an army's progress will be delayed or impeded,  we are forbidden to cut down fruit trees, because a person's very survival may one day come from that very tree that we want to cut down.   What an amazing lesson this is!  The Torah is teaching us to have humility, to recognize that we are stewards of His  Earth, and to have the sensitivity to  realize that the bounty we are given  is a gift never to be treated frivolously, and  never to be taken for granted. 

And yet, We live in a world which runs contrary to this thinking.   Each part of our lives and our bodies, is viewed as a separate entity, and complications are dealt with in the most expedient  and mechanical manner possible.   If a part breaks, mechanically replace it;   If we get a rash, take steroids.   Yet as Jews we are taught to think differently, for as our Sages tell us, the wise person is the one who is able to see that which is just being born, is able to reflect on what his actions will bear, knowing that in a very quantum way,  everything we do and say affects ourselves, each other, and our world.  Consider, for example,  the Chinese herb  Ge Gen.  In the South, this wonderful healing plant is considered the scourge of agriculture, and farmers do everything in their power to obliterate it. Yet, in Chinese medicine,  we know that this wonderful root, known in English as Kudzu, among other things,  is used to heal many of the headaches and problems of hypertension that farmers think it causes them!  

 In conclusion, I would like to suggest, yet another analogy--that Tu bishvat  really more resembles  a different one of the four Rosh Hashanas--Rosh Chodesh Elul.  Perhaps the darkest moment in Jewish history occurred on Shiva Asar B'Tamuz--the making of the golden calf and the subsequent shattering of the first tablets.  From that incident, the Bnei Yisrael were completely alienated from HaShem--He didn't want any part of us.  Only after 40 days of Moshe Rabenu literally pleading for the spiritual survival of Bnei Yisrael, did HaShem give us a second chance.  Moshe was allowed to go up again on Har Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Elul.  The job ahead was still daunting, but at least we had a chance to reconcile ourselves with Him.  Since then, Rosh Chodesh Elul has been an incredibly important date--a time for us to wake up from our complacency, and start preparing for the days of Awe.   So too, I would suggest that Tu Bishvat is a time of waking up and reordering our  priorities.    That just as  trees are now waking up and starting to blossom,  so too, we need to stir ourselves up and make our actions fragrant to HaShem, as we prepare ourselves for the other coronation day: Purim!  For as it says in the Megilla, "kimu v'kiblu," the Jews in Persia accepted upon themselves HaShem as their king and voluntarily agreed to follow the dictates of His Torah.   But not only that,  we can go even further!  Once we accept HaShem as our king and his mitzvot as nutrition for our souls,  we can then  proceed and grow to the third level--to consider ourselves as children of HaShem, actually living in his palace!  On Sukkos, the Shechina actually returned to the Yidden in the form of the Clouds of Glory,  and on Pesach, like a pure child, we are led by the Hand of our Tatty,  HaShem, out of Mitzrayim!
Happy birthday, Rebbe Nosson!  May we all merit and  deserve a beautiful Etrog, and may the works of our hands be pleasurable and  fragrant to our loving Father in heaven.