01/08/2014 06:40 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

Life Beneath the Surface

Tu B'Shvat (15th day of Shvat, celebrated this year on January 16) is the Jewish New Year for trees. It is often marked with joyous tunes, tree planting ceremonies (in Israel), and the consumption of many fruit. Interestingly, Tu B'Shvat, is not a festival, as neither the Torah nor the Talmud make any mention of celebrating or observing this day. No commandments -- a central component of any Jewish holiday -- are recorded. Nor are any special prayers inserted within the liturgy. So if Tu B'Shvat isn't a festival, why do we celebrate it and what is its function?

There are some legal components to the day, relating to agriculture and the seven-year shemittah (sabbatical year) cycle and particular laws pertaining to it.

But there is another aspect as well, one that lies hidden beneath the surface.

The seasons in many ways parallel our lives. Concepts of growth and development, and, eventually, stagnation and decay, appear in both the vegetative and human realms. The Torah itself alludes to this when it compares us to trees (Deuteronomy 20:19).

Of all of the yearly seasons, there is perhaps no greater disparity than the one that exists between the seasons of winter and spring. Winter represents stagnation and unrealized potential, when all signs of growth lie hidden. There are no external signs of development, no expressions of vitality. All we see is an empty tree trunk; the fruit and leaves of last season have long since fallen away.

Spring, on the other hand, symbolizes burgeoning vitality. Everything is new and exciting. Trees that have remained dormant for the past few months start to show new signs of life. Buds begin to sprout, flowers start to open. Nature once again reveals its true beauty.

For, behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing bird has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land (Song of Songs 2:11-12).

This contrast is true in human life as well. Circumstances sometimes force us into our own personal "winter," when struggles and challenges strip us of our innate vitality. There are other times in which we seemingly experience only joy and excitement in our lives. Everything points towards growth and accomplishment.

We must realize, however, that there are two distinct ways for a person to approach the winter-like situations in his own life. The aforementioned contrast between winter and spring is only true if one sees winter as the death-knell of summer. The beauty of the seasonal cycle, however, is that one can alternatively view winter as ushering in the upcoming spring. No matter what challenges a person faces, there are always better days awaiting him. Such a person knows no limitations, no dormancy. Life is a continuous cycle pointed in the direction of growth.

This is the message of Tu B'Shvat. In the middle of the winter, when everything around us seems so cold and bleak, think of Spring. Eat fruit. Sing joyous tunes. Plant new trees. Always look for the good.

But the message goes one step further. Not only are we charged to maintain a continuously upbeat attitude regardless of our personal circumstances, we must also realize that those very circumstances are the ones that form the basis of our eventual success. Though we might not have noticed it, most of the "rain" necessary for growth has already fallen. The basis for our success, namely the trials and challenges that we have had to overcome, is already in place. The only difference is that this foundation still lives in the realm of potential, hidden from the outside world. It takes the warmth of spring, literally and in our own lives, to allow that potential to blossom into its eventual reality.

Tu BShvat provides us with many essential, real-life lessons. We celebrate it knowing that we will continue to weather the storm of life, no matter what that particular "season" has in store. This is because God, the Source of all blessing, is behind us, providing us with the means to succeed.


Rabbi Naphtali Hoff served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog at