Some Yamim Tovim are easier to celebrate than others.

Succos is an easy one: Sit in the succah, shake the daled minim, and revel in the simchah of a slate cleared of sin, securely embraced by the Ananei Hakavod. Same for Purim, Pesach, and Yom Kippur. These Yamim Tovim have clear guidelines for the mitzvos, minhagim, and moods of the day.

When we hit Tu B’Shevat, our clarity deteriorates. We know it’s Yom Hadin for the tree population and an opportune time to daven for a superior esrog. But aside from the yearly run on bokser (carob) and dried fruit, what are we supposed to be doing, thinking, feeling?

Is Tu B’Shevat doomed to spiritual obscurity, celebrated only with a yearly rendition of “Hashkediah Porachas” and raisin-packed pekalach? Or perhaps our annual devotion to the leafy populace is meant to teach us something about our world, our year, and ourselves.

Of Preparations and Potential

 The Gemara (in Rosh Hashanah 14a) attributes a significant role to Tu B’Shevat. Rabi Elazar and Rabi Oshaiya explain that by the 15th of Shevat, the bulk of the year’s gishmei brachah has fallen. Rashi adds that this is also the point when the tree’s sap begins to rise, an indication of its preparing to bear fruit. Clearly this is an auspicious time for a tree, less so for a human. So again, why the celebration?

Jewish history spans a six-thousand-year continuum. By the time we hit the six thousandth year, we’re assured that Mashiach’s arrival is imminent. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (97a) explains that this number, far from being arbitrary, splits evenly into three segments of two thousand years each. The first two thousand were the years of tohu. Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains that far from an expression of abject lack, tohu was the stage in Jewish history of pure unadulterated potential, when Hashem primed the world for the yoke of Torah.

Following tohu were two thousand years of Torah. These were the years when Klal Yisrael labored to imbibe, elucidate, and impart Torah. They were years of supreme toil, when we were tasked with accessing the potent capacity of Torah to transform our world and ourselves.

Finally, we reached the stage of Mashiach. This final two thousand years is the time to reap our reward. From the onset of this period, Mashiach may arrive at any moment, so long as we are worthy.

Life’s Stages

 Sheim MiShmuel parallels the three segments of history to a 60-year lifespan of man. The first third of life is allotted to growth and development of potential. A baby takes his first tentative steps and senseless babble becomes meaningful words. Dormant strengths and talents glimmer with possibility.

The second third of life begins at age 20. Now man is capable of standing both physically and spiritually unaided — “sheyaamod al mila’ah.” He’s a self-assured, independent person, with unique ideas, attributes, and behaviors. Additionally, at age 20, he assumes increased spiritual accountability and is now liable in Beis Din shel Maalah. This is man’s chance to access and actualize the previous 20 years’ worth of potential, but he’ll garner results only through sustained labor and exertion. The hallmark of this life stage is unremitting, grueling effort.

Finally, the third and final phase of life arrives: recompense for the struggles endured in previous years. Old age diminishes a person’s capacity for change. The habits and traits he cultivated in his youth are calcified, immutable parts of his character. In a hauntingly literal sense, man will now live out the life he has unwittingly self-endowed.

Potential, toil, reward — this is the tripartite process of history and life.

The natural world dutifully follows this model. Our year segments into three units of four months each. According to Beis Hillel, the second segment of our year begins on the 15th of Shevat, thus rov gishmei brachah, the majority of the rains, have fallen exactly four months from when we were nidon al hamayim in Tishrei. The previous four months of rain have saturated the earth with liquid potential, and now, on Tu B’Shevat, the trees are ready to toil. Over the next four months the tree sap will continue to rise, awakening the first young buds until the branches explode in riotous bloom, and finally the long-awaited fruits will blossom. The last third of the year is reserved for reward; from Sivan to Tishrei we literally harvest the fruits of our agrarian labor.

History, nature, and man follow their scripted parts: First garnering potential, then striving to actualize it, finally meriting reward.

Potential as an Obligation

 The physical world always reflects a covert spiritual reality. In Tishrei Hashem issued each of us a new, yearlong contract. Every individual’s contract was nourished with fresh potential: brachos such as health, financial security, emotional well-being, successful children, nurturing spouses. The 15th of Tishrei until the 15th of Shevat was a time to integrate the terms of our new contract in to life and to acknowledge the potential Hashem gifted us for the current year.

However, potential is a delicate business. Sometimes instead of seeing G-d-given potential as investment capital, we sit back and revel in it, perceiving it as independent wealth.

While famous for initiating the mussar movement, Rav Yisrael Salanter was also a brilliant gaon. On one occasion, immediately after delivering a particularly outstanding shiur, Rav Yisrael fell into a dead faint. Upon awakening, his concerned talmidim asked what had precipitated his sudden collapse.

“When I finished giving the shiur and reflected on its brilliance,” he responded, “I recognized the tremendous gift that Hashem has given me. I pondered my obligation to properly use this gift, and the sheer weight of my responsibility to Hashem caused me to faint.”

Potential obligates us. My G-d-given cheerful disposition obligates me in my interpersonal relations. My good health obligates me in filling in for others who are struggling with sickness. My nurturing spouse obligates me to nurture others. Far from being a source of hubris, potential always obliges me to action.

Rav Elie Munk describes the morning Pesukei D’zimra as a song of praise and thanks for the opportunity of a new day. It’s our response to the chesed inherent in a gift of raw potential; a fresh morning, unencumbered by sin. Appropriately, Shacharis is the tefillah of Avraham Avinu, the paradigm of chesed.

The Shelah Hakadosh relates that when the sun passes mid-sky, din, judgment, descends on the world. Now I must account for the first third of my day. Have I utilized the raw potential of a new morning? It is a time for spiritual self-appraisal. With this perspective I daven Minchah, the tefillah of Yitzchak Avinu, paragon of din.

When the first third of the year has passed and with it the bulk of the rainy season, middas hadin prevails upon the trees. How will they use the gift of rain? Will they revel in the nourishment it provides, but ignore their responsibility to produce fruit? Or will they gird themselves for the toil that naturally follows the stage of potential, laboring to yield the fruit for which they were created?

Far from an abstract celebration of branches and leaves, Tu B’Shevat reminds us to employ the gift of potential and use it to build ourselves something worthwhile, lasting, and worthy of reward. Now, in this quiet space of time, with Chanukah behind us and Purim and Pesach yet to come, we can ponder the tools we have discovered and acquired in the previous four months and use them to fuel active growth for the next stage of the year.

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 577. Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for nearly 20 years.