Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tu B'shvat - Thoughts on Growth and Patience

Living in Yad Binyamin is watching Israel sprout before my eyes. As a very new and growing yishuv, the town offers something new to see every day. New houses rise; new roads and sidewalks span the homes. New parks sprout and even our new shul brings something new - a new bookcase, new elevator. It's the excitement of building and growth.
We also have many new trees. After paving the roads and laying the brick sidewalk, the town planted new trees. I guess the way they plant these trees is that they grow them in a nursery until a certain age. Then they trim the trees down to their branches leaving them no leaves at all, dig them up and transport them for replanting.
These new trees always strike me as kind of sad, naked. Someone stripped their leaves, uprooted them from the ground and moved them to a strange place. So each day as I ride (or walk) past them, I look carefully for some sign of growth. Are there any new leaves? Have they acclimated enough to their new environment to begin to grow anew. As of this writing, not yet. But they will.
Last week we got new plants (actaually plants) in our yard - a bush outside our window, climbers near the fence, and even a lemon tree (We're still waiting for the grass.) These plants arrived at a far younger age, alive with leaves and even flowers. And though only a few days have passed since their relocation, I have already noticed new growth; a new set of leaves - a new sprouting of branches.
And then I realized that we are those trees. Young plants grow. It's what they do almost regardless of their environment. Just give them some water and sunlight, and they're off. But older trees have already adjusted to their location. You can't just uproot them and expect them to pick up where they left off. They need time to adjust to their new surroundings - to take root in the new soil, to sprout new leaves. In a very real way they can't pick up where they left off. They need to start anew, with a new set of leaves that match their new climate and environment.
Tu B'shvat is a weird holiday. In America, other than not saying tachanun that day, Tu B'shvat passed with barely a notice. I'm not even that big a fan of the Seder Tu B'shvat that has regained popularity over the years. Sure, it's based on some kabbalistic customs from 500 years ago in Tzfat. But sitting around a table eating buxer and drinking wine always felt kind of forced to me, and still does.
This year we celebrated Tu B'shvat with our neighbors, sitting outside together eating and enjoying the fruit and the company. Today, the day after Tu B'shvat, as I read a Sefer in shul that clearly correlated people to trees, I came to see that from a certain perspective, Tu B'shvat is about us. כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה -- For man is like the tree of the field (Devarim 20:19) Chazal understood this verse to compare human beings to trees in numerous ways: the fruit that they can give, their responsibility to the world at large. But they bring us smaller lessons as well. On some level, Tu B'shvat reminds us just how similar we are to the plant world - and how much we must learn from them.
My children remind me of those young plants in my garden. I uprooted them from their home, from their friends and their language. But they're young - they hadn't yet planted deep roots. And we've brought them to a place with plenty of water and sun - and they've truly begun to blossom; to learn the language, grow in Torah, make new friends and acclimate to their new environment.
But adults aren't so easy. In a way, we really did have to strip our leaves down to the branches and start to grow anew. We really are Americans - culturally, educationally, intellectually. We think differently than Israelis. We see different problems - and very different solutions that don't always work here. Workplaces run on different assumptions and values that don't always translate. Community dynamics seem very different as well.
And most importantly for me, finding my personal identity hasn't been easy. In Detroit I was the rabbi. I had a place and a role. Here things seem much more murky. I give shiurim and answer questions, but I dress casually and don't feel obligated towards others. My job is a struggle, learning my new environment and trying to find ways to contribute meaningfully.
Still, I'm meeting more people, getting to know my surroundings better. And hopefully soon, leaves will start to sprout. And, like the trees, it's going to take some patience.
The leaves don't come out right away. But if all goes well and I can find that patience, they will come, and my growth might be slow, but steady and real.