Faith and Roots



It may be only February, but spring in Los Angeles is very much in the air. Already the evergreen pear trees are covered in white blossoms, the hummingbirds have returned, and there is that special fragrance, redolent of life, that ascends from the earth after a rain.
Four days from now, in a place about halfway around the world, a holiday known as Tu B’Shevat, the “new year of the tree,” will be celebrated. Children will climb hills and clamber down valleys to plant saplings of pine, cedar and olive.
Tu B’Shevat means, literally, the 15th of Shevat, which is the fifth month of the Hebrew calendar year. This date is used for calculating the age of trees, an important matter since – per biblical instructions – any fruit produced in the first three years of a tree’s life is not to be used for any purpose.
Fruit produced in the fourth year must be brought to Jerusalem.
Once a tree is established, the 15th of Shevat is a reference date for tithing purposes. Fruit for one year’s tithe would come from blossoms that opened before this date, while fruit for the next year’s tithe would come from blossoms that opened from this date forward. In ancient Israel, farmers would put ribbons around branches to make sure of the chronology of each fruit.
Moreover, fruit trees have a special status and, according to the Bible, should never be cut down. There is no such prohibition, however, regarding trees that are not used for food. (Deuteronomy 20:19.)
In honor of Tu B’Shevat, the Jan. 28 issue of Week in Review magazine contains an article titled  “Of Trees and Men,” in which roots are compared to faith.  “The roots are the least glamorous of the tree’s parts – and the most crucial. Buried underground, virtually invisible, they posses neither the majesty of the tree’s body, the colorfulness of its leaves nor the tastiness of its fruit. But without roots, the tree cannot survive.
“Faith is the least glamorous of our spiritual faculties. Characterized by a simple conviction and commitment to one’s source, it lacks the sophistication of the intellect, the vivid color of the emotions, or the sense of satisfaction that comes from deed. And faith is buried underground, its true extent concealed from others and even from ourselves.
“A soul might grow a majestic trunk, numerous and wide-spreading branches, beautiful leaves and lush fruit. But these must be surpassed by its roots. Above the surface we might behold much wisdom, profundity of feeling, abundant experience, copious achievement and many disciples. But, if these are not grounded and vitalized by an even greater depth of faith and commitment, it is a tree without foundation, a tree doomed to collapse under its own weight.
“On the other hand, a life might be blessed with only sparse knowledge, meager feeling and experience, scant achievement and little fruit. But, if its roots are extensive and deep, it is a healthy tree; a tree fully in possession of what it does have; a tree with the capacity to recover from the setbacks of life; loftier, a more beautiful and fruitful tree.”
The article was based on a letter written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1944.

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