Redwoods and fog in Redwood National Park. (Photo/Wikimedia-Michael Schweppe CC BY SA)
Redwoods and fog in Redwood National Park. (Photo/Wikimedia-Michael Schweppe CC BY SA)

Tu B’Shevat is more than trees — it’s about our link in the chain

I was born in the Jewish month of Shevat, the month in which we celebrate the new year for the trees. At one of my childhood birthday parties, maybe when I was 6 or 7, my mom bought small plants as party favors for my friends in attendance. There were mini-ferns, some succulents and other small plants.

I remember arguing with her about which plants we would give to my friends and which we would keep. I loved them all. At that age like many other children, I was obsessed with all-things miniscule, from tiny mice dressed up in people clothes to mini-colored pencil sets.

My mom was adamant: Guests come first.

So I begrudgingly passed out those plants to my friends, very jealous and frustrated that I didn’t get my way.

Kids usually don’t realize when they are experiencing one of those “teachable moments”  that parents provide. Thirty-plus years later, this moment of grievance with my mom stays with me, especially now that I also have a daughter with a winter birthday like me.

I am sure my mom didn’t realize how much this short altercation with her daughter would stick and shape the ways I think about the world and the ways I teach. While I fully acknowledge that my mom thought she was teaching me about hachnasat orchim, the Jewish value of welcoming in guests, I understand her message differently now.

At that moment, my mom was giving me a tool for life, a tool I use every day as an educator.

Her actions taught me that there are times in life when we are not the center, times when we need to step back and give each person “their plant,” a place to be themselves, to share their voice, the space to grow.

In order to support meaningful learning experiences, I, as an educator, need to step back and make space for the voices of those learning with me. Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I internally criticized my mom for always being selfless, for stepping back and giving space to others. I wanted to hear her voice. But, over time, I have learned about the power of this selflessness and how to use my voice while at the same time giving others a place to learn and develop.

Stepping back to allow for growth is a major theme of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish birthday of the trees. We plant trees knowing that we might not enjoy their shade or their fruits. It is a selfless act that reminds us that there is more to the world than us.

We often quote the story of Honi the Circle Maker, from tractate Taanit in the Babylonian Talmud, during this time of year.

In this story, Honi sees a man planting a carob tree and doesn’t understand why he would plant a tree that will only bear fruit in 70 years, long after the man’s lifetime. The man who plants the tree replies that he found a world full of carob trees, and just as his ancestors planted for him, he too, plants for his descendants.

Hakham (Rabbi) Avraham Shaul Amir, a 20th-century Cuban rabbi of Turkish descent, shares a wonderful take on Honi’s story:

“Our ancestors planted for us more than carobs. Our entire history, values, morals, and hope for the future are all thanks to our ancestors … [T]his story reminds us that we should credit our ancestors with all that we have, so that we will gain support from them and from their deeds. And all their deeds are righteous, with everlasting merit for their descendants for generations to come.”

Hakham Avraham Shaul Amir inspires me to see my mom and myself as links in the chain of tradition, a tradition given to us over time by those who came before us: holy ancestors, performing righteous deeds.

When they gave us this tradition, they had to step back, to give a little space for us to claim our link in the chain.

We too, have to remember to step back in our role as descendants and teach our children to do so, as well.

This Tu B’Shevat, I think of this, and hope to share plants with my daughter’s class when we celebrate her birthday this month.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Tamar Zaken
Tamar Zaken

Tamar Zaken is chief program officer at HaMaqom | The Place adult Jewish learning institute in Berkeley.