By Gershon Kranzler
The New Year for Trees: A Tu B’Shvat Story, is excerpted from Chanan and his Violin by Gershon Kranzler, copyrighted 1999 by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, and is reprinted here with permission.
Once upon a time there lived a poor melamed, a Hebrew teacher, in a small village in Poland. He had his daily troubles with the hardheaded farmer boys who were his students. For they would rather roam the countryside than learn the alef bet, the difference between the daled and the resh, or the hey and the chet.
All through the summer the melamed had plenty of time for himself. The Jewish farmers needed their children to help in the fields, and his pupils would any time prefer mowing corn or loading hay to learning how to read and write Hebrew. That was summer. But now it was winter, and a heavy fall of snow covered every inch of the ground upon which the poor melamed walked. Yet this was his day off. For it was Tu B’shvat the fifteenth day of the month of Shvat.
You know that this day is the New Year of the tree world. Our melamed, too, thought of the meaning of Tu B’shvat, as he left the village and walked towards a nearby forest. He knew very little about trees and nature in general. For he had hardly ever left his study and his beloved books. Thus, you will not be surprised to hear that the learned man was wondering in what manner the trees celebrated their “Rosh Hashana.” Were they budding and putting on their coat of green, or was there any other form of celebrating New Year of which he did not know?
When he reached the forest, he was deeply disappointed to find the trees and bushes covered with thick coats of crystal-white snow. “Who knows,” he pondered, “perhaps they were talleitim (prayer shawls) and kittels (white robes) like pious Jews on their High Holidays!” Just then a strong wind blew through the treetops, and the sounds of the swaying branches sounded like the whispering of devout prayers. Our melamed stood quietly amidst the noise of the windy forest, as fervent melodies passed through his head.
Again he asked himself: What kind of a New Year do the trees celebrate? Don’t they look as if they were dead?
Suddenly, the entire scene became transformed. The melamed was able to see through the glittering, sparkling snow, as if the bark was made of pure, transparent glass. From the marrow of each little branch, tender sprouts pushed closer to the surface; yet they were careful not to go too far. It was still too cold for them to face the harshness of the world beyond the casing of the branches. But within, life was stirring, and the beginnings of new, strong branches were marking time until the Master of the trees and bushes would bring them.
The melamed eagerly drank in the full beauty of this tender spectacle. His strained eyes had never looked beyond the bark of oaks and birches and the poplars that lined the streets of his village. He had never dreamt of life and sprouting twigs deep within the trunks of those impersonal trees. Now he saw and understood that they, too, were individuals, each one in his own right and own way of life; each one with his proper soul and living spirit. The New Year of Trees was no longer meaningless to him.
A sudden gust of wind sprayed millions off fine snow-stars into the crisp air, and the melamed’s eyes were closed as by a curtain. when he was able to see again, the wondrous scene had disappeared. Only the slender fir-trees swayed back and forth, and their naked branches seemed to shake with mockery. Yet the man who returned home to the village was no longer the same poor melamed. Poor were only the clothes that covered his thin body. Poor was only the little hut that served him as a shelter. Yet, deep within him budded spirited life, the blossoms of a hopeful future.
What did it matter that his students were hardheaded farmer-boys? He realized that deep within them lay seeds of knowledge and much learning. He knew that he had only to supply the warmth of loving understanding to lure the sprouts out of their hiding, so that they would blossom and show the fruits of their harvest. They, too, would yet become good Torah students some day!