Tu BeShvat Lessons- Seven Species

The Ohr Hachaim (Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar) on this week’s Parsha describes to us a scene which he explains is referring to an olive tree, and for specific reason.

When the Jews were thirsty they found bitter water, Hashem provided a tree which was thrown in and sweetened it. The Ohr HaChaim explains that this was an olive tree, which itself is bitter. When the verse says that G-d did this because He is our “Healer” (15:26), the Torah is providing a specific message.

Just like an olive, which starts bitter but becomes sweet, so too are the words of Hashem. As a doctor who heals through mediums that are sometimes unpleasant, Judaism is not always fun and easy. To start, it can be burdensome and even overwhelming, but once you live with its principles, it becomes the sweetest of lifestyles. The olive, as with medical guidance, represents that initial difficulty, but that ultimate beauty and pleasure when we are truly healthy.

TU B’SHVAT PREP: Pomegranate
We are all familiar with the importance of the pomegranate- “It has 613 seeds- like the mitzvos!” Actually, it doesn’t, although it could. What it does represent, and where the confusion begins, is a Talmudic passage in Brachot 4a.
While discussing the interpretation of seeing a pomegranate in a dream, the rabbis conclude, “even the [seemingly] emptiest of Jews are filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate”. What we see is that, although it does not refer specifically to 613, it provides an even more powerful, and practical, lesson.
Building on yesterday’s lesson of the fig, we don’t even realize all of the mitzvos one can fulfill by simply doing the best we can. You don’t have to be the best at prayer to do mitzvos; you don’t have to understand theological philosophy to be a servant of Hashem- in truth, we are all full of mitzvos. We may not appreciate that, but the pomegranate just taught us that we should.

Next on our list is the elusive fig. An unassuming fruit, native to the middle east climate- What can we learn from it?
An interesting verse in Mishlei (27:18) tells us, “He who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit, And he who cares for his master will be honored”. How are these two clauses related to each other? What does a fig farmer have to do with tending to a master?
The Malbim explains that the fig is unique because its tree produces ripe figs one by one, day after day. They are not seasonal fruits which all ripen at the same general times. So too, studying from a teacher requires constant visits, not the occasional special event.
Too often we fall into the trap of thinking religiosity happens at certain predetermined times or actions- Friday night, Yom kippur; prayer, charity, Torah study. On the contrary, however, what the fig teaches us is that each and every moment can produce a new, ripened fruit. Each and every interaction of our day is the opportunity of a G-dly mission.

TU B’SHVAT PREP #2: Grapes
The second of the seven species listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 is grape. What is unique about the grape? What lessons can we learn from the grape for our lives?
If we look at the grape, it has a strikingly special quality about growth. By that, I do not mean that it grows bigger, but that with age, as we know, it’s value increases. As time goes on, its taste improves, as does the pleasure it provides.
One message of the grape is that we, too, continue to grow in value, not just our age. The more we live, the more we should learn. The longer we observe the world, the more wisdom we should accumulate. In preparation of appreciating the grape on Tu B’Shvat, let us aspire to be just like it; to continue learning, continue observing, and continue growing.

TU B’SHVAT PREP #1: Wheat & Barley
The first of the seven species listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 is wheat and barley. The symbolic lesson of this category is actually represented in the journey of people through the desert, one which we mimic nowadays from Pesach to Shavuot.
On the second day of Pesach we bring a barley offering and -49 days later- on Shavuot we bring a wheat offering. Classically, barley represents animal fodder, whereas wheat makes food for humans. The progression of the Jews started from an Egyptian culture, one focused on pleasure and base instincts of survival. Their ultimate goal was the receiving of the Torah, focused on intellectually guided principles, a quality that distinguishes humans.
A good start to the seven species is the idea that we first must be humans before we can properly enjoy the food of Gd in the world. To properly lead fulfilling and purposeful lives, food is not simply a means to survival, but an end in itself, of self-control and spiritual growth.