Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Tu B’Shvat – It’s All About Our Growth

A few years ago, I received an email from Dinah in the UK who heard my Tu B’Shvat shiur on Torah Anytime. Reacting to my analogy of a child’s growth, to the fact that a tree regenerates even in the winter when you can’t see it growing, she wrote, “I wanted to let you know how much your shiur on Tu B’Shvat touched me deeply. I’ve been going through parenthood challenges, not ‘seeing’ any fruits of my efforts and at times feeling disheartened. Just knowing that there is growth that can’t be seen gave me hope – I never knew this about Tu B’Shvat.” Today, I need to thank Dinah, who inspired me to delve deeper into the enigmatic yom tov of Tu B’Shvat.

Tu B’Shvat is listed in the Shulchan Aruch as one of the ‘days of happiness’ when the prayer of tachanun is not recited. The Magen Avraham  says it’s a happy occasion since Tu B’Shvat is the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) for trees. What’s so special about the New Year for trees? What is this mysterious holiday about?

To understand Tu B’Shvat, we need to understand the Jewish calendar. Although the calendar year starts from Tishrei, the order of the months starts from Nissan. There are two halves of the year: Nissan – Elul, Tishrei – Adar. The Bnei Yissaschar tells us that Yaakov and Eisav divided control over the months of the year. Eisav was supposed to receive dominance over the second half of each year. Eisav’s dominance over his half of the year results in Hashem relating to the world with the prism of din – justice – for those months. This is evident in the terrible calamities the Jews suffered through the millennia in the months of Tammuz and Av – the months of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. However, Yaakov was able to “snatch” the month of Elul and the second half of the month of Av, starting from Tu B’Av, from Eisav’s control. Why was he allowed to do so? Those time periods were necessary to prepare for the upcoming Yamim Noraim – the days of rachamim (mercy) – when Hashem relates to the Jewish people with compassion.

In addition, Rav Moshe Wolfson explains that while Eisav was supposed to control the months of Teves, Shevat, and Adar, Yaakov was able to “snatch” the month of Adar along with the second half of Shevat, starting from Tu B’Shvat. Why? Because those time periods are needed for the preparation of the upcoming days of compassion/redemption, from Pesach through Shavuos.

Tu B’Av (15th of Av) is also listed in the Shulchan Aruch as a day when tachanun is not recited. Tu B’Av is the mirror day of Tu B’Shvat, in that both represent a transition from a period of din to a period of compassion.

The Mishna lists Tu B’Shvat as the Rosh Hashanah for the Tree, in the singular tense. Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel explains that the Mishnah is referring to a specific tree! The Torah refers to a person as a tree – ki adam eitz hasadeh (for man is a tree in the field). If we divide a person’s body from head to toe into three segments, the person’s heart is at the start of the second third of the body — the same positioning as Tu B’Shvat in the calendar.

The Gemara tells us that on Tu B’Shvat, the sap rises up in the tree, bringing nutrients to the branches to start the annual process of growing leaves and fruits. Tu B’Shvat is the ‘heart.’ It pumps the blood (nutrients) through the entire body.

On Rosh Hashanah, we accept the sovereignty of Hashem and dedicate ourselves to Him. We have great plans for our personal growth at the start of the New Year, but our growth is not necessarily apparent at the beginning. Growth is a process and fruits are not seen until a much later time! It can be compared to a pregnancy, where the baby is growing during the first trimester but is not very noticeable. The first trimester after Rosh Hashanah is a time when Hashem’s relationship with Am Yisrael is somewhat concealed. Only later, in the second trimester, does the growth in our relationship with Hashem and his mercy towards us start to be noticeable. I found this “hidden growth” evident when observing boys learning in yeshiva. Those who dedicate themselves to intense Torah learning might not realize how much they are growing initially. It’s in the month of Tu B’Shvat that we start to recognize their accomplishments.

Even if we have not made any significant growth up to this point in the year, we have a tremendous opportunity now at the start of the ‘days of compassion.’ The second trimester – the heart of the year – is beginning. We can pump love, excitement, and passion into our Avodas Hashem.

Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Bo -The Cost Of Stubbornness

In Parshat Bo, the makkot (plagues) continue and Pharaoh remains stubborn, refusing to let the Bnei Yisrael leave, despite the devastating blows and destruction all around him. Why was Pharaoh so stubborn? Why wouldn’t he relent?

The Torah reveals to us the reason. As Hashem told Moshe, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” and therefore Pharaoh will refuse. The Rishonim are very troubled by Hashem apparently removing Pharaoh’s free will (bechira.) Every man is given free will by Hashem so he can choose to do right or wrong. How could Hashem harden Pharaoh’s heart and remove his ability to make the correct choice?

The Sforno explains that Hashem did not remove Pharaoh’s ability to choose. In fact, it was the opposite. Since the makkot were so powerful and overwhelming, it would be objectively impossible to deny Hashem’s request. Therefore, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart to make him capable of making a free choice.

The Rambam disagrees and says Hashem did indeed remove Pharaoh’s free will because of his wickedness against the Jews. Pharaoh needed to be punished. He would feel the full force of all the makkot before letting the Jews go.

Rashi tells us that in the first makkah, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. After he continued his obstinate behavior, however, Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart and did not allow him to free the Jews, so Hashem could perform great miracles and demonstrate His power to klal Yisrael.

When I lived in Eretz Yisrael, I used to attend a weekly class with Rav Reuven Leuchter, a very popular mashgiach among both Americans and Israelis. He once spoke on a person’s ability to choose right from wrong. The sefer Mesilat Yesharim, the fundamental work on self-development, tells us that Hashem created man with the ability to choose. All self-development is based on knowing our positive qualities and deficiencies and training ourselves to make the correct decision. From this I realized that my stubborn behavior as a child was something I could overcome. I learned that stubbornness could actually prevent me from attaining many things I want.

However, a person may have a behavior characteristic which prevents him from making the right choice on his own. Whether it’s inherent or developed, mussar is not enough; he needs professional help.

The prime example is addiction. Whether it’s about a substance or behavior, an addict does not have the ability to make a choice. His urges are so strong that he must have outside help in order to conquer those urges. The same is true with certain mental health conditions. Such a person is driven to behave, act or respond in a certain way and professional help is needed.

According to the Rambam, Pharaoh lost his bechira—his ability to choose. He could no longer make a balanced decision on his own. Hashem made Pharaoh addicted to power. Even before the Almighty, he would not give up.

Sometimes, our ability to choose is hampered, but we can recover on our own…with effort. Let’s look at the Egyptian behavior in the makkah of tzefardea—frogs. Rashi quotes the midrash that the makkah started with one large frog that emerged from the Nile. Upon seeing this large scary frog, an Egyptian gave it a powerful hit. This resulted in a stream of frogs shooting out of the frog’s mouth. The Egyptian hit the frog again, sending out another stream of frogs. More Egyptians joined in. Why didn’t they get it? The more they hit the frogs, the more they multiplied!

Rav Wolbe explains this is the reality of anger. A person in a fit of anger loses his sense of reasoning. When someone gets angry, their response is not logical—it’s instinctive. The anger of the Egyptians caused them to believe they just needed more force—hit the frogs harder! They didn’t realize that they were only exacerbating the problem. In a fit of rage, a person loses his ability to make rational decisions. The solution is simple: stay far away from anger.

In areas of addiction—substances, eating disorders, lusts, gambling and other areas—professional help must be found. In areas of self-development, however, we must focus on our own strengths and weaknesses to exercise our choice to act properly. In this case, it’s within our reach. We can improve, change and maybe…get hot dogs for supper!