Hard winter earth. Gray February days. Thank God for hidden sap!
Celebrating trees when we are surrounded by cherry blossoms — or other local tree-life — might seem more sensible than doing so on a day like today. But Judaism’s “tree holiday,” is more about the tiny bit of sap, running unseen under winter earth, than it is about visible signs of new growth. Tu B’shvat, the 15th of the month of Shevat in the Jewish calendar (Feb. 8 this year) is the “New Year for Trees.” According to Talmudic discussion, it takes place after “the greater part of the year’s rain has fallen and the greater part of the cycle is still to come” (Rosh HaShanah 14a).
Two notes in Siddur Koren Mesorat HaRav, although both offered as commentary on the morning blessings, seem particularly pertinent for this holiday.
Weary or Exhasuted?
The first discusses two of the many ways we tire:
There are two words to denote tiredness: ayef, weary, and yage’a, exhausted. A person who is ayef needs God’s help to make it through the day, and thus an acknowledgement of this idea is necessary. Ayef connotes a type of fatigue that results from boredom or failure, from a feeling of futility. Yage’a, on the other hand, connotes tiredness from hard work that results in accomplishment and achievement. In sharp contract to weariness, exhaustion results in contentment and satisfaction. [Torah study results in the later.]
— comments of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the morning blessings
Siddur Koren Mesorat HaRav (Jerusalem: Koren/OU Press, 2011), pp.32-33
Coming across this comment, I was immediately reminded of how long this blog had sat without a new post, how intractable our economic and political situation seems here and abroad, how weary many involved in any aspect of the Occupy movement have felt, how hard the winter ground.
And this note — particularly the Rav’s call for a weary one to acknowledge the need for divine assistance — felt to me like a bit of that unseen sap we honor today.
Heroism or Power?
The second comment I want to share speaks of different kinds of strength:
Who girds Israel with strength… Who gives strength to the weary. Ko’ah primarily denotes physical strength, the ability to accomplish difficult physical tasks. Gevura, on the other hand, means strength in the sense of heroism. Gevura is associated with actions which are contrary to what may be considered practical judgment. To act heroically, sometimes means to retreat at the moment when victory appears within one’s grasp. The more one wants the victory, the greater the heroic value of this redemptive act….
— Siddur Koren Mesorat HaRav, p.33
The passage goes on to describe an act of personal heroism “that happened in complete privacy, in the stillness of the night”:
…no glamour is attached to it….like Jacob of old who confronted the angel but let him go just as victory was in his grasp….This movement constitutes gevura, heroic strength. This this sense, ko’ah, physical strength, is inversely related to gevura. The more one possesses ko’ah, power, the less one needs to exhibit gevura, heroism.
Siddur Koren Mesorat HaRav, p.32
Do we overlook or discount quiet acts of gevura — in ourselves and others — because we’re dazzled by something else that goes by the name of “heroism” in public discourse? Do we focus so much on the spectacular blooms of springtime that we ignore how much growth takes place out of sight?
If the Occupy movement — or any effort to effect needed change — is to succeed in the long-run, how much will depend on ko’ah? how much on gevura? and how much on acts that exhibit neither?
Sap and Blossoms, Light and Gray
One final note from the Rav’s commentary:
Rav Hayyim Soloveitchik [grandfather of Joseph B.] said that while a Jew must trust God about the future, there is no obligation to thank Him on the basis of this trust. The imperative to give thanks comes into play only once the trust is realized.
— Siddur Koren Mesorat HaRav, p.75
We don’t sing thanks for (this year’s) blossoms just yet. But this particular February, I’m grateful for a calendar which asks us to honor the whole, even when “the greater part of the cycle is still to come.”
O God, how great and full of endless love
And mercy you are, that you have spread
So much light and splendor across creation.
Your light fills my heart
With adoration and nobility of spirit.
It bolsters my courage and trust on the grayest of days.
— Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women
Dinah Berland, ed. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2007, p.29
(See also Women’s Prayer Publications)