Shabbat Parshat Vaera - 5759
On this Shabbat we recite the prayers for the Blessing of the New Month: Shevat, and the Rosh Chodesh, the actual beginning of the month, will be celebrated next Monday. The only holiday in this month is "Tu B'Shevat," the Fifteenth of Shevat. This day is called the "Rosh HaShanah La'ilanot," the Rosh HaShanah for Trees.
The nature of the holiday is to define the growing period of fruit grown on the trees of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. By this date, most of the year's rain will have fallen, and most fruit will have attained one third of their full growth. The fifteenth of Shevat helped define the "Maaser," the "tithe," technically, or ten percent of the produce which was donated in Temple times by Jewish farmers in Israel to the levites. This donation had to be taken from a given year's produce to satisfy the requirements of that year; it could not satisfy the Maaser requirements of the following year or the preceding year. Also, the L-rd had arranged that fruit of the trees grow according to a different schedule than other forms of produce, such as corn or wheat.
Maaser for a given year for fruit grown on trees could only be taken from fruit which had reached one third of their full growth by the fifteenth of Shevat; fruit which had not reached this stage would go into the Maaser calculation for the following year.
But why discuss a holiday which falls in the middle of the month before the month has even begun. There are two reasons: One relatively trivial; the other more important.
The trivial one is that winter has arrived here in New York, and in the Northeast, in general, in mid-January, 1999, with a vengeance! Ice, snow, rain, freezing rain - what happened to Global Warming? A holiday involving trees calls to mind the spring - a warmer, infinitely (well, maybe not infinitely, but a very much) more pleasant time, a time of "The blossoms are seen in the Land, the time of song has arrived, and the voice of the dove is heard in our Land." ("Shir HaShirim," Song of Songs 2:12)
The more serious, and much more important reason for discussing this holiday relating to the agriculture of Israel seemingly prematurely, is as follows: by the fifteenth of Shevat, in almost all years, as mentioned above, most of the year's rain will have fallen. Unfortunately, this year there has been almost no rain in Israel.
In the past, we had a "Choni HaMeagel," Choni, the Circle-Drawer, the great and holy Sage who in a time of drought would draw a circle around himself and declare before G-d that he would not leave the confines of the circle until the Master of the Universe provided rain! And Hashem would respond, "Such action by anyone else would amount to terrible chutzpah, even blasphemy - and would be worthy of punishment. But what can I do? It is Choni, my favorite, who is putting me to the test - I have no choice but to provide rain!"
And at other times in our People's past, when we were threatened by an "Atzirat Geshamim," a withholding of rain, our great leaders would proclaim a public fast, with special prayers, and the diminution of our fat and blood occasioned by fasting would be seen by G-d as a sacrifice upon the Temple Altar. Our community would often be roused to Repentance, which would unlock the Gates of Rain, above.
Now all we have are our prayers and our actions to work with. With no other option available, let us strive for the achievement of real "kavanah," true focus and concentration, when we pray, in behalf of our beloved Land of Israel, for a beneficial climate: "And provide us with healthful dew and rain upon the face of the Land, and satisfy us with Your Goodness, and bless this year as You had blessed the good years. Blessed are You, O G-d, Who blesses the years." (Shemoneh Esray: "Bircat HaShanim, " Blessing of the Years)
Let this not, G-d forbid, be the punishment recorded in the "Kriat Shema," (the "Hear O Israel" Prayer), "Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and you serve gods of others and bow to them. Then the wrath of Heaven will be kindled against you. He will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. And you will be swiftly banished from the good Land which Hashem has given you " (Devarim 11:16-17)
Let us hope, rather, that the wishes we express in the Blessing of the New Month of Shevat, will be realized: "May it be Your will, Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that You renew this month for us as a time for goodness and for blessing. May You grant us long life - a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame or humiliation, a life of wealth and honor, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which our heartfelt requests will be fulfilled for the good. Amen. Selah."
And that in this month we will become again worthy of miracles, "He Who performed miracles for our forefathers and redeemed them from slavery to freedom - may He redeem us soon and gather in our dispersed from the four corners of the earth; all Israel becoming comrades. And let us respond: Amen."
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU