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The real lesson of Tu B’Shevat

Eleven years after Mark Twain’s visit to “a hopeless land,” the community of Petah Tikva was established, awakening the somnambulant national consciousness. If we believe in our ability to resurrect ourselves and are loyal to it, the land will blossom and give us back love in return.

A table full of fruits and nuts, traditionally eaten for the Tu B'Shevat holiday, at the Rashbi's gravesite in Meron, Jan. 16, 2022. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
A table full of fruits and nuts, traditionally eaten for the Tu B'Shevat holiday, at the Rashbi's gravesite in Meron, Jan. 16, 2022. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Dror Eydar. Source: LinkedIn.
Dror Eydar
Dror Eydar is Israel's ambassador to Italy

Half a winter has passed, the rains of the Hebrew month of Tevet have given way to the rains of Shevat, and Tu B’Shevat (The 15th of the month of Shevat)the New Year of Trees, will shortly be upon us.

A strange Tu B’Shevat custom has arisen in our country: eating dried fruits. Why mark the New Year of Trees with dried rather than fresh fruits?

Tu B’Shevat is a festival about yearning. Throughout the exile, we yearned for the Land. If redemption is to be found in memory, yearning is the soul of memory, and it ensured that the soul of the people remained connected with its ancient land. Though we were exiled from it, we never forgot where we came from and to where we wished to return.

What has happened to the Land since we were exiled from it? Century after century, its Jews emptied out; it was left an object of longing.
In 1867, many centuries after the destruction, when the American author Mark Twain visited Eretz Israel, his famous wit and sarcasm gave way to reverberant lamentation.
“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think the Land of Israel must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent… It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land… The land of Israel sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies… this land is desolate and unlovely… is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land.”
Note the language chosen by Twain—”a hopeless land.” By design or not, his words corresponded with those of the prophet of the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel the son of Buzi. The Jewish exiles of the first half of the sixth century BCE were not familiar with historical patterns of exile and redemption, of deportation and return. They looked around them and saw how, after a generation or two, every people whose country had been destroyed, assimilated into the nations where they had been exiled, and concluded that their fate would be the same. Ezekiel related what the people said: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”

As a prophet, Ezekiel felt responsibility for his people, not just to admonish them when necessary, but also to encourage them when they needed encouragement, to strengthen feeble arms and weak knees, to heal their fallen spirit, and to raise their vision beyond the depressing here and now. He expounds his vision to the people as he experienced it in the mirror of prophecy: A valley of dry human bones—and the bones drew together and grew tendons, flesh and skin. He prophecies that the spirit then comes from all four corners of the earth and breathes life into the bodies; “…and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.”

And then Ezekiel hears the explanation for his incredible vision: “These bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off…  I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the Land of Israel… I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land” (Ezekiel 37).

There is hope for our descendants, says the prophet. The historic formula since then has been “the covenant of the pieces” (Genesis, 15), the first covenant made between the first Hebrew and his God to inherit the Land of Israel. We shall be exiled (“know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs”), we will experience great suffering at the hands of the nations of the world where we will sojourn in our exile (“they will be enslaved and beaten down”) and then we shall leave the house of slavery and return home: “in the fourth generation they will return here,” and if not in the fourth generation then in the tenth or the 101st. In the end, it has been promised to us that we will return.

That is how things passed in the exodus from Egypt, that is how things passed in the return to Zion in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah and that is how things passed in our time.

More than 2,500 years after Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in Babylon, a Hebrew poet sat in exile in Romania and, corresponding with Ezekiel’s vision, encouraged his generation not to lose hope. He wrote that as long as in the heart the Jewish soul yearns, and toward the east an eye gazes toward Zion, our hope to return to our land is not yet lost. He wrote the first draft of the poem that would become Israel’s national anthem in 1877 and distributed it among the communities of the First Aliyah.

A year later, and 11 years after Mark Twain’s visit to the Land of Israel, the community of Petah Tikva was established in 1878. Its pioneers created an awakening in the somnambulant national consciousness of the people, and proved to all that it is possible to live an independent life in our ancient homeland and to reap the fruits of our labor, and “the land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land” (Numbers 14:7). And if we believe in our ability to resurrect ourselves and are loyal to it, it will blossom and give us back love in return.

Perhaps that is the reason that we choose to celebrate Tu B’Shevat with dried fruits: A reminiscence of the barren land during the period of exile, a chilling reminder of dry bones that we were just a moment ago from a historical perspective. But it is no less important that we remember the tikkun (the correction and repairing): With the return of the Jews to Zion the barren land became covered in trees and greenery and fruits grew from the earth—just like a mother who has kept her milk for her child, like a woman who has waited an eternity for her love.

A chapter before the vision of the dry bones, Ezekiel reveals the signs according to which we will know that the exile has come to an end: “…mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are about to come” (Ezekiel 36). At the beginning of the fourth century C.E., one of the Amoraim, Rabbi Abba, made aliyah to the Land of Israel despite the objections of his rabbi and his environment. He saw in Ezekiel’s description a clear sign of the redemption of the people and the Land. In the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, Abba says, “There can be no more manifest [sign of] redemption than this,” while Rashi in his commentary from exile in France in the 11th century says: “When the Land of Israel becomes so very fertile, the end (of the exile) is near, and there can be no clearer sign than this.”

So, on Tu B’Shevat, alongside dried fruits that remind us of the exile, we should add to our festive table fresh fruits harvested in our land. It is important that we support our farmers and Israeli agriculture, even if it costs more. Eretz Israel is worth the cost. Thus, we will hold on to the earth of the Good Land and ensure we do not return to exile.

Later in the prophecy of the mountains shooting forth branches, Ezekiel describes what many generations dreamed about and what we have had the fortune to witness with our own eyes: “…and the cities shall be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt… I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and bear young; I will make you [i.e. the land] inhabited as in former times… My people Israel, they shall take possession of you, and you shall be their inheritance...” (Ezekiel ibid).

Happy Tu B’Shevat.

Dror Eydar is Israel’s ambassador to Italy.

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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