Here is the quintessential Jewish question: How do we emulate God? We are told that we were created by God. We are told that we have a divine spark within us. We are told that each one of us, like God, has the power to create worlds, to perform acts of abounding goodness, to bring greater peace to our world. But how? We emulate God by planting and by parenting.
This week we celebrate Tu BiSh’vat, the new year of the trees, a holiday that the rabbis introduce in the Mishnah as a way to bring us back to nature. After all, this is a time of year when we could easily lose sight of the beauty of nature. The sky is often gray. The days are often short. Tu BiSh’vat reminds us that spring is going to happen after all, the blue sky will come back and flowers will bloom again.
It is a holiday that hinges on hope and possibility. The tree is a symbol of life, belief in the face of doubt, strength amidst uncertainty. The olive tree, referenced frequently in our tradition’s literature, endures storm after storm, the rise and fall of governments, the endless tides of change. If anything it gets taller and stronger with time.
This holiday can be observed as a time to plant, taking the idea of hope and making it real by rolling up our sleeves and contributing to the promise of the future. With the work of our hands we contribute to making a better world. As one midrash reads: “’You shall walk in the ways of the Holy One.’ What does this mean? From the beginning of creation the Holy One was occupied only with planting. God first planted the Garden of Eden, and thus so shall you. As you first enter the Promised Land, occupy yourselves only with planting, as it is written: ‘And when you come into the land you shall occupy yourself only with the planting of trees.’”
When we roll up our sleeves and touch seed to soil we realize that we can emulate God after all. We see in that moment that to be Jewish is not simply to sit back and expect a beautiful world or a peaceful world or an educated world, but to pick up where God left off.
What if we read planting in a more figurative way? How might we emulate God in parenting and grandparenting? The Talmud notes that as parents, we are required to do the following four things: teach our children Torah, bring our children to the chuppah, teach our children a trade, and teach our children to swim.
First, let’s take Torah. Parents are required to teach our children Torah. Closely reading the stories of Biblical heroes yields a crucial life lesson. We are not meant to be Abraham or Rachel or Moses, nor are we to expect our children to be super heroes or superstars. Indeed, the Torah ends by reminding us that never again would there arise another like Moses. The truth is never again will there arise anyone like any of us. Our children are to be their best selves, just as our biblical ancestors had the courage to be themselves in spite of the pressures all around them. With Torah as our guide, we show our children the way to self-esteem and self-respect, a sense of happiness that will be their own, not based on pop stars or all-stars or make-up drenched super models. That’s Torah, not only planting seeds of kindness and compassion, but also of self-worth and pride.
We also are told to teach our children a trade. For the rabbis this perhaps meant tailoring or farming. For most of us it means preparing them for the world out there, a world of increasing closed-mindedness and bullying, a world that can be scary, a world led by politicians who sometimes seem to be almost diametrically opposed to every one of our core values. How do we prepare our children for this world?
Teaching a trade is in fact about instilling the sense that, in a world that would pull them in so many directions, our children don’t have to cower. They don’t have to be perfect or look perfect or go to the perfect college because there is no such thing. They need not trade away their sense of humor or spirit or point of view in order to be accepted. And that leads us to the next mandate, because we must teach that the perfect person for our children, the person to stand beside them at the chuppah, is the person who will recognize and appreciate the sacred and unique perfection that only they possess.
Finally we are told that we are to teach our kids to swim. Swimming is about confidence and independence. To be able to swim is to believe in your own ability. To be able to swim is to recognize, as your parent lets go, as those “floaties” finally come off, your own strength as an individual. You can do this, and you are going to make it. You will endure, just like the olive tree endures trial after trial. To be able to swim is to appreciate those things we so often forget to appreciate, the blessing of movement, breathing, a beating heart, the ability to see and to feel.
The medieval commentator Rashi equated swimming with survival. We need to be able to swim and not only in the water. We need to be able to keep swimming even when our energy is sapped, when life is messy, when the days are long. This we teach through modeling. Parenting can no doubt be the most exhausting job, but it can also be the most rewarding, like swimming a length you did not think you could or attempting a dive you never thought possible. On this Tu BiSh’vat may we recommit to planting seeds of empowerment, confidence, and love in our children and in theirs.
Rabbi Ben David is the associate rabbi of Temple Sinai of Roslyn in Roslyn Heights, NY.