U.S. capitalist culture prioritizes productivity over presence. This is no more evident than in the ways in which both work and school pressure working parents (especially women and people of color) and children to keep pace during a pandemic.
I saw a recent social media post from a parent of a middle-school child reporting that their school board determined any child who is failing will receive a fifty in place of a zero on their report card. In response, one teacher, apparently, sarcastically accused the students of “getting everything handed” to them.
This past Thursday, Jewish people around the world marked Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat, a minor holiday more akin to Tax Day than a spiritual holiday. At its most practical, Tu Bishvat marks a clear date for measuring the fiscal year for produce, if you will. When you’re measuring the age of production of your tree, you mark the beginning of the year on the 15th of Shevat, just before spring buds appear and after any winter’s destruction.
At its spiritual core, though, Tu Bishvat is about expectations, and about expecting.
We read in the Torah:
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Eternal, and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit — that its yield to you may be increased: I the Eternal am your God. (Vayikra / Leviticus 19:23)
Fruit trees are particularly sacred in Jewish tradition, with many restrictions against destroying them, prompting builders to go to great lengths to skirt their roots and branches in construction. And, when we are establishing our place in a new home, planting new roots, we are clearly told not to expect maximum profit and productivity immediately. Instead, we are told to let the little trees rest a bit.
First, we merely observe the tree, watching it transition from bud to blossom to ripening fruit to rotting sweetness. For three years, we observe a tree’s natural cycle, seeing how it interacts with the seasons and the elements, the sunlight and the rain.
Then, as the fourth year dawns, we express gratitude for what has been: growth or decay, fullness or failure. We celebrate what has emerged, but we do not yet consume it.
Only in the fifth year do we harvest for ourselves what the tree has brought forth.
Can we do that for our children, now, in the pandemic, and in the emerging future that will, we hope, follow?
My oldest child is named Ilan, “tree” in Aramaic. We’ve got a special connection to Tu Bishvat, also called hag hailanot, the trees’ holiday. This year, let the holiday be for all our little trees: all the folks in school, growing and emerging into a new way of harvesting. Let them rest, producing for the sake of their own growth, and not for the sake of some capitalist harvest. Let them learn without pressure, soaking up as much sun as possible. There will be time, when vaccines are distributed more fairly and quickly, when social contact becomes possible again, to celebrate and offer gratitude. Gratitude not for a return to “normal,” and all those pressures of productivity, but gratitude for the growth and resilience each tree can muster during this destructive pandemic.
Let the little trees rest, and let the fruits fall where they may, nourishing the soil for another year.