Rosh Hodesh Shevat Torah Essay
Dr. Achinoam Jacobs
The book of Devarim opens with Moshe’s great speech to the nation before they enter the Promised Land, a speech that begins on Rosh Chodesh Shevat: “It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moshe addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that God had given him for them” (Deut. 1:3). The month of Shevat is indeed a worthy choice for beginning the preparations to enter Israel, since it marks one of the four New Years – the New Year for trees, which impacts many of the commandments that relate to the land.
The first day of Shevat is the beginning of the planting year, and the fifteenth of Shevat is the beginning of the tree year for the calculating orlah (the prohibition to eat from a tree in its first three years) and neta revai (the tree’s fourth year, by the end of which the fruit may be consumed), the years of tithes, and some of the halakhot pertaining to the Shemitta year.
Moshe’s speech in these chapters prepares Israel for entry into the land; contrary to the desert journeys, where manna was supplied from the heavens, they are about the enter a good land with fruit blessed by God: “For Hashem, your God, is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey” (Deut. 8:7).
In the desert, the nation received nourishment from the heavens, without having to work; but in the Land of Israel they produce food from the land, and are required to engage in agricultural work. Why should the manna not continue to fall once we have entered the Promised Land, providing us with time to engage in spiritual pursuits? Why are we required to work so hard for the good fruit of the land?
Midrash Tanhuma (Tazria 7) presents the famous arguments between Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva, which examines which is greater: God’s creation, or man’s. The argument centered on the question why man was born uncircumcised, if circumcision is the more elevated state. Rabbi Akiva provides his famous answer:
Deeds of flesh and blood are better than God’s. Rabbi Akiva brought him stalks and cakes. He said: these (the stalks) are the creation of God, and these (the cakes) are the creation of flesh and blood, aren’t they fine? He brought him linen snips and vessels from Beit She’an, and said: These (linen snips) are the creation of God, and these (the vessels) are the creation of flesh and blood; are they not fine?”
Creation is, of course, wonderful; but it awaits completion and elevation by man. When man works to complete and repair the world, he becomes a partner in God’s work, and elevates it to a higher level.
The word orlah (which indicates ‘foreskin’ as well as the first three years of prohibition to eat from the fruit tree) links the mitzvah of circumcision with the orlah of the tree. It seems that both people and trees require correction by man.
The famous midrash about Rabbi Akiva was preceded by a midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (11:6) about Rabbi Hoshaya:
A philosopher once asked Rabbi Hoshaya: ‘If circumcision is so dear to Him [God], why was it not given to Adam the first man?’
He said to him: ‘If so, why does this man [the philosopher] shave the corner of his head but leave the corner of his beard?’
He replied: ‘Because this [hair] grew with him in his period of foolishness.’
He said to him: ‘If so, he should take out his eyes, and sever his hands.
He said to him: ‘Have we come to such [frivolous] arguments?’
He said to him: ‘I cannot dismiss you with no response at all. Rather, anything that was created during the six days of Creation requires some perfection; mustard requires sweetening, lupines require sweetening, wheat requires grinding. Even man requires correction.’
The question that opens this midrash is usually read in a similar vein to the one posed to Rabbi Akiva, which led to confusion regarding R. Hoshaya’s first response: in what way can a haircut and the trimming of one’s beard be compared to the act of circumcision? Indeed, seeing the philosopher’s surprise, R. Hoshaya offers another response, which is reminiscent of R. Akiva’s: “everything that was created in the six days of Creation requires some perfection.”
I would like to offer an alternative reading of this text.
The question posed by the philosopher is not why man was not born circumcised, but rather why circumcision was not required of Adam, but was required of Avraham. This is an entirely different question, to which Rabbi Hoshaya’s second answer corresponds.
Let us examine Rabbi Hoshaya’s second response: “anything that was created during the six days of Creation requires some perfection; mustard requires sweetening, lupines require sweetening, wheat requires grinding. Even man requires correction.”
The word ‘man’ (אדם) is multivalent: it indicates both ‘man’ in the personal sense, and ‘man’ in the broader sense of humankind. In both cases, ‘man requires correction.’
Man, the individual person, requires correction, and is therefore commanded to perform circumcision. In this sense, the midrash offers a similar answer to Rabbi Akiva’s.
But also man in the global sense of humanity requires correction – one that involves a long process, over the course of generations. This is Rabbi Hoshaya’s answer to the reason the commandment of circumcision was given not to Adam, but to Avraham: it is a testimony to the ongoing process of correction over the course of history.
This explanation is reinforced by the subsequent midrash in Bereshit Rabbah, according to which Yaakov was given the mitzvah of Shabbat, but Avraham was not. The world is a work in progress, which moves forward from generation to generation. Taking this idea further, the Torah was only given in Moshe’s generation, and only once the nation enters Israel will they be obligated in the mitzvot of the land.
God’s world, which was created during the six days of Creation, awaits correction and elevation by man. This is as true of the land as it is of any private individual, and of us as a society. As a nation, as a society, we need to work, water, weed, amend, and sweeten. Thus the world progresses toward a more elevated state of repentance, of tikkun.
Our call for tikkun olam is partnered by all the generations of our nation’s existence. No generation is exempt, since each generation brings about a different tikkun in light of its own challenges. As we learn from Mishnah Avot (2:16): “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” Like a relay race, this tikkun continues over the course of generations, and is passed on from one generation to the next.
Entering the Land of Israel invited the Nation of Israel to become a full partner in tikkun olam by plowing and threshing, planting and gathering fruit. Although the work to produce food is more difficult in the land, the food is tastier and more satisfying. Instead of charitable bread, it is a partnership between man and God, working together to create the world and to sweeten it.
Similarly, entering the land invites the Nation of Israel to work relentlessly toward tikkun olam; correction, repentance and sweetening the world both for the individual, and for the entire nation as a society.
The question remains: why did Chazal leave the first ambiguous answer in the midrash, when Rabbi Hoshaya later offers another, more relevant answer?
Perhaps this is an illustration of the fact that everything requires correction: even the midrash itself. This is a midrash that takes a turn toward correction, toward repentance, and offers a better answer.
Tu Bishvat is celebrated at the height of winter: when the trees are bare, and it takes enormous hope and faith to believe that the fruit will come. But the roots of the fruit tree are deep, and they can withstand the stormy cold. Its fruit is waiting to emerge.
We look at the pain and crisis of our nation in the last months. It seems like we are in a winter chill that does not enable fruit and blossoming to be revealed. But our roots are deep, and we gaze with wonder at the great process of correction that Am Yisrael has been undergoing: their courage, open hand, open heart, and deep understanding that we are all kin.
We pray that this terrible sadness will be followed by the comfort of rebuilding and hope. We must remember the power of growth and healing even in the depths of winter; ultimately the flower will blossom and the fruit will emerge.
May God give us the strength to toil in the world, and lead it to perfection and elevation, both in our private lives, and as a society. May God open his good treasures, so that we can receive the fruits of the good land: the fruit of land and the fruit of the womb.
And may our fruit, both the ones on our trees, and the ones that grace our homes, be sweet, and protected, and blessed – for good life and peace.