Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear trees,
Happy birthday to you."
We finish singing and hand each child a dried fig and a piece of date. The children recite the appropriate blessing "Baruch atah…borei pri ha'etz… Blessed are You who creates the fruit of the tree," and bite into the sweet treat.
The children taste a wide variety of fruitsTu B'Shevat - the 15th of Shevat - is a perfect holiday for preschool teachers. A one-day festival on the Jewish calendar can become the focus of a full unit in the classroom. This day, on which we celebrate the birthday of the trees, lends itself to a full range of discussions, activities and crafts. There is, of course, the topic of birthdays: what they signify, how and why we celebrate them. More than that, we discuss trees, how they grow and develop. We pick fruit, cut them open to examine the seeds, make fruit salad and collage the peels. We make flowers from fruit leather and decorate pots to "plant" them in. We use the opportunity to bring in fruits other than the typical apples, oranges and bananas. The children have an opportunity to taste a wide variety of fruits and discuss the different flavors and textures.
I love experiencing things through my students' eyes, discovering things anew from their perspective. Their young, uncluttered minds process new information in such a pure, literal way. It is refreshing and enlightening.
Today, however, as I say goodbye to my young students and clean up from our fruit party, I begin to think about how Tu B'Shevat relates to us as individuals, as children, teens and adults.
There is a verse which reads "Ki ha'adam etz hasadeh," man is compared to a tree in the field, and looking at my young charges, and at my own life, I see this very clearly.
A child in the first few years of its life resembles a seed. During these years, the child is molded into the person, the adult, he will eventually become. Born so innocent and pure, a child is most impressionable during its early years, and affected more by its surroundings and environment than at a later stage.
Similarly, a seed is most vulnerable before it has begun to sprout or grow roots. Not yet grounded, the little seed is at the mercy of its surroundings. An overabundance of rain can make the seed drown, and too little water may dry it out, whereas a fully grown tree would, at most, become slightly withered.
The scratched seed may cause the plant to grow unevenlyAnd a small scratch on a fully grown tree, would not have any great impact. The same scratch or blemish on a seed will have a complete and lasting effect on how the tree grows. The scratched seed may cause the forthcoming plant to grow unevenly or produce mutated fruit. Because the seed is young and undeveloped, it is more susceptible to weather and other dangers.
As the seed takes root and begins to grow and develop, its immunity strengthens and, with time, it becomes able to weather changes in its environment without being at their mercy. With each passing year, a child also becomes slightly more immune to outer influences.
We are not permitted to eat the fruit from a tree until the tree has been growing for three full years. This mitzvah is known as "orlah" and corresponds to the Chassidic custom of giving a boy his first haircut on his third birthday. At this time too, the boy begins to wear a yarmulkah – a skullcap - and tzitzit, and a girl begins to light a Shabbat candle on Friday afternoon. Thus, three years marks a clear developmental milestone for tree and child alike.
A seed, a sapling, even a fully grown tree cannot survive indefinitely without water. A freshly planted seed will, of course, be most affected by a lack of water. It simply will not grow. Similarly, a sapling will wither away after a short time without water. A tree will last longer, but turn brown, dry up and eventually die with no water source.
Torah is compared to water. Just like a tree, in any stage of development, requires water, a person needs Torah to thrive and grow. It is important to expose children to Judaism from a young age, be it with pictures, songs or stories. As an adult, maintaining some level of Torah study and involvement in Judaism lends a higher purpose and strong focus to our daily life. We all know how easy it can be to lose sight of the important things when surrounded by the influences we encounter on a daily basis. A strong Jewish foundation can help counter that confusion.
We all know how easy it can be to lose sight of the important thingsIn addition, during the winter months, all plant life looks bleak and dead. Often battered by high speed winds or covered in layers of snow and ice, its growth seems to have come to an abrupt and complete halt. However, it is precisely during this time that the trees and plants are gathering strength for the upcoming spring.
Similarly, at times we are faced with challenges that result in periods of stagnancy or decline. Deeply affected by the trial we have encountered, we seem to stop growing and developing. Nevertheless, difficult as these times may be, it is from the hardships that we gain emotional strength for the future.
As women in particular, these periods of apparent decline actually foster our ability to give and nurture others. In the same way, a tree's annual period of hibernation prepares it to produce fruit in the coming months.
As I continue to clean the classroom, I put away the "tree" hats the children have made to wear at our upcoming Tu B'Shevat party and realize that each and every child in my care truly is a tree, a young, fragile sapling to be handled with care, to be encouraged and directed into the tree they will eventually become, giving fruit and nurturing others.