I’m arranging the fruits on a platter and admiring their dazzling array of colors. Ruby red. Royal purple. Sierra orange. Golden yellow. Beyond me, through the cold glass of the living room doors, I can see the bare branches of our fruit trees waving forlornly in the wind. The contrast between the colorful fruit and the bare branches startles me the way it always does on Tu B’Shevat. The winter has barely passed. The spring has not begun. What are we celebrating on this day?

We are celebrating the process of growth itselfTu B’Shevat is the new year for the trees. The custom is to eat different kinds of fruit on this day especially the fruits that are part of the seven species of the land of Israel: wheat, barley, pomegranates, grapes, olives, figs, and date-honey. But why would we celebrate the new year for the trees when the fruit is not yet visible on the branches?

Tu B’Shevat is the day when the sap begins to rise through the tree. In other words, we can’t see the fruit yet, but we are celebrating the process of growth itself. And most of this process we can’t see because it’s beneath the surface of the ground.

It’s also the day when the trees are no longer nourished by last year’s waters and begin to be nourished by the “new” year’s waters. It is a time that is in between the winter and the spring, not quite day or night. And when we look at the trees we are meant to think of ourselves in that same place, between the past and our future and opening ourselves up to more opportunities for growth as the sap rises and the new water flows.

For some reason, as I stare at the fruits, I begin to think back to an earnest discussion I had in university. I can’t remember who I was speaking to, but I remember that it was 3 o’clock in the morning. And I remember that we were arguing about what makes people happy. She was sure that it was life circumstances. Health. Good job. Enough money. But even then that didn’t make sense to me because look at all the unhappy people who have all of those things.

Then we moved onto the “If you could press a button and it would make you happy for the rest of your life, would you do it” question. To me, the answer was obvious. Why would anyone want to do that? If I was constantly happy then I wouldn’t accomplish anything and what good is happiness if I don’t earn it? This nameless person though had a different opinion. “I’m not sure,” She said. Maybe I would press it. What’s the difference to me if I earned it or not? Who said happiness needs to be earned?”

Fast-forward a few years to my Master’s program in family therapy, and I realized that psychologists have been debating for decades what exactly makes people happy. The positive psychology studies are subjective to some extent because most of them require people to rate their levels of happiness from 1-10, and it’s possible that subjects will under or overrate their own happiness levels. But here’s some of the research: Extroverts are happier than introverts. Married people are happier than their single counterparts. Religious people are happier than those who aren’t. Busier people are happier than those with little to do. And wealthier people are happier than poor people, but by a very small margin.

But there are loopholes in these generalizations. For instance, extroverts are only happier if they aren’t constantly seeking approval and security from others. And married people are only happier if they are in decent marriages. Unhappily married people are much less happy than their single counterparts. Moreover, religious people are only happier if they practice religions that have positive, joyful ideals as part of their rituals. Religion based on guilt and negativity does not contribute to happiness. And wealthy people who aren’t satisfied with what they have are actually way below their poorer counterparts who have their basic needs met on the happiness scale.

Happiness is a process that develops beneath the surfaceAs I finish setting the table for Tu B’Shevat I think about the work underneath the ground. We all have different sets of life circumstances, and we all have one basic choice: Will we build with them or will we not? That is the key to happiness because happiness is a process that develops beneath the surface for months before we see fruits.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin: “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world- class expert-in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again ... no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery” (p. 40).

So before we give up, we need to remember that it may just take one more try to break through the frozen ground. The purpose of fruit in creation is to remind us to enjoy each step and hour of the process itself. We don’t “need” fruits, but they give taste and color to our lives. They are here to remind us that each step in our journeys, including the invisible stage of the sap rising through the tree, is meant to be treasured and celebrated.