Monday, 25 January 2016

Honi and Tu Bishvat

There is a wonderful piece of Aggadata (the narrative material in the Talmud) about the Rabbinic personality Honi HaMa'agel - Honi the circle drawer. Honi had a special gift, much like Moshe that his tefillot (prayers) were able to be answered by God almost immediately. As such whenever the Jewish people of his generation needed something they would ask Honi to pray on their behalf and their needs were met instantly. 

Carobs have long been associated with Tu Bishvat and are included in the Turkish traditional seder tu bishvat called Fruticas. The following piece of Aggadata comes from Masekhet Ta'anit (page 23a).

Rabbi Yochanan said, this righteous man [Honi] was troubled all of his days about the meaning of the verse, 'A Song of Ascents, When God brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.' Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years?

One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, how long does it take to bear fruit? The man replied, seventy years. He then further asked him, are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied, I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so too I plant these for my children. Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years.

When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied, I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his donkey who had given birth to several generations of mules; and he returned home.

He there enquired, Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive? They answered him, 'His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.' Thereupon he said to them, 'I am Honi the Circle-Drawer', but no one would believe him.

He then went to the Beit Hamidrash and there he overheard the scholars say, “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer, for whenever he came to the Beit Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had.' Whereupon he called out, 'I am he'; but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed and he died. Rava said, that is the popular saying, either companionship or death.

The piece is very poignant and hard to understand. It certainly doesn't have the happy ending that we are used to in Western Civilization stories. How is it that Honi could not understand the Jewish lesson of planting, not just physically but also spiritually for our children and grandchildren? Isn't this Judaism 101?

The farmer is telling Honi that we don't see the outcome of our efforts overnight they take time to develop sometimes long after we are gone. For Honi this is too hard to take because he is used to Hashem giving him instant gratification for all of his needs. This is not so for us. We are used to making berachot and waiting before we enjoy our food. We are also used to waiting as it were for Hashem's answers to our difficult questions in life.

Why is it so hard to be Jewish? Why is there anti semitism? When will the exile end? These long term questions were beyond Honi. It was only after sleeping for 70 years that he understood for most Jews we have to grapple with these issues. On Tu Bishvat in the middle of the winter we eat carob chips to remind ourselves that we are in a long game of Jewish peoplehood. Many of questions take many years to answer and sometimes several generations. 

As parents and grandparents we are providing the strong roots for our children and grandchildren to follow after us. We are providing the fruit for them to enjoy in the future when they in turn will be making deep roots for their children and grandchildren so they too can enjoy their fruits. May we take on the lesson of this piece of aggada to appreciate the long term picture but also to hope that the long path of exile may be coming to an end with the coming of Mashiach.

Happy Tu Bishvat!

No comments:

Post a comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.