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Thursday, February 05, 2009

I Am Not a Tree

The 15th of Shvat is a very important day for every member of the vegetable kingdom. On or around this day most plants, especially those in Israel, approach their final stages of development. This day is the cut-off point for last year’s fruit and the genesis of this year’s fruit. On this day one generation of apples and oranges is on the verge of extinction while the new generation begins to take root. This could be a very meaningful day, if I was a tree.

Us people have our own New Years. New Year can be a day of judgment, a day of resolutions or a cutoff date for tax credits. We are all in the habit of marking our calendars and the day with slight departures from our daily routine. New Years are important days. They are our new beginnings and our new ends. Our lives revolve around these dates.  But when it comes to the New Year for trees, why do we care? Why do we get so excited and sing songs and munch on dried carobs? What’s the big deal?

And yet we’ve been doing this for a while. The Moroccan scholar Rabbi Yissachar Shussan records the custom of eating fruits in his work “Tikkun Yissachar” printed in 1564. And dating back to long before that, the Talmud (RH 2a) records that the deadline for many of the tithes has always been the 15th of Shvat. As a nation we have been marking this day for millennia. The only question is why.

It occurred to me recently that perhaps the very irrelevance of this day is the reason for its significance. We need to realize that while our year may begin on Rosh Hashana and end right before next Rosh Hashana, there are other years too. Ecology has its own year, and its own cycle. There is an entire saga developing every year right in our own backyards. Teachers start their year in September and groundhogs begin theirs in February. Some people plan around the Superbowl and others around Oscars. In the Parks and Forestry Department, they commence on Labor Day. Everyone’s got their own world, their own year, and their own cycle. And it’s got nothing to do with ours. On Tu B’shvat we take a moment to realize that while we aren’t very involved in the life cycle of a tree, the tree is. We don’t have to celebrate extravagantly, but we must remind ourselves that everything has its own beginning, its own climax and its own final destination. These dates and occasions may not affect us directly, but they affect others. They affect the way other people relate to us and they should affect the way we relate to other people.

Occasionally, unforeseen circumstances get in our way and stop us, or at least detain us, from accomplishing our goals.  We have all experienced this frustration many times, but we still become upset and annoyed. We blame the weather, “Mother Nature”, our spouse, children, IT guy and just about anyone who had a connection to the delay. This is not to say that it wasn’t their fault. Chances are that it was!  But we need to remember that each of them has his/her own “world” going. We each have our own jobs, friends, experiences, and deadlines.  Everybody has their plans and their feelings.  How many of us have timed our drive to work and then gotten stuck in traffic? How about that snowstorm we had a couple years ago?  It happens. It’s not tragic; it’s just my “world” merging with another. All of our worlds coexist with the worlds of everyone we know. The worlds of our family and friends, the highway department, the weather, the boss and the trees all affect us in a big way.

Tu B’shvat is the time to stop, think, remember that while G-d allows us to run our lives, it is only to an extent. He wants us to know very clearly that we do not live in a vacuum.

On Tu B’shvat we celebrate a world that we seldom think about but is happening around us every day.

N.B This article was originally written for the Norfolk Area Community Kollel in 2002. A few years later I touched it up and submitted it as essay to Norfolk State University. It was such a hit that the professor called me and accused me of plagiarizing. For interested parties, the NSU version can be found in the extended text. Please do not Plagiarize.)

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The Lifecycle of a Student

In the past I often scoffed, mocked and otherwise misunderstood devotees of the structured school year. These people, though normal in every other way, seemed overly obsessed with events and red-letter days that have little or no consequence to the world at large. In the lives of these people, September 1st, Orientation, “Back to School night”, and graduation seem to be the beginning and the end of any social, personal or medical decision they might be called upon to make.

In recent years, I have experienced a very rude awakening, or perhaps an enlightenment of sorts. Recently, I embarked on a career as a Middle school teacher, and this semester I returned to school for the first time in several years. Suddenly, it seems that I too spend every waking hour attempting to balance my life with that of the school year. August 24th and September 1st are big days. The first day back, PTA and the months of summer are suddenly significant and very meaningful. New milestones have become the sources of excitement and trepidation that shape my hours and days. My life has begun to revolve around points in time that I have, in the past, ignored and scoffed at.

As I sit immersed in my newly acquired, time-centered obsessions, I am beginning to realize that perhaps my blindness was more than just the symptoms of non-involvement in the traditional school year. Perhaps my issue is symptomatic of a more serious condition, an apathy that seems to affect the vast majority of mankind.

Everyone knows that the year begins on January 1st and ends on the next January 1st. What we often fail to realize is that there are other years too: Teachers and students start their year in September and groundhogs begin theirs in February. Some families plan around the Superbowl and others around the next episode of a favorite reality show. In the Parks and Forestry Department, Labor Day is the big day. Everyone around us has their own world, their own year, and their own unique cycle. And more often than not, it has absolutely nothing to do with ours. Even the first day of fall might be a good time to take a moment and realize that although we aren’t very involved in the life cycle of a tree - the tree is. Ecology has its own year, and its own cycle; an entire saga develops every year in our own backyards. While there may be no need to celebrate all of these milestones extravagantly or to keep them at the forefront of our minds, we would do well to remind ourselves that everything and everyone has important and diverse beginnings, peaks and goals. While many dates and occasions may not affect us directly, they do affect others. They affect the way other people relate to us and they should affect the way we relate to other people.

The lesson I have learnt through the changes of the past few years is a message of understanding and sympathy. In the future I will endeavor to spice my conversations and relationships with an added measure of understanding. A deadline, while meaningless to me, may be eating at the health and well being of my friend. The happiest moment of my child’s life could just pass me by if I do not take the time to identify my daughter’s worries, goals, and dreams. I will no longer scoff at the time-affected thoughts of others, and I can only hope that they will not scoff at mine.

Posted on 02/05 at 04:08 AM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at