Tasting the fruits of success through struggle
Tu Bishvat 5777
Rabbi Yonason Johnson
Tu Bishvat is the Rosh Hashona for trees and it is customary to eat from the Seven Species which Eretz Yisroel is praised.
“a land of wheat and barley, vine and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey”
The list comprises two grains and five fruits, the final one being dates which produce a sweet and sticky honey.
In the posuk, the word eretz (a land) appears twice, dividing the list of species into two groups. The second group separates olives and dates from the remaining species. Additionally whereas the first five species are identified only by the name of the fruit, the olives and dates are associated with their respective extracts, oil and honey.
What is so unique about the olives and dates that they stand alone?
The first five species have intrinsic value and immediate utility. The grains form the basic staple of man’s diet. The fruits - grapes, figs and pomegranates - are ready to eat, providing enjoyment and refreshment.
However, olives and dates in their natural state are not as readily pleasing and have untoward affects;
The sages of the Gemara teach that eating olives causes a person to forget their Torah learning. Concerning dates, the Talmud tells the story of the sage Ulla on his travels to the city of Pumpedisa. In the marketplace Ulla saw that the dates were very cheap - three baskets for a zuz. He bemoaned ‘Three baskets of such honey for one small coin! If good food is available so cheaply, why don't the residents of Pumpedisa learn more Torah?’ That night Ulla suffered a terrible stomach-ache from eating the dates. He quickly retracted his criticism saying ‘baskets of poison cost no more than a zuz, and yet they still continue to learn so much Torah’.
In contrast, the Talmud praises the extracts of both of these fruits. Whilst olives cause forgetfulness, olive oil causes one to remember even 70 years of Torah learning that had been forgotten. For this reason, when eating olives, many have the custom to first add a few drops of olive oil, to mitigate any negative side effects. Concerning date honey, our sages teach that it illuminates the eyes with wisdom. Since the Torah wishes to describe the praises of the Holy Land the olives and dates are alluded to by their therapeutic extracts as opposed to the fruit.
Like the land of Israel, in our own lives we have many blessings. Some, like the first five species are sweet and readily apparent. These are our moments of revealed goodness, happiness and success.
We also have blessings like the dates and olives. In these instances, the blessings are not immediately apparent. Alongside the more enjoyable aspects of our lives, we all experience challenges and difficulties. On the surface these challenging moments seem to be anything but a blessing. However by delving deeper and working hard to overcome and grow from our challenges we reveal the hidden, innate goodness which lies beneath and positive growth that will ensue.
An interesting Halacha is derived from this verse. When a person is eating a selection of fruits, he recites the blessing on one fruit, having in mind to include the other fruits in this blessing. Which fruit should he recite the blessing over?
In the absence of a preference for one in particular, there is a halachic hierarchy determining which fruit takes precedence. Assuming that he likes all fruits equally, preference is given to the fruits of the 7 species (excluding wheat and barley which are not really fruits). If there are a number of fruits of the 7 species, whichever fruit appears closest to the word eretz (land) in the verse take precedence. Since the word eretz appears twice in the verse, the order of preference would be; olives, dates, grapes, figs and then pomegranates.
So it turns out that the fruits which are considered Eretz Yisrael’s greatest blessing are the olive and the date.
The fruits of Eretz Yisrael teach us how to embrace our struggles; Easy and open success is sweet, but the greatest sense of happiness, fulfilment and triumph comes as a result of hard work to surmount the difficulties which we experience in life.