The month of Nisan has arrived – it's time to go hug a tree!
The month of Nisan begins today, in the midst of the welcoming blossom of springtime in Israeli. This month also comes in the midst of the "Corona virus crisis," as we are asked to shut ourselves in our homes instead of going outside and enjoying all that beauty of nature. Birkat Ha'Ilanot (Blessing for the Blossoming Trees), the mitzvah that is observed during the days of Nisan, reminds us that even in our own backyards (or our neighbors’ yard) we can find nature that is full of blessing.
So what is Birkat Ha'Ilanot?
"If one goes outside during the month of Nisan and sees trees that are blossoming
he recites a blessing:
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the Universe, that His world is not lacking anything,
and He created in it good creations and good trees for the pleasure of mankind.
And He does not bless but once a year.
And if He dallied to bless only after they borne fruit, He shall bless no more."
Birkat Ha'Ilanot is a mitzvah that is observed once a year, during the days of Nisan (which starts today), when one exits his home and sees the blossoming fruit trees. If Nisan has already passed, or the trees have passed the blossoming stage and borne fruit already, the commandment cannot be observed. Only fruit trees, only when blossoming, only in Nisan.
To me, this encounter between man and tree, at a time when the tree cannot offer anything "practical", forms the basis for the concept of Jewish blessing. Man, who faces the tree and enjoys its flowers, recites the blessing: "that His world is not lacking anything"; and even specifies: "and He created in it good creations and good trees for the pleasure of mankind." When the tree produces its first fruits, we say the blessing of "Shehecheyanu". But now, at this moment, the tree offers us only beauty, and we accept it eagerly, because without it we would be lacking something, and that is the root and heart of the blessing. This special blessing reminds us of our need and ability to enjoy the momentary beauty that life presents us (even now) and to pursue and bless it.
Birkat Ha'Ilanot also reminds us that every stage of life has its proper place. The flowers, whose beauty we now bless, are also a stage on the way to the ripe fruits that will satisfy us in a short while. Each stage has its own significance and there are no "shortcuts". Now, amidst the Corona crisis, some of us feel that they are experiencing autumn. Others are actually "blossoming" under these circumstances, as we stay at home together with the whole family. Birkat Ha'Ilanot reminds us that both seasons are temporary, with a cyclical relationship that reflects the continuity of life.
Anna Frank, who had clearly developed an expertise in "isolation," wrote in her diary: "The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature…"
Anne Frank highlighted something that we all feel intuitively and by now has been scientifically proven – the therapeutic power of nature to awaken the forces of vitality buried within us. We know this force from many children's stories, which describe the process of recovery from illness as akin to the tree in the window or the "golden heart flower" that the child brings to his mother. Many of us have discovered this force from our own experience – by spending time alone in the outdoors, through prayer or by going on a journey to "recharge." This theory is now scientifically proven – that all it takes is a little green to improve one’s physical and mental health.
So follow the instructions of the Ministry of Health – but if you or your neighbors have a garden, or if there is a tree at the end of the street – seize the opportunity this month offers us – go out to the tree, hug it, bless it, and pray for the health of the world.
May we have a good month!