There is a fascinating story about the great sage Choni Ha-Ma’agel. Throughout Choni’s life, he was troubled about the meaning of the passuk, “When Hashem brought back those that returned to Tzion, we were like dreamers.” Is it possible for a person to dream continuously for seventy years? One day, Choni was journeying on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Choni asked the man: “Are you certain you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found ready-grown carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me, I too planted these for my children.”
Choni sat down to have a meal, and fell asleep. A rocky formation enclosed upon him and 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 have been in a dream for seventy years!” Choni returned home, and he inquired, “Is the son of Choni Ha-Ma’agel still alive?” The people answered him, “His son has passed on, but his grandson is still alive.” Choni said to them: “I am Choni,” but no one believed him. Choni then went to the Beis Medrash and overheard them saying, “The halacha is as clear to us as in the days of Choni Ha-Ma’agel,” for whenever Choni went to the Beis Medrash he would answer any questions that had arisen. Choni declared, “I am he!” but again no one believed him. In great distress, Choni begged Hashem for mercy and he passed away.
The Maharsha beautifully explains the inner meaning of this story. Choni Ha-Ma’agel was bothered by the fact that Dovid HaMelech described the exile after the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash as a dream. As if to say seventy years is an insignificant amount of time, a fleeting dream if you will. And yet we also find that Dovid HaMelech says, “The days of our years among them are seventy years.” According to Dovid HaMelech, a person typically lives for seventy years. Choni was troubled by the notion that the seventy years a person spends on this earth could be like a dream. Insignificant and fleeting. Ultimately, pointless.
But then Choni met a man who was planting a carob tree. A tree that he would never see any benefit from. Just as the man was born into a world of carob trees, he wanted to leave behind a world of carob trees for the next generation. Choni awoke to discover that they had slept through an entire lifetime. He meets not the son but the grandson of the man who planted the carob tree. His own son has passed on as well. He is unrecognized in his hometown and even in the Beis Medrash where he was once a venerated sage. He dies from loneliness. It is not his generation. He does not belong there.
The Gemara’s message is that the grandson enjoys the fruit of the carob tree. Though Choni is unrecognized, his legacy is intact. In the hallowed halls of the Beis Medrash, his name is alive as the Chachamim of the generation declare, “The halacha is as clear to us as in the days of Choni Ha-Ma’agel.” Though seventy years may ultimately be an insignificant amount of time, one can still have a significant impact. Our productivity should not be measured by the benefits we reap from our toil, but by the lasting impact we can have on this world.
Planting is an act of faith. It means that there will be a future worth planting for. It is being faithful to those whom you never have and may never meet. To be a Jew means to be oriented toward the future. Those who live in the past lack the vision to build a brighter future. Those who live without the past have no idea how to build a brighter future. The Jewish mission is firmly rooted in history, without living in the past. And it is precisely that foundation that allows us to build a better tomorrow. We live in a world that is increasingly focused on living in the present. But are we not the beneficiaries of the blood, sweat, and tears of those who came before us? To live only in the present is a failure to recognize those who built the community whose fruits we so readily enjoy. A generation that fails to acknowledge those who planted will fail to plant for those who come next. We would be well served to consider planting in the present so that our children may eat in the future.
We are now celebrating Tu B’Shvat, the Rosh Hashanah for the new year. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 14a) teaches that in Israel most of the year’s rain has already fallen. The soil is fertile, and the trees can beat fruit. A fruit that had grown before Tu B’Shvat grew from last year’s rain and is categorized as the previous year’s fruit. Fruits that grow after Tu B’Shvat are seen as this year’s fruits. In other words, Tu B’Shvat is the day on which we determine what has grown from the past and what will grow from the rain of the future. Aside from the legal ramifications of these categories, there is an essential lesson for us as well. We are called upon to be aware of when our fruits were nourished into being. Those that grew before Tu B’Shvat are the fruits of the past. Those that grow afterward are the fruits of the future. We are planters by nature. Never satisfied with the fruits we have eaten, we plant so that we may eat tomorrow. And even if we do not reap the benefits of our efforts, our children and grandchildren will.
Tu B’Shvat is a time to ask ourselves what comes next. We have built incredible places of Torah and unparalleled institutions of Chesed. And yet we cannot be satisfied with building larger and more beautiful buildings that house these institutions. We must continue to innovate so that as our children and grandchildren face the brave new world that we are entering, they will be prepared to handle the challenges they will face. Like Choni, we will not belong to future generations, but with Hashem’s help, our legacy will continue!