Tu B’Shvat 5777 – The Song of the Olive

a3c97dacd675cbde74f39f331f1f2b56.jpgParshat Beshalach is known as Shabbos Shira, as it contains the passage recounting spontaneous praise levied to the Almighty by Moshe and Bnai Yisrael after witnessing the bifurcation of the Yam Suf. This year, it also happens to be Tu B’Shvat, the new year for the trees where we celebrate the trees, fruit, and plant life. The “shira” that I would like to reference in the coming essay is not found in the Torah itself per se, but is found in Perek Shira, a generations old text whose author remains unknown. The Gemara (Eruvin 100b) explains that had the Torah not been given to the Jewish people, the messages contained therein would’ve been able to have been gleaned by mankind from the animals such as the cat, dove, and other fowl. Perek Shira delineates 84 different creatures or things from which we can learn tremendous lessons about ethics, wisdom, and advice on seeing the hand of God. These items range in category from things in nature (sun, stars, moon, different types of clouds, dew, and others) to animals and insects, to plant life.

An interesting point in the middle of the various songs in the specific song of the “prolific creeping creatures”, as explained by Rabbi Natan Slifkin in his commentary. The praise which these crawlers offer is taken from Tehillim 128:3 “Your wife will be as a fruitful vine in the innermost parts of your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table.” The part that intrigues me here is the latter half of the verse. There are many different forms of shir and shevach that can be heaped upon a person and their children. What precisely is the meaning behind the wish that one’s sons should be like olive branches?

One could argue that the olive branch is a signal of peace or tranquility, as exhibited in the story of Noach and the flood. The decoded message of this particular bracha could be that our children should follow the ways of Aharon HaKohen (Avot 1:12) that they be “ohev Shalom v’rodef Shalom.” It’s not enough that they love peace-who doesn’t love peace? The second step is the kicker. They must also run after peace, and pursue it with every fiber of their being.

Another explanation for this song of these Sheratzim is that of the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kilayim 1:7), which explains that just as an olive branch cannot be grafted onto any other species of tree, so too the Jewish people cannot be “grafted” to any other nation other than ours. The worlds may share similarities, but they are separate. To merit generations of committed Jewish souls is indeed a wonderful blessing.

Another interesting note about the olive is that it’s not mentioned on its own as one of the items that gives praise to Hashem in Perek Shira. At first glance, that might not be such an egregious omission, until one reads through the rest of the work to learn that each and every other one of the seven special food items indigenous to Eretz Yisrael have their own shira. The above mentioned passage pertaining to the olive is one of two places where an olive is brought up, yet it does not muster up an original prayer like the other of the shiv’at haminim. Six out of seven ain’t bad, right?  

Rabbi Avraham Schorr (HaLekach VeHalibuv Chodesh Shvat/Shovevim) posits that perhaps this omission stems from the Gemara (Horayos 13b) where it’s written that olives are one of five items that make one forget their Torah learning. However, contained in the next passage is that olive oil is one of the antidotes to this problematic food. The Maharsha on this sugya alludes to the fact the olive is not worthy of praise on its own because it’s the oil that comes from grinding and squeezing the olive that makes it special.  It’s what’s inside that counts. The inside of the olive is the key to producing the olive oil that we desperately need both as food and for our ritual use. The olive is rendered essentially unrecognizable and only then can the oil be squeezed from it.

The missive elicited from the words of the Maharsha is poignant not only for the puny olive, but for the individual as well. The yuntif of Tu B’Shvat is not merely a day in which we contemplate about the various trees and plants that Hashem set on earth. It’s a Rosh Hashannah! It’s the dawning of a new era, where we can take the same ideas we apply in Elul and Tishrei and work to bring out the best in ourselves. The best way to ensure that one makes a strong commitment to become a better Jew is tapping deep into one’s potential. Olives are delicious, and when they’re on pizza, that’s some of the finest cuisine you’ll find. Yet, they’re lacking until they’re pulverized and pressed in order to extract their valuable oil. We need not go through the rigorous process they do, but that process is indeed a powerful mashal for us as well. Getting what we want or need in life may at times be a struggle. What we have inside, our heart, intellect,and spirit, will not deter us.

The message of the olive is that sometimes, the most important thing is hidden from the surface, and takes great, painstaking work to elicit.

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