The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) records a famous incident involving the Sages
Hillel and Shammai. A gentile approached Shammai and made the following
request: "Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the
entire Torah while I am standing on one leg." Shammai did not approve of
this request and chased the man away. The gentile then approached Hillel
with the same request. Hillel responded that he would do so, and
encapsulated the Torah into one statement: What is hateful to you do not
do to your friend.
This exchange is a bit odd. The initial request was puzzling: What was the
gentile looking for? Why did Hillel and Shammai have differing responses?
How was Hillel's response the entire Torah?
To better understand this episode, we need to look at the Jewish nation's
study of the Torah. The Talmud (Niddah 30b) tells us that when a child is
in the womb, the child is taught the entire Torah. However, as the child
is born, an angel strikes the baby which causes the child to forget all
learnt. The reason for this exercise is that the study of Torah is not an
easy prospect. If it was not for the fact that we were first given all of
the contents of the Torah explicitly, on a silver platter, learning it
later would be next to impossible. G-d plants a seed within us so that we
have the ability to learn Torah. However, the knowledge must remain a seed
within us at the moment of birth. We cannot enter this world as full-blown
Torah scholars. Our job on Earth is to toil in the study of Torah. We can
only acquire Torah, our Sages have repeatedly told us, through effort and
diligent study. Because this task is difficult enough, G-d, out of His
love for us, gave us the innate ability to accomplish it, by allowing us
to learn the Torah before birth. In this way, we struggle to refresh our
memories, not starting from scratch.
Torah study rests on these two principles: that G-d gave us a background
in the Torah, a seed of knowledge that needs nurturing; and that without
diligence and toil, our background in Torah will not help us grow into the
People of the Book we must be. We need to strive to learn the Torah
properly, so that we bring our purpose on this Earth to fruition. The
first principle, or "leg" of Torah study, signifies G-d's love of those
who study His Torah. G-d gave us background, a headstart, to ease our
studies. The second "leg" signifies strength, for when we build up our
drive to learn more and more, we are building our vast storehouse of
knowledge with our great efforts. Hence, we "grow" stronger and stronger,
in fortitude and knowledge.
The gentile came to Shammai wanting just knowledge. He merely wanted to
know the information contained in the Torah. He did not realize that the
information alone is not retained. The Torah is there for us to study and,
just as importantly, practice. He asked for the Torah on one leg - for the
knowledge without the toil that must accompany it in order for there to be
any lasting effect. Shammai knew that this was impossible and drove him
away. Hillel took another approach. "Would you want to be given an
impossible task?" he asked. "No, you would not like that. You want to know
the Torah, but not learn it? No, you would not like that." G-d knew that
we would not like that. G-d knew that the Jewish people would find
learning Torah impossible unless He aided them, so that is what He did.
If you find it unpleasant, don't wish it on anyone else. Hillel knew that
he could not teach this person the entire Torah "on one leg." So, he
explained why: You need to treat others the way you want to be treated,
and you would not want to be subjected to the impossible. Once the gentile
understood what Torah study entailed, he realized that he could not learn
Torah on one leg.
The astrological sign for the month of Shevat is Aquarius, the water
bearer, or as it is called in Hebrew, "D'li," "the pail." The pail draws
water from its source, and brings the water to where it is used. We find
the comparison between water and Torah often in the writings of our Sages.
In Shevat, we are supposed to recognize that our task is to act as
the "Torah bearer" and to draw from the Torah so that the Torah is
properly used. The fact the New Year for Trees falls under this sign is of
course no coincidence. Most obviously, trees need water for their
survival, and the needed delivery of water to the trees so that fruit
forms is a focus on the New Year for Trees. The deeper significance
arises from the comparison made in the Torah (Devarim 20:19) of "for the
trees of the field are like man." Man, like trees, needs "water" for
sustenance. Just as physical water enables a tree to bring forth fruit, so
too does the Torah, spiritual water, enable man to bring forth fruit. As
we mentioned before, this requires work and toil. So that we remember that
we have help in our task, we celebrate the New Year for Trees on the 15th
day of the month. Until the 15th day, the moon has been growing in light.
The 15th day is typically the day of the full moon. It signifies the
completeness and fullness that we have right when we are born - we have
been taught the entire Torah. We start our toil realizing that G-d was
there to help us, to plant a seed within us.
The 15th day of Shevat is a day on which we pray that growth should begin.
Trees should get the water they sorely need so that they bear fruit. Man
should properly immerse himself in Torah so that he reaches his full
potential. The 15th day of Shevat is a day on which we recognize that G-d
is there to help us with our endeavors. He provides us with what we need
to be successful, although our success depends on our efforts as well. Tu
B'Shvat should be the start of a truly fruitful year for all of us.