Featured in area papers on Thursday, January 16, 2003. Copyright 2003 by Yosef Y. Polter.

Being of Service or Being Served?

This Saturday, January 18, is Tu B'shvat, the Jewish New Year for trees: the day when the trees start budding in the land of Israel.  The Torah says, in Deuteronomy 20:19: "for man is like the tree of the field".  In other words, we as human beings can learn from trees, but what might we learn? 

A living tree provides fruit, shade, oxygen, and habitat for animals.  Every tree must offer at least one, if not more, of these services to justify its continued existence.  Even after it dies, the tree is a potential source of building material and fuel.  Think about it for a moment: a tree's entire existence is based on its being of service to others in one way or another.  Indeed, it takes its nourishment from the ground and sun, but its focus is giving.

This is what we learn from the tree.  Unfortunately, our society doesn't prize "being of service."  Instead, it values the accumulation of wealth and stuff, toys and gadgets.  It encourages frenzied consumerism: how can I get more, what's in it for me?

The holiday of Tu B'Shvat, though relatively minor, is a time to re-examine this misguided value system.  Being able to give - to be of service - is one of man's greatest privileges.  To paraphrase President Kennedy's famous quote, "Ask not what others can do for you; ask what you can do for others." 

Life is about giving, not about taking.  Giving is to emulate G‑d, the giver of life and all its benefits.  May we take to heart the lesson of trees and turn our focus to being of service instead of being served.  One can only imagine what the world would look like if more people acted this way.  It is not an unattainable goal; it is within our reach.  Let's "just do it."

Rabbi Yosef Polter is the Director of the Chabad Jewish Center, located at 148 Great Road in Acton. Tel: (978) 758-8994 or 929-2513