After three-plus years of economic challenge and uncertainty, we remain anxious for positive news, the kind that will finally let us believe the worst is fully behind us. Unfortunately, the outlook for the 2012 global economy remains uninspiring: recession in Europe, anemic growth in the U.S. and a sharp slowdown in China and other emerging-market economies all weigh on economist forecasts. Middle East turmoil means oil prices will likely remain high and continue to constrain global growth.
Even the news that the U.S. economy picked up speed at the end of 2011 – GDP grew at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the last quarter as businesses substantially built up their inventories and consumers increased their spending – could not lift investor spirits much. The news seems to fit neatly with the Federal Reserve’s lower outlook for the economy; it announced last week that it plans to keep the federal funds rate near zero until late 2014 because the recovery remains too slow to warrant higher interest rates.
While the recovery has taken much longer than originally hoped, most economists remain confident the worst is behind us. We remain in a slow pattern of growth, particularly in the U.S., and will need to continue to learn lessons from past errors as we seek to pull ourselves out of this fiscal morass.
Perhaps we can glean some additional insight into this process of decline and restoration from Tu B’Shevat, the traditional New Year for trees.
Tu B’Shevat draws our collective attention to nature’s inherent cycles of deterioration and growth. The botanical realm follows a steady, predictable pattern of budding and development, and, eventually, stagnation and decay, only to be followed again by a new period of advance and vitality.
History has shown that this cycle also applies to the human condition. On both a personal and national level, life is full of highs and lows, gains and losses, successes and failures. The Torah itself alludes to this symmetry between man and botany when it compares us to trees (Devarim 20:19).
While this cyclical aspect of nature is apparent throughout the year, it is most perceptible when one observes the extreme disparity between the seasons of winter and spring. Winter represents stagnation and unrealized potential, when all signs of growth lie hidden from sight. There are no external signs of development, no expressions of vitality.
Spring, on the other hand, symbolizes burgeoning vigor. Everything is new and exciting. Trees that have remained dormant for months start to show new signs of life. Buds begin to sprout, flowers start to open. Nature once again reveals its true beauty.
For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing bird has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. [Shir Hashirim 2:11-12]
This same contrast applies to human life. Circumstances sometimes force us into our own personal or collective “winter,” when struggles and challenges strip us of our innate vitality. There are other times in which we seemingly experience only joy and excitement in our lives. Everything points toward growth and accomplishment. We must realize, however, that there are two distinct ways for a person to approach the winter-like situations in his own life. The aforementioned contrast between winter and spring is only true if one views winter as the death-knell of summer. The beauty of the seasonal cycle, however, is that one can alternatively view winter as ushering in the upcoming spring. No matter what challenges a person faces, there are always better days awaiting him. Such a person knows no limitations, no dormancy. Life is a continuous cycle pointed in the direction of growth.
This is the message of Tu B’Shevat. In the middle of the winter, when everything around us seems so cold and bleak, think of spring. Eat fruit. Sing joyous tunes. Plant new trees. Always look for the good.
But the message goes one step further. Not only are we charged to maintain a continuously upbeat attitude regardless of our personal circumstances, we must also realize that those very circumstances are the ones that form the basis of our eventual success. The basis for our success, namely the trials and challenges we have had to overcome, is already in place. The only difference is that this foundation still lives in the realm of potential, hidden from the outside world. It takes the warmth of spring, literally and in our own lives, to allow that potential to blossom into its eventual reality (see Ramban’s commentary to Bereishis 22:1).
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for winter itself, choref, illustrates this exact point. Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that choref is related to the word charfi, which means dormant vigor. “As I was in the days of my winter [i.e. dormant vigor]” (Iyov 29:4). Winter here alludes to the days of a person’s youth, a time when his vast talents are waiting to emerge. It is a person’s “spring” that helps to bring those latent talents to the forefront.