Traveling abroad this week spared me the tyranny of small differences - the need to find some subtle distinction from the rest of the punditry busy reading the entrails of this week's election.
Fortuitously for me, and perhaps for readers spared yet one more election commentary, this was not just election week.
Yesterday was Tu Bishvat, which marks the "New Year" for tithing fruit trees, and which is traditionally celebrated by eating the fruits of the Land of Israel.
Tu Bishvat provides an opportunity to examine our Sages' understanding of the general purpose of life.
Fruits are man's soul food. In the original plan of Creation, fruit was to be the exclusive food for mankind. Every time a person eats of the fruit tree, says the Vilna Gaon, he absorbs a power that lies in the potential within the fruit and is capable of being realized by man.
The Torah specifically tells us that there is a connection between man and a fruit tree, and it is this connection that makes fruits uniquely suited to sustain man.
When laying siege to a city, we are forbidden to destroy the fruit trees surrounding the city: "Is the tree of the field a man that it should fall before you during a siege?" the Torah asks rhetorically. But the words were read by our Sages as a statement of fact as well: man is like the fruit tree.
The Vilna Gaon explains the intrinsic connection between man and a fruit tree with a gematria: the numerical value of the Hebrew word for tree, eitz, is the same as that of tzelem, image.
The fruit tree symbolizes that aspect of man in which he can be said to be "Godlike," to have been created in the Divine image. The Creator imbued man with the power to himself be a creator, to be a partner with God in creation, and it is that power of creativity which is represented by the fruit tree.
Fruits bear a relation to the tree that produces them which is different from everything else produced by living plants or animals.
Animals do not create anything new - rather they replicate themselves. Every cow is created "according to its kind," not as a unique individual. The birth of a calf does not represent something truly new; it does no more than add to the total number of cows in the world.
In the vegetable world, new plants grow from seeds, which are transformed and disappear in the process of growth. The seed and that which comes from it do not coexist. There is no creator together with its creation.
The fruit tree, on the other hand, brings forth fruits that do not resemble the tree itself. The fruits and the tree remain distinct entities, one does not replicate the other. At the same time, the tree is not transformed to produce the fruit; the tree and the fruit coexist.
The fruit vis-a-vis the tree thus appears as a creation from nothing. The tree is not depleted by the production of its fruits.
Man, too, produces fruits that are distinct from him and coexist with him. They, too, are a form of creation from nothing, as man is not depleted by the production of his "fruits."
These "fruits" take two forms: a man's offspring and his good deeds. Unlike the offspring of animals, a human being is not just one of a species - he is not interchangeable with any other person. Adam was created alone to teach us that each human being is a world unto himself; each person is born with a unique role in the Divine plan, which he alone can fulfill.
But even more central than the creation of offspring to a man's role as a producer of "fruits" are his good deeds.
The verse, "These are the generations of Noah - Noah was a righteous man..." (Genesis 6:9) teaches us, says Rashi, that the primary offspring of a righteous man are his own good deeds. Man's power to create is thus primarily expressed through those mitzvot. Those mitzvot have the power to transform the world. That is what our Sages meant when they said that there is no mitzva in the Torah within which there does not lie the power of revival of the dead.
The natural world is one of stasis. After the Flood, God promised that he would never again destroy the entire world, or suspend the orderly progression of the seasons. In such a world, scientific hypothesis can be tested through empirical observation of constant phenomenon.
Together with God's promise not to destroy the natural order, he also imposed the seven Noahide laws on all mankind. Those laws require no consent to become binding, no active human creativity.
The world of Torah and mitzvot, by contrast, is one of constant flux and change. For that reason, writes Nahmanides, there is no such thing in the world of Talmudic disputation as an irrefutable proof, as there is in geometry.
The study of Torah is the study of a perfect world coming into being - as well as an agent which is bringing that world about, and not of a static reality in which empirical proofs are possible. Unlike the Noahide covenant, which contains no creative component from the human side, the mitzvot of the Torah are only binding by virtue of the collective assent of the Jewish people at Sinai.
We created this Sinaic covenant.
Most of us live our lives oblivious to the tremendous power God granted us when He created us in His image. We lead our lives as if we had no greater purpose than to move the furniture from one side of the room to the other.
On Tu Bishvat, as we eat of the fruits of the tree, we should reflect deeply on our great potential - nothing less than the ability to be a partner with God in the recreation of the perfect world destroyed by Adam's sin.
"I have placed My words in your mouth, and covered you with the shadow of My hand in order to plant the Heavens and lay the foundations of the earth, and say to Zion, 'You are My people'." (Isaiah 51:16). "Do not read My people, [as] 'ami' but rather, 'imi', with Me" (Zohar).
Being God's "chosen people" means nothing less than being his partner in the creation of heaven and earth.