That was never the association I had with the holiday, but come to think of it, I see the hippie-appeal. Love the earth, celebrate the trees…Tu b’Shevat really does speak to the neighborhood tree-hugger.
But what is the New of the Trees to your average Jew? It used to have everything to do with the land of Israel and tithing. The fruit that blossomed after the 15th of Shevat was considered next year’s fruit and was tithed as such. Think of it as dividing the ancient trees’ fiscal years.
Fast forward to the 16th century. The kabbalists of Safed, the mystical mountaintop town of in northern Israel, expanded the customs of the holiday. It is not a surprise, really. Since the holiday is so bound to the land and fruits of Israel, it had little meaning to the Jews living outside of the land. But sitting in their blue-domed houses in the highest city in the land of Israel, the kabbalists lived, breathed and ate of Eretz Israel. They expanded the symbols and gave the holiday a new meaning.
And there began the Tu b’Shevat seder. The custom has been growing in popularity over the years. Our second graders and their families partook in one last Saturday. But many of us here did not, nor have some of us ever been to a Tu b’Shevat seder. So let’s go on a mystical journey this evening. Wander with me through the four sections of the Tu b’Shevat seder. The seder finds it’s order by exploring the four mystical worlds we live in simultaneously.
The first world is assiyah; the world of action, the physical world around us. Here in our seder we eat nuts and fruits with a tough skin to remind us of the protection the earth gives. Represented by the element earth, this is the world where creation never stopped, where things are born and die, where we build and tear down.
Yet, while we live in this world of action, we do not experience it unmoved. When we pause for silent prayer, we beckon to the second world we live in, the world of yetzirah. This is the world of feeling and emotions. We eat fruits with a tough inner core, a nod to the heart. Yetzirah’s symbol is water, which gives shape to all matter. Our emotions pour forth and shape all of our experiences. What we feel is truth.
But do we feel with no purpose? No. From our feelings of hurt, joy or awe we enter the third world of b'riyah, the airy world of creative thought – the world of knowing. This is the world where our most passionate thoughts become action – where we partner with God. Because we partner with God, we eat fruits that are completely edible. Boundaries are blurred.
The fourth world, the one we seldom feel is the world of atzilut, of pure emanation and spirituality – the world of the element fire. This is the world we reach for on Yom Kippur – when we let go of all earthly desires and bounds. No foods are consumed in this world or in this part of our seder.
On our journey through the four worlds, we move upward and onward from the physical to the emotional to the intellectual then to the spiritual.
A beautiful portrait of spiritual attainment. Thank you, sages of Safed.
But let’s put a wrinkle in this thinking. Hazon operates a blog called “The Jew and Carrot.” One piece just appeared by Rabbi Noah Farkas that challenged this idea of the four worlds and the hierarchical movement towards the great, ethereal, spiritual world. He writes:
“The problem with the totemic thinking of Tu B’Shvat is that it ignores the underlying structure of the human-eco balance on which this day relies. [The kabbalists’] seder is a ritual journey that elevates the soul up and away from the physical to the metaphysical, from the body to the spirit, from this world to the world beyond. Notice, the subtext: the world we live in is nothing but a beginning—a way station to the real world of God’s essence felt in the undiminished mystical union. Understood this way, the purpose of the seder is to elevate ourselves away from the physical, turning our backs on this world, and on our responsibility for it, for a chance at a mystical union with God."
The problem Farkas highlights is that Tu b’Shevat is really about the earth, not necessarily the spiritual realm. Like the tree roots itself in the ground, Tu b’Shevat is our opportunity to take a concrete look at how we relate to the earth. We need not be naïve tree huggers, nor should we be disconnected mystics. What is the middle ground…literally?
I believe we can find it in this week’s Torah portion – Mishpatim. At the end of the portion, Moses and the elders of Israel walk part of the way up Sinai to see God. In a very anthropomorphic depiction of the Holy One and in a detailed account of how Sinai looked, we get this strange description: “They saw the God of Israel, and under God’s feet it was like pavement of sapphire, clear and like the heavens in it’s appearance.”
What’s this business with a pavement of sapphire?
Well, sapphires are a bright blue, not too unlike the sky. The fact that God stands upon bright blue geological gems that look just like the sky, the fact that here on Sinai, heaven and earth cannot be distinguished from one another, is the middle ground we seek. God is in the space where heaven and earth meet. The point of revelation is where the two come together. Creation, emotion, knowing and spirituality all occur in that nexus, all at once.
To this, Farkus writes that instead of pursuing an other-worldly experience:
“Let the ritual [of the Tu b’Shevat seder] bring you into this world and inspire you to rise from the seder table to work with the widows, orphans, and strangers to build a better world. As Jews, our songs and praises find their meaning when we act on their messages to address the broader challenges facing our community. This year, we should mark this day with its original intention. More than planting trees or attending a seder, we must commit ourselves to a day of service and advocacy for the food policies that affect everyone especially the most vulnerable. And if we do, the Torah teaches that God will bless us, instead of the other way around.”
At Woodlands we sought this social action aspect of the day. Through your efforts, we collected five cars worth of food and delivered it Tu b’Shevat evening to ARCS - AIDS Related Community Services. Standing in the dark parking lot, schlepping the food from the cars to the loading dock, perhaps we were standing on sapphires. Now, I don’t think last Tuesday was as significant as Sinai, but maybe, just maybe, we can see a sapphire or two twinkling in those moments where our actions meet God’s expectations.
And this brings us back to tithing. While we no longer give some of our fruit to the priests, we most certainly can give of ourselves to our earth, our community and our God. We can do this not only this Tu b’Shevat, but in the “fiscal year” of the trees that follows. May we be ever mindful of the opportunities to stand on sapphires and reflect the heavens in all that we do.
Kein yhi ratzon.