L'chaim to the Trees
Tu B'Shvat, the holiday of fruit trees, recalls the Garden of Eden, and the human quest for spiritual refinement.
Happy New Year!
No, I'm not locked in a time warp. Tu B'Shvat, the 15th of the Hebrew month Shvat, is the New Year for Fruit of the Trees.
And according to the mystic tradition, Tu B'Shvat is a day of great significance. Why?
THE TORAH AND TREES
Let us begin in the Torah itself. The Torah admonishes us not to destroy anything needlessly. Even when besieging an enemy city, fruit trees may not be destroyed.
Unlike the terseness that so frequently characterizes the written Torah, a reason is explicitly stated. The Torah tells us that human beings are like the trees of the field (Deut. 20:19).
Our roots are securely embedded in terra firma. Our first experiences with reality are physical and tangible. Then we grow beyond our roots. We extend our branches toward the heavens as we search for connection and meaning. We devote our lives to the production of fruit. We yearn to leave an enduring mark that we too were here.
A tzaddik – a holy person – is compared to an inverted tree. He draws his sustenance from the heavens and gives his fruit to the earth itself, and to any one who is of the earth.
We all wish for lives of substance, but we grow weary. The mystic scholars ask: How does the tzaddik draw his strength? The answer (given in the classic Meor VaShemesh ) is that he draws his strength from the Tree of Life itself.
What is the Tree of Life?
THE TREE OF LIFE
The answer lies in the Garden of Eden, where there were two trees – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. When Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise, angels armed with fiery swords prevented them from returning to the Tree of Life. (Genesis 2:9 and 3:22-24)
The literal meaning of Eden is the Garden of Refinement. There, the inherent link between God and His creation was apparent. There was no shell of coarseness – no human superficiality or human arrogance to conceal Him. All of nature revealed its source.
The Tree of Life was in the center of the garden. It gave us the spiritual nurture that made us not only human, but also enabled us to be holy. It had the power to do so because it was the mystic embodiment of the Torah, before that holy book was put into words.
We no longer live in a world characterized by refinement. Instead of being nurtured by the Tree of Life, we are all too conscious of the taste left by the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That other tree offered us the desire for evil that is as vivid as our desire for good.
Tu B'Shvat is the day we learn once more how to cultivate ourselves. How do we tap into the power of the day?
THE SAP IS RISING
Let us look at the structure of the day in Jewish consciousness.
First, this is the traditional day that God instructed Moses to begin the process of explaining the Torah very well (Deut. 27:8). What aspect of Moses’ explanation does this refer to? Rashi teaches that the words very well mean that Moses explained the Torah in 70 languages.
The depth of this teaching is that it is possible to find the truth of Torah from any possible way of looking at life (which is of course the source of language), as long as we remain honest.
Yet our emotional agendas sometimes fool us. We think we are searching for the Tree of Life, but we wouldn't see it if it poked a branch directly at us. We are too busy looking at everything else. We are, after all, only human. We have already partaken of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and find it almost impossible at times to tell the two trees apart.
It is for this reason that the Sages of the Talmud tell us that on this day, we should pray for a good Esrog – one of the four species that are taken and blessed on Sukkot. Yet Sukkot has already faded into the past. Why are we thinking of an Esrog?
The simple reason is that at this season the sap is rising, and the tree is beginning the process of eventually giving fruit. This is true of all trees. So why is Tu B’Shvat special to the Esrog?
Because of its shape, the Esrog represents the symbol of the heart. This is the day we can pray for purity of the heart.
We are fragile and fail. But the power of prayer can move us it its source – to infinity, to God. It can give us access to the Tree of Life.
PURITY OF HEART
A rule that your grandmother may have told you (as mine did) is when you ask for something, be sure that you want it. And if you really want something, what are you doing about it?
On Tu B’Shvat we ask: Do we really want purity of the heart?
We demonstrate our sincerity for a pure heart and our search for the Tree of Life by not corrupting our physical experience. One way to do this is to change our attitude to food, since eating is the most primal of our physical desires.
We consume an enormous amount a food in the course of a lifetime. It is part of God's plan to let us come into contact with His kindness and generosity, and what we eat and the way that we relate to eating impacts the way we experience life. God is either in the picture or out of it.
On Tu B’Shvat, we redefine how we regard the world by committing to sanctify our eating. We try to eat less impulsively and more with higher awareness.
This striving is articulated in many communities by sitting down together and having a Tu B'Shvat Seder.
At such a seder, fruit is eaten. (Some have the custom of tasting 15 different types, since this on the 15th of Shvat.)
While savoring the fruits, try to envision their root, the source of all life. Let your self savor the spiritual essence of the Land of Israel, by eating its produce.
Most of all, have a Happy New Year!