Shvat: Filling the Bucket
The spiritual significance of the month of Shvat.
The astral sign (mazal) of Shvat (or Shevat), the fifth month of the Hebrew year, is the bucket, corresponding to the sign of Aquarius. A bucket is just an ordinary container made to hold water, but in Judaism water has enormous spiritual symbolism. Along with earth, air and fire, it is one of "the four elements." Let us look at them one by one.
Fire: A flame rises by its nature. It can be used either creatively or destructively. Similarly, passion was created to inspire us to rise upward towards our source, but when corrupted, the yearning for goodness turns to fury, which consumes and destroys everything it touches.
Earth: By nature it is stable. Its resilience and permanence is the spiritual source of humility and tolerance, but when corrupted it translates into passivity at best, and despair at worst.
Air: It is in constant motion. It provides us with life giving oxygen. We tend to associate life with movement. In its highest state it symbolizes the kind of inner tension that keeps us moving beyond the living death of complacency. In its negative state it keeps us moving so fast that we never commit to anything or anyone.
Water: It too gives life. In fact the Hebrew word for physical is "gashmi" which literally means "rainy." By its nature it flows downward. Because of these two factors, the Torah is considered the spiritual parallel to water. It gives us life in the most basic sense. It is from its teachings that basic moral concepts (integrity, self-transcendence, justice,) have become the mainstay of the world's moral lexicon.
The mission of the Jewish people is to serve as a spiritual bucket, pouring out spiritual "water" by making the Torah's teaching accessible to the entire world.
In nature, water is inaccessible unless we have the means of getting it to where it is needed. Today we have reservoirs and elaborate irrigation and plumbing systems. When we peel away the layers of technology that we have grown accustomed to, we see that the most basic means of making water accessible is a bucket.
The mission of the Jewish people is to serve as a spiritual bucket, pouring out spiritual "water" by making the Torah's teaching accessible to the entire world -- through the example we set and the concepts we teach. In order to do this, we have to constantly refill ourselves with the Torah's life force, and articulate it as we go about living our lives.
The first of Shvat is the day that Moses began to elucidate the Torah he had taught the Jews in the desert. Moses was a living bucket pouring forth wisdom that will keep us going forever.
We are arguably the only people who have heroes who are teachers, rather than conquerors or fighters. From Moses to Rabbi Akiva, who taught Torah publicly during the Roman occupation at the risk of his life, to contemporary Torah sages who put in 18-hour days when they are deep in their eighties or even older, we have always idealized people who appreciate the Torah's waters enough to dedicate significant parts of their lives to being the human equivalent of a bucket.
They are not always famous. My octogenarian neighbor is a heroine in the ongoing narrative of our history. Leah Horowitz came to the United States just after World War I. She attended public school, miraculously emerging with a sense of pride in her identity at a time when most American Jews would do anything to be more American and less Jewish. When she married and began life in Canarsie, south Brooklyn, her home was kosher and Shabbos was kept without compromise. But it still wasn't enough. Her bucket was empty and she knew it.
Her turning point was the day her husband, Zelig, came home and told her that there was a fundraising appeal in shul. A visiting rabbi told the congregation that the time had come to build a yeshiva in Brooklyn (at that time the only full day Jewish schools were in Manhattan). Their children needed Torah as much as they needed food and clothing. The young couple sat together in their tiny kitchen. They calculated how much they could take out of his $40 salary and still remain solvent. The most that they could give was $5.00.
She looked at her husband's face as he put the lone bill in an envelope to give the Yeshiva's representative when he would return next month. She had never seen him defeated before. Not when their neighbors moved on to more spacious homes in the suburbs, and not when he faced friends who found jobs that paid more but required coming in on Saturday.
"I have an idea!" Leah exclaimed. "Just wait. You'll give a donation that means something."
She got to work. She put up hand printed signs wherever Jewish women congregated: "Gala Melave Malka. Entertainment, Food and Drinks Galore. A Good Time for One and All" followed by her name and address. Her sisters-in-law contributed their favorite dishes and her friend Blanche sang to the accompaniment of the living room player piano. Leah borrowed folding chairs from her non-Jewish neighbors.
The evening's take was close to $50. Two nights later, Zelig brought the cash to the Yeshivah's representative. It was a moment that had great meaning for both men. For Zelig, it was living proof that he could be part of something greater than himself. For the fundraiser it was the beginning of the realization of a dream in which Torah would not be suffocated in the New World.
The rabbi told Zelig, "Your money will pay the first salary of the Yeshivah's spiritual supervisor. We have our eye on a young man of great promise, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg."
In the course of the next 50 years, Rabbi Scheinberg has emerged as one of the generation's great scholars, halachic experts, and spiritual leaders.
The 15th of Shvat (Tu B'Shvat) is referred to in the Mishna as the new year of the trees. It does not have the status of a holiday; it is a day that Jews celebrate by way of custom. A Jewish custom comes from a very special place, the Jewish soul. In a certain sense, it is our art form.
How do we celebrate Tu B'Shvat and what does the celebration tell us about ourselves as a people?
The observance of the day is just eating fruit. If at all possible, the fruits should include the seven species for which the Land of Israel is praised: wheat, barely, figs, pomegranates, grapes, olives and date-honey. Add as many other fruits as you can (using dry fruits to make eating more varieties possible) with the aim of reaching a total of 15 fruits in all.
In the 16th century, the great Kabbalist, the Arizal, and his disciples created a short "seder" that explores the inner meaning of the day. To catch a glance at the kabbalist side of Tu B'Shvat we must look at three of its motifs: trees, fruit, and the significance of the day of the month that the "new year" comes out on.
"A man is as a tree of the field," the Torah tells us when commanding the Jews not to cut down fruit trees. In what sense is a human comparable to a tree? Like a tree, our roots are the source of our continued life. When a human cuts himself off from his roots, which for a Jew would be the Torah and its commandments, there is an inevitable consequence. As much as he may want connection, he has lost the knowledge of how to make an enduring connection to our Source. Every mitzvah that we do revives the hidden yearning for spiritual life that always lies dormant within us.
The Mishna tells us that this is the day that the sap begins to rise. It is a day of renaissance and hope.
The message of the fruits -- which add flavor, variety, fragrance and color to our lives -- is that the journey itself is meant to be joyous.
While two of the species (wheat and barley) provide necessary basics in our diet, fruits were given to us for sheer pleasure. Wheat and barley, which are basic staples, are compared to Jewish law, "halachah" in Hebrew, which literally means "the way we walk." Humans have a sense of destiny, and the directives of Jewish law tell us which roads won't take us to where we want to go and which roads will.
The message of the fruits -- which are not staples but add flavor, variety, fragrance and color to our lives -- is that the journey itself is meant to be joyous. Moving forward, getting beyond routine and habitual observance, gives us enormous pleasure. When we respond to the myriad choices that we see in front of us every day with awareness and consistently choose life in the highest sense, we find ourselves discovering different "flavors" from the sweetness of giving to the piquant pleasure of self-discipline. When we serve God with this kind of joy and awareness, we are so to speak "eating the fruits" that He planted for us.
Tu B'Shvat takes place in the middle of the month when the moon is at its fullest. It symbolizes wholeness, unity between the divine Giver and the earthly recipient.
May it be a day of wonder and renewal for us all. May we draw on its power and let it fill us so much that we can't help but pour it out, so that our waters nurture everyone who is walking the path along with us.