It's Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees!
A few people have asked for copies of the digital haggadah we used at our Tu BiShvat lunch seder. Here it is:
It's Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees!
A few people have asked for copies of the digital haggadah we used at our Tu BiShvat lunch seder. Here it is:
Tonight is the full moon of the month of Shvat, which means that it's Tu BiShvat -- the new year of the trees. (I realize that here at WCJA you'll be celebrating Tu BiShvat next weekend. You get a week-long holiday! But tonight is the full moon -- on some secular calendars it's called the Full Snow Moon.)
Tu BiShvat is the first step toward springtime. I say that with awareness that the world around us does not look much like springtime right now. In Williamstown, mid-February means snow and ice, not soft spring breezes and almond blossoms. For me, that makes Tu BiShvat all the more meaningful, because Tu BiShvat becomes a holiday about hiddenness.
The Jewish mystics have a lot to say about what's hidden and what's revealed, נסתר and נגלה. The world we live in is a world of surfaces, and everything conceals deeper meaning and hidden sparks. On the surface, Tu BiShvat might seem to be about establishing an age for trees so that their fruits can be tithed. That's how the holiday originated, back in Talmudic times. But deep down -- say the mystics -- it's really about the spiritual sap of the universe beginning to rise for the spring to come.
It seems appropriate that this holiday remind us to pay attention to what's unseen. The outside world may be covered with snow, but deep down under the snow the roots of the trees are soaking up the water that will feed the sap that will support next summer's verdant greenery -- at least, that's what Jewish tradition teaches. Our work is to trust in the spring that we can't yet see.
Torah says that human beings are like trees of the field, and we too have hidden undercurrents that aren't always visible to the naked eye. As we move through this midwinter full moon, what is rising in you? What hopes are you nurturing, deep down in your most secret heart? What yearnings are enlivening you, even if you haven't spoken them aloud?
What gifts might you be able to bring to the world by the end of this semester? When the trees have leafed out, all chartreuse and fluttering in the spring breeze -- when the lilac bushes in front of the President's house bloom and scent the spring air -- what new ideas or artwork or music or activism or relationships might you bring into being?
That's what Tu BiShvat is about for me: the sap of our hopes, the sap of our dreams, the sap that will fuel our work in the world. Imagine your feet planted in the earth like roots. Reach deep down into the earth and draw up the sustenance you need. With every beat of your heart, you can draw up more hope, and more of the energy you'll need in order to create.
On the outside, the world looks like winter -- but in the heart of every tree, the first stirrings of spring are rising. This full-moon midwinter Shabbes, celebrate what's rising in you.
This is the d'varling -- the short-and-sweet teaching -- that I offered at the Williams College Jewish Association tonight at Kabbalat Shabbat services.
"This is where I like to explore," my son tells me. To an adult eye, this is the smallish band of trees and underbrush between our condo development and the condo development down the road, but to him these are The Woods.
I remember exploring the woods across the street from my house with my friends who lived down the block, when I was a kid, and I am grateful that he has a place like this where his imagination can soar.
"Thank you for showing this to me," I reply, as I follow him.
"This is a place where we can talk to God," he offers.
"Thank You God for the beautiful snow," I say, feeling tickled that this is still something he and I can do. I know that someday he will outgrow the desire to let me overhear his conversations with God, but that hasn't happened yet.
"This is the special place where I feel God's spirit," he tells me. "When you cross through here, you put your hands like this." He brings his hands together in prayer. I'm not sure where he learned that posture, but I am not about to argue with him. Here in his special place, he is the guide and I am the student.
"Thank You God for the woods that you made and for the snow on the trees and for this place where we can talk to You," he says, and then emerges from the sacred grove. "You try," he tells me.
I cross into the place where he was standing and I emulate his posture. "Thank You God for this beautiful snow, and for the trees, and for my wise son who teaches me things every day. Amen."
He beams at me. "Thanks, Mom," he says. "Let's go explore some more."
So we do.
Maybe you've noticed the full moon recently. (Where I live, it's been shining brilliantly the last few nights on a light layer of snow.) The full moon of this month is the holiday of Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees.
Other people have written smart things about Tu BiShvat and environmentalism, among them Jay Michaelson. This year I find myself focusing most on the internal and spiritual dynamics of Tu BiShvat.
Tradition teaches that this is the moment when the sap begins to rise in the trees to nourish the fruits of the coming year. What spiritual or emotional sap might be rising in you at this moment of this year?
What are the fruits you hope that internal sap might nourish: are they creative, interpersonal, emotional, spiritual? Do you have reservoirs to draw on which will help those things flower forth in coming months?
Do you feel sufficiently rooted this winter -- either in the place where you are, or in your spiritual practices, or in your relationship with God -- to stand firm even in emotionally stormy weather?
What holds you back from the flowering and fruiting for which you were made? Are you afraid of an emotional, interpersonal, or spiritual hard freeze which will nip your self-expression in the bud?
What do you most hope is beginning to rise in you this Tu BiShvat? Maybe you want to cultivate compassion, or kindness, for others or for yourself. Or maybe hope itself is what is rising in you.
What would it feel like to know, in your bones, that even in the deep freeze of midwinter -- even in the deep freeze of whatever might be challenging in your life -- sap is rising and sweetness will come?
This year we (at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal) rededicate ourselves to caring for our living planet as a place of holiness. Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees (coming up on January 25), is a natural opportunity to link our deep ecological values with the life of the spirit. Here are some resources which we hope will bring added meaning to your Tu BiShvat:
May our celebrations of Tu BiShvat bring us closer to healing our living planet and connecting us with the One Who enlivens and sustains us all.
I've come to love celebrating Tu BiShvat in the snow. I know that in the Mediterranean, where this festival originates, this time of year means blooming fruit trees. In south Texas, which has a very Mediterranean-like climate, things are beginning to bloom at this season too. (Plenty of things which thrive around the Mediterranean -- oleander, bougainvillea, date palms -- are native flora where I grew up too.) In a climate like that, it makes sense to think of this as a season of new life.
But in New England -- maybe especially in the Berkhire hills which I call home -- this January-February corridor usually means snow. And this year we've got even more of it than usual. On our deck, the snow reaches almost to the tabletop of the glass-topped table, and then tops that table with a two-foot-tall white cap. Our barbecue grill: topped with a two-foot-tall white cap. Even the bird feeder is topped with a comical little cone of snow. The world around me is white on white on white.
This is our deck with table and chairs.
It's fortunate for me that I really like snow. It was so magical and unusual when and where I grew up that even after more than two decades living in the north, I'm still not tired of it. (Sleet and freezing rain, on the other hand, I could do entirely without.) And I've learned, over the years, that a snowy winter often presages a good sugaring season. When the mercury rises above freezing during the day and dips back down at night, those are the conditions which make for good sweet sap.
I love Tu BiShvat because it feels like the first step out of winter and toward spring. Even though everything around me is snow-covered, Tu BiShvat reminds me that there are stirrings of growth deep beneath the surface. The trees will awaken, and in time they'll unfurl leaves. And along with them, what in me is biding its time and preparing to blossom? What would it feel like to truly grow where I'm planted? What sweetness might rise in my heart and my spirit as these winter days unfold?
For those who don't live locally -- here's the Rabbi Reflections column I wrote for the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of the Berkshire Jewish Voice. (I didn't come up with the title, though I quite like it.)
Every winter, as we turn the page on the secular calendar and welcome the Gregorian new year, I begin to look forward to Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. For me, Tu BiShvat is the first step away from midwinter and toward the longer days and brighter light of spring.
Every year I remind myself that a good cold snowy winter, followed by late-winter days where the temperatures skate above freezing and dip again at nightfall, ensures a good maple syrup harvest. I await the days when steam will rise from sugar shacks across the region -- a kind of secular Tu BiShvat, celebrating the trees and the gifts they bring.
I didn't grow up celebrating Tu BiShvat, but it has become one of my favorite holidays, perhaps in part because of where and when it falls in the cycle of our festival year. It begins a series of months during which we celebrate something wonderful at every full moon: first Tu BiShvat, then Purim, then Pesach. (Except during leap years, when there's an extra month of Adar -- but this isn't a leap year.) These festivals are stepping-stones across the season's frozen expanse.
Living in New England where the trees are leafless and seem dormant at this season, I love Tu BiShvat's reminder to celebrate the glory of nature even at this moment in the year. I love taking time, in deep winter, to thank God for the abundance we receive from the trees of our world. And I love thinking about how human beings too are like trees. Just as trees need sun and water and earth in order to flourish, so too we need light and fluidity and rootedness in our own lives.
At Tu BiShvat many of us read an excerpt from the Talmudic story of Honi the Circle-Drawer, who mocked a man for planting a carob tree which takes seventy years to bear fruit. "Just as my grandparents planted trees for me," the man replies, "so do I plant for my grandchildren." It's a fine environmental sentiment: we must care for our earth so that the planet will be here for our children's children.
But the continuation of the story -- not usually read at Tu BiShvat seders -- is equally compelling to me. Honi falls asleep for 70 years, a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle. When he wakes, he sees the grandson of the man who planted, now harvesting the carob.
Then he visits the house of study where he once learned. He finds students lamenting the fact that they no longer understand Torah as clearly as did (the now legendary) Honi the Circle-Drawer. "That's me," he exclaims, but no one believes him. He dies, whereupon the Talmudic sage Rava says, "Hence the saying 'Either companionship or death.'"
What can we make of the latter part of this tale? For me, the first part of the story is about the vertical connections of one generation to the next; the second part of the story is about the horizontal connections of one friend to another. Honi becomes uprooted in time. And without being known for who he is, he can no longer thrive.
We all derive sustenance from being part of a communal context. We all yearn to be known and recognized and cherished for who we are.
As we approach Tu BiShvat this year, may we experience rootedness in our own generation, our own communities, our own context -- even as we reflect back with gratitude on generations before us, and hope for sweetness for generations to come.
Tu BiShvat, the full moon of the month of Shvat, falls on Feb. 4 on the Gregorian calendar this year. (If you're in western Mass, you're welcome to join us at my shul on the following Shabbat morning, Feb. 7, for a vegetarian / dairy potluck lunchtime seder. RSVPs are requested; here's more information about that.)
Here's the very tiny d'var Torah I offered during Shabbat morning services at my shul yesterday. (I kept it brief because I wanted plenty of spacious time for our Tu BiShvat seder after services!) (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
In today's parsha, Yitro, Moses receives some of the best self-care advice in the Torah: you can't do it all yourself. You will wear yourself out, and then you won't be able to help those whom you serve.
We've all been where Moses was: overworked and stretched too thin.
Self-care matters. If we don't nourish ourselves, then we can't do the work we're here to do in the world. Whether you think of that work as "caring for your family and community," or "saving the planet," or "serving God" -- we all have work we're meant to do in this life, and if we don't take care of ourselves, we can't do that work.
Today at CBI we're celebrating Tu BiShvat, the day when -- our tradition teaches -- the sap rises in the trees for the year to come, nourishing the trees so that in the future they can bear fruit.
We too need to be nourished so that we can bear fruit as the year unfolds. As the trees need rain and snowmelt, we need the living waters of Torah to enliven our souls.
As the trees need fertile soil and good nutrients, so we need to feel ourselves to be firmly planted -- and to get all of the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nutrients we need in order to grow and to flower.
What nourishment do you most need on this Shabbat?
What would feed you in all four worlds -- your body, your heart, your mind, your soul?
What do you need to soak up in order to be able to bring forth the wonders, the ideas, the teachings, the kindnesses, the mitzvot which only you can do?
And how can you take care of yourself, as Yitro instructed Moshe, so that you will be able to open your heart and receive what you need?
Fruits with peels / shells, representing assiyah / action; fruits with pits, representing yetzirah / emotion;
After services and our (slightly belated) Tu BiShvat seder: the trees sleep beneath their light coat of Shvat snow.
It’s fun to teach a 4-year-old about Tu B’Shvat. We’ll probably sing happy birthday to the trees in the backyard, and bless and eat a variety of tree fruits and nuts at a kiddie Tu B’Shvat seder at the synagogue. Maybe we’ll try to connect trees with taking care of the earth, the way Kai-Lan cleans up garbage in the back yard for the sake of the snails.
For adults, Tu B’Shvat offers opportunities for more meaningful reflection.
Tu B’Shvat reminds us to go outside and encounter the natural world where we are. Here in the Diaspora, Tu B’Shvat posters and food traditions remind us of the foodways of our Mediterranean ancestors, including Israel’s blooming almond trees. Where I live, Tu B’Shvat usually means bare trees rising out of snow.
Usually Tu B’Shvat falls during sugaring season in western Massachusetts. The maple sap rises when the days are above freezing and the nights are still cold. All around my region, plastic tubing sprouts like new growth, funneling sap drop by drop into collection buckets and tanks for boiling.
Well: that’s what usually happens. I don’t know how this year’s fifty-degree temperature fluctuations and arctic blasts will impact the syrup harvest. Does that kind of oscillation confuse the maple trees? How about the fifty-below-zero temperatures they’ve been registering in the heartland: how does that impact the food we grow?
That's a taste of Tu BiShvat Reflections on Parenthood, Extreme Weather, & the Human Family Tree, my latest essay for Zeek magazine. I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing.
Psalm 34, verse 8: "Taste and see that God is good."
We make our way into the woods
at the edge of our land, trees webbed
with plastic tubing, clear
and pale green against the snow.
Down to the beaver dam, pond
punctuated with cattails,
galvanized tin bright
against grizzled trunks.
Dip a finger beneath the living spigot.
At every sugar shack across the hills
clouds of fragrant steam billow.
And after long boiling, this amber...
Where I grew up, the air is soft
already, begonias thinking
about blooming. Here, this
is what rises, hidden and sweet.
In honor of Tu BiShvat which begins tonight at sundown, here's a poem about the sap rising. It's a revision of a poem I shared here a few years ago.
Enjoy the full moon. Here's to the sap rising -- in our trees and in our hearts!
Yesterday when my son and I arrived home after preschool, I could see my shadow against the driveway's thin layer of snow. Night falls early at this season, and the sun had long since set. The shadow came from the half-moon suspended over our rooftop.
"Look, mommy -- stars!" We stood there for a moment, our breath drifting up like fog, marveling at the sky. And then I hustled us indoors, because although we're not in the deep freeze of the midwest, the mercury was hovering around zero.
Having a child who likes to look up at the sky helps to keep me attuned to the ebb and flow of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon. Of course, so does the Jewish calendar. I wasn't surprised that the moon was half-full already; I know that next week is Tu BiShvat, which always falls at full moon.
The New Year of the Trees. The birthday of the trees. The day when we count trees as a year older than they used to be, even though we no longer tithe their fruits. The day when we believe the sap starts to rise to feed the fertile season to come. Even here, where the ground is rock-solid, impregnated with ice.
If we get days which are warmer than freezing and nights which dip back down into 20s, maple sap really will start rising soon. I always look forward to the year's first maple breakfast at our local sugar shack -- a sign of impending spring even though soft rains and crocuses remain months away. But Tu BiShvat is about more than literal sap creeping up the phloem.
Tu BiShvat is when our spiritual sap starts rising to prepare us for the coming spring. We've been reading the story of the Exodus from Egypt in our cycle of weekly Torah portions; at Tu BiShvat, we take our first step toward Pesach, our celebration of freedom which marks spring's new beginnings. At Tu BiShvat, we assert our trust that our dry and cracked winter souls will be watered and nourished. We open ourselves to feel the abundance which is flowing into our hearts and spirits.
We are the trees, growing older year by year. We give ourselves over to trusting that in the fullness of time, our labors will bear fruit. That we will bring forth nourishment for ourselves and those around us. That this world of winter will end, and be replaced by spring's warm breezes -- and summer's clear sunshine -- and autumn's blaze of red and gold -- again and again, and again.
I make my way to the storage room adjacent to our garage where curls of etrog peel have been steeping in vodka since Sukkot. I decant the liquid, add a simple syrup of sugar-water, and bottle it: etrogcello, made from the pri etz hadar, the "fruits of the goodly tree" (a.k.a. etrogim) which were so central to our celebration of Sukkot. Pri Etz Hadar is also the name of the first haggadah for the Tu BiShvat seder, published in 1728.
When we sip this sweet bright fire at our Tu BiShvat seder next week, we'll swallow a taste of the autumn behind us -- and an anticipation of the autumn which is to come. Sunshine in a jar to nourish our souls, all the way down to the root.
Fruits representing all four worlds:
I abbreviated our adult haggadah a little bit -- some of the little kids (including mine) were running gleefully around the building, others were sitting at the table but not necessarily paying much attention, and I could tell we didn't have the focus for everything in there! Still, it was lovely. One of my congregants read the Marge Piercy poem about Tu BiShvat which I love so much. Others took turns reading little explanations of the four worlds. We blessed and drank, blessed and ate.
And then there was a potluck feast. (All Drew ate was a few bites of challah, a couple of grapes, and a handful of Thin Mint cookies. Well, he's hardly the first little guy to have so much fun running around the synagogue he couldn't manage to sit still to eat anything.) And when we were done eating, as the kids ran and yelled and played, I handed out copies of "Brich Rachamana" (the "Sanctuary" melody) and we sang that as our abbreviated birkat ha-mazon.
And after that I brought Drew home and bundled both of us into PJs. I'm looking forward to sleeping, just like the trees, in tonight's long winter dark. Happy Tu BiShvat to all!
The holiday cycle is a circle; every year it repeats. There are exceptions -- marvels like birkat ha-chamah, which happens only every 28 years -- but on the whole, we celebrate the same holidays year in and year out. Tonight at sundown we'll enter not only into Shabbat but also into Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. One month later, the next full moon will coincide with Purim. One month later, the next full moon will bring us Pesach. Seven weeks and one day after that, Shavuot.
There's meaning in the way one holiday leads to the next. Just as Shabbat is more special when seen against the backdrop of the weekdays which surround it, each festival is subtly shaped by its place in the wheel of the year. Tu BiShvat, which begins tonight, is the first step on a journey which will lead us to the revelation of Torah and the flowering of glories we can only now imagine. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, it's our first step toward the abundance of summer.
Rashi teaches that Tu BiShvat is when the sap begins to rise to feed the leaves and fruit of trees for the year to come. Where I live, we're experiencing the bitter cold of deep winter. At sunrise a few days ago the thermometer registered one solitary degree above zero (Fahrenheit.) We bundle up, we hunker down, we go inward. The freedom of spring feels far away. It's hard to imagine the air becoming soft, forgiving, fragrant with new life instead of with woodsmoke and snow. TuBiShvat invites us to recognize that the sap begins to rise precisely at the moment when winter feels most entrenched.
And the sap is rising not only on a literal level (though I expect to see maple trees tapped for syrup in a few weeks, when we have above-freezing days and below-freezing nights) but also on a spiritual level. This is the season when we open ourselves to trusting that new ideas, prayers, insights, spiritual "juices" will rise in us. Even if spiritual growth is invisible, we trust that it's taking place.
Back in the fall, after Sukkot had ended, I started this year's batch of etrogcello (see curls of peel / prepare to sleep, the post about this year's etrogcello adventure.) This week, with the full moon of Shvat approaching, I decanted the liquid -- now a glorious golden yellow -- into two clean jars, and sweetened one with a splenda simple syrup and the other with a simple syrup which contains honey. The yield is two quart jars, filled almost to the brim with fragrance.
This year's batch.
I haven't tinkered with the color balance of that photograph at all -- that's their real color. (I'm hoping the honey-sweetened one will clarify, though it's possible that it may stay cloudy; I've never tried using honey, so this is a new experiment for me.) And through our dining room windows, behind the two jars, you can see the colors of northern Berkshire winter: the brown of leafless trees, the white of snow and sky, the slate-blue of distant hills.
At this season, in this place, the color palette is muted browns and whites, palest purples and greys. The yellow of the etrog-peel-flavored vodka is startling to the eye. That seems appropriate, somehow: a reminder that when we first made use of this pri etz hadar, this "fruit of a goodly tree," in our Four Species at Sukkot, the world looked like this:
instead of this:
At our Tu BiShvat seder on Friday night (by the way, do you need a haggadah for your Tu BiShvat seder? Here are three of them -- one for adults, one for kids, and one for little kids) I'll invite those who are so inclined to join me in sipping a nip of this homemade etrogcello. It's strong and sharp; it tastes and smells like etrog, that ineffable fragrance which so transports me every time I first open the etrog box before Sukkot begins.
That toast is a stitch connecting this moment in deepest winter, when we honor the trees and their growing-older and our faith that the sap is rising (both literally and metaphorically / spiritually) and spring is coming, to that moment at the end of the harvest season when we prepared for winter's hunkering-down. Beneath the blanket of snow the earth is sleeping, waiting to wake up again. Within our hearts, what from the autumn holidays is germinating, preparing to be born in the spring?
curls of peel prepare to sleep
beneath cold vodka snow-thick blanket
shreds of autumn gold and gleaming
in this womb with no umbilicus
this dark cupboard a sweet relief
close fevered eyes let changes come
to unfurl bright upon our tongues
as springtime's sap begins to rise
Yes, I am once again making etrogcello! (Here's a glimpse of last year's.)
These slivers of etrog peel will rest under vodka in the dark through the winter. Shortly before Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, I'll strain and sweeten the results: maybe with splenda syrup, as in previous years -- or maybe with local honey, as my friend Bob does.
We'll sip the bright home-made limoncello at our Tu BiShvat seder, a link between this autumn's harvest and the first stirrings of the coming spring.
Remember last Sukkot? The sound of cornstalks rustling on the roof of my car as I drove slowly home from Renton's farmer's market. The trees on our hills still bright with fading leaves. Carrying my lulav and etrog out to the sukkah in the rain-washed morning, and shaking them in all four directions as I dodged the raindrops still dripping from the sukkah's so-called roof.
And then, when the festival was over, my reluctance to discard the beautiful fragrant etrogim. They had come such a long way to reach us, just in time for the festival! So I peeled them, and poured vodka over the thin shavings of yellow skin, and set them in a cupboard to wait in the dark. At first the shavings sat at the bottom of a bottle of clear liquid. Over time, some alchemy transpired. The liquid became golden, the peel ever-more translucent. Now, some months later, they have been transformed from this:
Etrog, sliced open.
I open the jar and am washed with a heady wave of the scent of etrog. Surely smell is one of the most evocative senses: one whiff and I'm transported back to the day before Yom Kippur when I first lifted last year's etrogim out of their foam cradles and brought them to my face to inhale their extraordinary scent. Nothing else smells quite like an etrog. It's lemony, yes, to be sure, but it's more than that. Richer, sharper, more complicated. Over the years I've experimented with etrog preserves, but no jam ever quite captures the way an etrog smells -- the way it makes me feel -- when I first press it to my nose before the festival begins.
But this etrogcello comes close.
A few weeks ago I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the jar, then returned it to the darkness. Yesterday, Tu BiShvat almost upon us, I washed out two plastic bottles and prepared them for their new contents.
The 2012 vintage.
We actually still have a couple of tiny flagons of last year's etrogcello left over. It's not as bright or as pungent as this year's stuff, though it's still tasty. I brought some to our Simchat Torah celebration last fall -- after we danced the Torah scrolls around the Williams College Jewish Center, when the traditional schnapps and vodka were brought out for toasting, I added a wee bottle of etrogcello to the table. It was a surprise, a special treat -- a little taste of Sukkot although Sukkot had just ended.
But really the reason I make the etrogcello is so that we can drink it at Tu BiShvat. The New Year of the Trees; the birthday, according to Talmud, of every tree, no matter when it was planted. The date when (our tradition says) the sap begins to rise to feed the trees for the year to come; the time when cosmic sap begins to rise, renewing our spiritual energy for the welter of spring festivals ahead. How better to celebrate Tu BiShvat than with this pri etz hadar, this fruit of a goodly tree, which we so cherished back at Sukkot? It stitches the harvest season to this moment in deepest New England winter. It reminds me that everything which has been dormant can once again bear fruit.
Tonight at our seder I will raise a glass: to the memory of last Sukkot, to the anticipation of next Sukkot, to the trees which bore this etrog, to the many hands which brought it here, to the Source of All from whom all blessings flow. L'chaim!
One of the stories we read at Tu BiShvat (the New Year of the Trees -- this Wednesday) is the tale of Honi ha-Magel, Honi the Circle-Drawer. Honi was a Jewish miracle worker during the first century before the Common Era, known for his ability to bring rain.
It's a fascinating story. The version we tell at our Tu BiShvat table, and the version I will teach to our Hebrew school kids next weekend, is only the kernel at the heart of the story -- the part having to do with planting trees for future generations. But the whole story is worth reading. Here's the story as it appears in Talmud; I've italicized the section we typically tell at Tu BiShvat, but I hope you'll read all four paragraphs.
Rabbi Yohanan said: "This righteous man [Honi] was troubled throughout the whole of his life concerning the meaning of the verse, 'A Song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.' [Honi asked] Is it possible for seventy years to be like a dream? How could anyone sleep for seventy years?"
One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?" The man replied: "Seventy years." Honi then further asked him: "Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?" The man replied: "I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children."
Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, "Are you the man who planted the tree?" The man replied: "I am his grand-son." Thereupon Honi exclaimed: "It is clear that I have slept for seventy years." He then caught sight of his ass which had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. There he inquired, "Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?" The people answered him, "His son is no more, but his grandson is still living." Thereupon he said to them: "I am Honi the Circle-Drawer," but no one would believe him.
He then repaired to the beit ha-midrash [study hall] and there he overheard the scholars say, "The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer,”"for whenever he came to the beit ha-midrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out, "I am he!" But the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for mercy, and he died. Raba said: "Hence the saying, 'Either companionship or death.'"
That's from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ta'anit, page 23a. It's a bit mysterious, isn't it? The story raises more questions than it answers. First there's the oddity of Honi sleeping for 70 years, a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle. But how does the story flow from the initial quote from Psalms, "When God brought us back to Zion we were as dreamers"? And what can we make of the way this story ends? Everyone likes the theme of planting for our children, and with good reason, but there's far more going on here than just that.
Allow me to recommend a terrific commentary on this Talmudic tale. The essay is called The Dream of Exile: A Rereading of Honi the Circle-Drawer, [pdf] and it's by Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who serves Bais Abraham congregation in St. Louis. R' Shafner explores the parallels between sleep and exile, the value one can find in journeying, the importance of having dreams for the future, what it means to be a luminary for (and within) one's own generation or moment in time, the similarities between Honi and Moses, and the power of childlike prayer. Here's a taste:
Honi discovers that even if it were possible to eliminate exile and jump to the time of redemption, the price he must pay is the sacrifice of himself, of his own lifetime. One cannot go to a different time and still be oneself. We must be who we are, suggests this story in the Talmud, we each have our role in the universe. Whether to plant or to reap, to dream or to wake, to be in exile or to be redeemed, it is of no matter; one state is not less valuable than another, and both are interdependent. Being satisfied where one is, even if that means living in a state of unredeemed expectation, is as worthwhile as being redeemed, at least according to the carob tree planter...
This is beautiful stuff, and it illumines the story of Honi for me in new ways. I particularly love R' Shafner's assertion that Honi is a kind of mystic; he is like a child in his state of natural, unmediated closeness with God. Read on:
Part of Honi’s inability to comprehend the preparatory exilic state is that he is beyond it. In exile the Divine is mostly hidden and so we do not see our prayers immediately answered. But for Honi, there is immediate gratification. For him God is not in hiding, He is revealed to Honi and close to him like a parent. Honi is not bound by the limitations of the veiled physical universe. Though this Divine awareness is the source of his greatness, it also prevents him from relating to its opposite, exile — our people’s exile, its value and necessity. Honi’s despair in the face of exile/planting/dreaming results from his inability to fathom, and therefore experience, distance from the Divine.
The whole essay is very worth reading. Take a look.
For me, the most poignant part of the story of Honi is its ending. He is fundamentally displaced; the scholars of the future don't believe Honi's identity, and he becomes so inconsolable that he asks God for mercy -- which is to say, for death. On the basis of this, Raba teaches us that in Jewish tradition, companionship -- hevruta, friendship in which we learn with and from one another -- is so important that without it, one might die. That's a powerful teaching at any time of year.
We harvest from trees planted before we were born; we plant trees so that our children will have something to harvest after we are gone. This is both a literal and a metaphorical/spiritual truth. And this planting and harvesting connects us across the generations: as my grandparents planted seeds which bear fruit in my adult choices, I plant seeds for the grandchildren, and the students-of-my-students, who I may never know. But as important as these vertical intergenerational connections are, we also depend on horizontal connections in our own lifetimes. Our beloved friends, our study partners (both in Torah terms and in life-terms), keep us from dissociating from our lives as Honi ultimately did.
At this season of Tu BiShvat, may we be nourished by our deep roots; may we plant for our descendants, paying the blessing forward as it was given to us; and may we be blessed to experience the sustenance of friendship and hevreschaft, keeping us grounded in the here-and-now.
The moon of Tevet is beginning to wane. It will shrink down to nothingness and then grow again. When it next reaches roundness, the date will be the 15th of the month of Shvat: the full moon of the deep-winter lunar month when, Jewish tradition tells us, the sap begins to rise again to nurture trees for the year to come.
Tu BiShvat is the (observed) birthday of every tree, also known as the New Year of the Trees. It offers an opportunity to take a journey through the four worlds of existence (action / physicality, emotions, thought, and essence) and to experience those four worlds and the round of the seasons through consuming fruits and juices with holy intent.
This is a holiday I didn't grow up celebrating, but it's become a favorite in my adult life. In south Texas where I grew up -- and in the part of the world where the Tu BiShvat seder originated -- trees are preparing now to bloom. Here in western Masschusetts, this time of year is usually characterized by ice and snow...though also by the rise of sap in the sugar maples, followed by plumes of sweet steam rising from sugar shacks all over the hills.
Back in 2006 I shared a Tu BiShvat haggadah here. (Hard to believe that was six years ago!) This winter I've had occasion to revise it. It now exists in three editions: one for adults and teens, one for kids in first through fourth grades, and one for little kids. We'll use each of these three versions of this haggadah at my shul in our various Tu BiShvat celebrations this year.
These haggadot contain poetry, environmental teachings from Jewish tradition, kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) teachings about the four worlds, and illustrations of fruits to color in. (You can probably guess which of these three haggadot is geared in each of these ways.)
And I share them here, in case any of y'all need a Tu BiShvat haggadah this year! Feel free to use these as-is, or to use them to spark your own Tu BiShvat creativity. (I only ask that you keep the identifying information there, and/or credit me for the editing / compiling / creativity.) May your celebration of the New Year of the Trees be joyful, meaningful, and -- perhaps quite literally -- sweet.
Just in time for Tu BiShvat, the wonderful folks at Nava Tehila (the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem) have released a new melody:
(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it here on YouTube.)
The text is Psalm 96:12: יַעֲלֹז שָׂדַי, וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ; אָז יְרַנְּנוּ, כָּל-עֲצֵי-יָעַר -- "Let the field exult, and all that is therein; then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy."
Happy new year, trees!