The sap begins to rise
January 25, 2013
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.
I've always loved the Norse stories about Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree which contains nine worlds between its roots and its branches. Judaism too has teachings about a cosmic tree, the Tree of the Sefirot -- ten qualities or aspects of God, envisioned through the metaphor of a tree with creation at its roots and infinite unknowable God beyond its highest branches. Tu BiShvat is an opportunity to journey through that cosmic tree, a chance to prayerfully and meditatively ascend from roots toward branches toward what's beyond our ken.
And, of course, Tu BiShvat is a chance to just celebrate trees. To sing happy birthday to the trees (as I did with my son and our other Hand in Hand students last week), to wander in the woods and greet the trees and connect with their quiet sturdy presence. One of the ways we celebrate trees is through eating their nuts and fruits with mindfulness (accompanied by the blessing for tree fruits which sanctifies that act of consumption). The kabbalists saw this as a tikkun, a healing. I suspect most of us need to strive for healing in our relationships with food and eating, and with the natural world on which we depend.
Imagine eating a piece of tree fruit with complete focus, with the intention of being conscious of the incredible flow of energy which went into that fruit's growth and the miraculous flow of divine blessing which resulted in the fruit being here for you to eat. That apple isn't just an apple; it's a gift from God! And when we enjoy the apple with gratitude and mindfulness, and we thank the Source of Blessing, we're stimulating the flow of more blessing into the world, causing more abundance to flow so that we can be fed in the new growing season to come. That's what our tradition teaches.
A person should intend [on Tu BiShvat], when reciting a blessing, to channel divine life-energy to all creations and creatures -- inanimate, plant, animal and human. One should believe with perfect faith that the blessed God gives life to them all and that there is a spark of divine life-energy in every thing, which gives it existence, enlivens it, and causes it to grow. —Rabbi Avraham Yaakov of Sadiger (19th c.)
If you need a haggadah for a Tu BiShvat seder, here are three Tu BiShvat haggadot (one for really little kids, one for kids aged 7 through 11, and one for adults and older kids -- we'll be using the third one at my shul's Tu BiShvat seder / Shabbat potluck tonight.) But regardless of whether or not you're formally celebrating Tu BiShvat, I hope you'll take some time tonight and tomorrow to consider trees, and to be grateful for them -- and to rejoice as your own spiritual sap begins to rise.