Trees in winter.


I only see a few people in person. Is it still correct to call us a pod when there's no formal quarantine? Whatever we're called, we are few in number. Over the summer I saw a few others -- outdoors, because fresh air felt safer -- but since the cold returned, it's been just us. I think of people I've known who chose a monastic life. What is it like to abandon a previous life with its social whirl, and to forge new spirit in the combination of enforced isolation and enforced togetherness? Is it anything like this? 

Last spring the shelves of grocery stores were often bare. No toilet paper, no flour, no Clorox wipes. Fruits and vegetables were hard to find, for a while. We haven't returned to those levels of privation (yet) this winter, but there are ingredients I can't find. I think of previous generations cooking during wartime, or in the shtetl, or in the Warsaw Ghetto. (I don't want to think of subsisting on what food was available in the camps.) This isn't like that, but that's the narrative frame that comes to mind. 

When I read about people who refuse to wear masks or maintain social distancing, I think: would you have turned on your lights during the Blitz? It's not a kind thought, but I struggle to feel kindness toward those whose actions put others at risk. Much about this pandemic year feels like a discipline: staying apart, staying masked, staying alone, cooking with what I can get. The hardest discipline is maintaining a healthy balance between facing reality, and not perseverating about the reality we face.

The hardest discipline is cultivating hope. This week on the Jewish calendar we mark the New Year of the Trees. Symbolically, spiritually, the sap of the coming spring and summer is beginning to rise. The potential for flower and fruit lies coiled in every seed. The days will lengthen. The vaccine will become available to everyone. The branches that are now bare will carry a profusion of fruit. Can I hold the experience of January's bitter cold alongside the certainty that in its time spring will come? 


Stitching Sukkot to the first step toward spring


Last year's harvest; this year's beginning.


This year I take comfort in every tradition I can manage. Anything I've done in years past that I might do in years to come -- those things become a lifeline. A reminder that there was life before this difficult, terrible, anxiety-drenched year of global pandemic and national political uncertainty, and there will be life after this year, too. The holidays come and go every year. The autumn leaves blaze bright every year, and fall, and then grow anew. These rhythms remind me that the world will not end.

One of my annual traditions comes at the end of Sukkot: preserving the etrogim from Sukkot to taste at Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees which falls here in deep midwinter. The etrog is called pri etz hadar, "the fruit of a splendid tree" (or a goodly tree). And Pri Etz Hadar is the name of an early mystical Tu BiShvat text and seder. Bringing the taste and scent of the etrog to Tu BiShvat is a way to link this fall with the coming winter -- and to evoke the new growth that hasn't yet come, but will.

As always, I've peeled five etrogim and put them under vodka in my tall glass infuser in the back of a cupboard. Within a few days I'll forget that they're there. All year long they will steep, slowly transferring their color, flavor, and fragrance. By this time next year, the vodka will be bright as sunlight and fragrant like an etrog scratched with a thumbnail to release its scent. I'll decant the contents, add simple syrup, and bottle the end result... so I can refill my infuser and begin the whole process again.

I'm not sure how I'll share this fragrant elixir with my community at Tu BiShvat this year. I can't imagine a reality in which we'd feel safe gathering indoors for a Tu BiShvat seder at the end of January. The pandemic won't be over by then. I suspect we'll all be sheltering-in-place at home by deep wintertime. Maybe I'll see if folks want to gather outdoors in the snow, among the dormant trees, and toast to their continued health and longevity (and our own!) at a safe social distance in the brisk fresh air. 

Tu BiShvat cold snap


One of the people with whom I work in spiritual direction lives somewhere considerably colder than where I live, and they mentioned recently that it was 40 degrees below zero there. Massachusetts gets a lot colder than south Texas (where I was born and reared), but 40 below is not a temperature I've ever experienced.

Hearing that number made me think about the seasonality of Jewish holidays anew. Of course our festival calendar is rooted in the seasons, and it was created by people who had no idea the southern hemisphere existed -- which poses challenges, e.g. working with Pesach's spring imagery when that season is actually autumn where you are.

And I've noted before that Tu BiShvat in particular can be a strange holiday to celebrate in New England. In Israel the almond trees may be blooming -- in south Texas where I grew up things are blooming -- but here in Massachusetts the world is almost always covered with a thick layer of snow at this season.

But that disjunction between the climate where the festival originated, and the Diaspora climate where I live now, is even more extreme for those who live in less temperate climes even than this. What can it mean to celebrate the sap rising when 40 below is the place where Fahrenheit and Centigrade match?

I think the answer has to do with understanding the rising sap, the coming spring, as a spiritual opportunity rather than something one can feel in the softness of the air or the scent of trees in bloom. It's spiritual sap that's rising. Tu BiShvat comes in deep winter to tug our hearts and souls inexorably toward what's coming next.

When we affirm the sap rising in us at this season, we're not talking about literal trees -- though once we get through this cold snap and start having warmer days I expect to see people tapping sugar maples! We're talking about a sense of nourishment, a sense of hope for the growth and the blooms that will come, a sense of possibility.

Even here where it's 7 below, our spiritual sap is rising. Even in subpolar climes, our spiritual sap can be rising. Where do we feel growth, where do we feel hope, where do we feel the pull toward liberation? What do you hope will grow in you as we enter the spiritual runway toward Pesach, toward freedom, toward becoming anew?


Image: the tree outside my window, seen through frost flowers.


How to celebrate Tu BiShvat (and a renewed haggadah from Bayit)

Haggadah-coverTu BiShvat, the "new year of the trees," is coming at the very next full moon, the night of January 30. If you'd like to celebrate Tu BiShvat at home with friends or family, it's easy to do -- and it's a beautiful holiday that can open the heart to growth, renewal, and sweetness. Here's what you need:

1) Tree fruits. Ideally, you need at least one fruit in each of the following categories:

  • tree fruit with an inedible shell (e.g. oranges, bananas, nuts, coconut)
  • tree fruit with a pit or seed (cherries, plums, apricots, olives)
  • tree fruit that's edible all the way through (figs, mulberries, apples, pears)

You can use fresh fruits, or dried. You can have one fruit in each category, or several. You can opt to try a new fruit that you've never had before, and say the shehecheyanu for trying something new. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you want.

Some also have a custom of sipping a nip of either maple syrup, or etrog vodka, at a certain point in the seder. If either one of those appeals to you and is accessible to you, lay in a supply of that as well.

2) Grape juice or wine, both white and red. You'll need enough for four symbolic cups: one white, one white with a bit of red in it, one red with a bit of white in it, and one red. (Since you'll be mixing the liquids to create different colors in the glass, I don't recommend using expensive wine or juice for this purpose, but that too is up to you.)

3) A haggadah that will walk you through experiencing the four worlds and consuming the symbolic tree fruits and wines / juices that facilitate each step on the journey.

There are a ton of haggadot for Tu BiShvat online, and I've shared several here over the years. Here's the one I'll be using this year, co-created by myself and my fellow Bayit co-founder Rabbi David Markus (it's an update of the one we created and shared a few years ago):

It's a digital slide show, intended to be projected on a screen. If you'll be a small group around a small table, you could just page through the slides on your laptop. 

That's all you need! If you want to be minimalist: three pieces of tree fruit, two bottles of juice, and a haggadah. If you want to be maximalist, you can arrange a table laden with tree fruits and even decorations: bare branches representing winter, leafed-out branches from the florist, photographs of trees, whatever calls to your heart. 

Living as I do in a place where this time of year is deepest midwinter, I've come to love this holiday as a first step toward the coming of spring. I hope you'll explore Tu BiShvat and see what it opens up for you, emotionally and spiritually. If you do use our haggadah, let us know what works for you and what doesn't -- we're eager to hear. Leave a comment at the Bayit Facebook page or ping us @yourbayit on Twitter and let us know your thoughts!


You can also find this haggadah archived on the Spiritual Resources page at Bayit.

What's rising in you? - a d'varling before Tu BiShvat

3241485547_7576e36723_zTonight 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.


Winter prayer among the trees



"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.

What's rising

Tap_300Maybe 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?

Tu BiShvat Resources for Our Living Planet

Cross-posted from Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.


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:

  • Rededication (pdf) - a new liturgical poem for Tu BiShvat by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
  • Blessing for Tu BiShvat (pdf) - a prayer from the original Tu BiShvat haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org
  • One page flowchart haggadah (pdf) - a one-page printable flowchart haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org
  • A digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat (slideshow / powerpoint) - a new digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat, intended for projection on a screen (to save trees!)  Liturgy, poems, prayers, video, and more. That same haggadah is available online via slideshare:

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.

Snowy Tu BiShvat

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?


Sylvan stirrings in the still and chill of winter


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.)


Tu BiShvat and self-care: a mini-d'var-Torah for Yitro

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?


Tu BiShvat in images

Asiyah Yetzi

Fruits with peels / shells, representing assiyah / action; fruits with pits, representing yetzirah / emotion;

Bri Atzi

Fruits edible throughout, representing briyah / thought; etrogcello, representing atzilut / spirit.



After services and our (slightly belated) Tu BiShvat seder: the trees sleep beneath their light coat of Shvat snow.

New essay in Zeek: on Tu BiShvat, parenthood, climate change

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.

A poem for Tu BiShvat

6846527953_6638c0d567_nTaste and see

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!

When our spiritual sap starts rising

11854688553_0ae44324f0_bYesterday 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.



Tu BiShvat bounty

 Fruits representing all four worlds:

  • assiyah (action / physicality) represented by fruits with shells or rinds: bananas and oranges and almonds.
  • yetzirah (emotions) represented by fruits with hard pits: dates, cherries, olives.
  • briyah (thought) represented by fruits which are soft all the way through: apples (and grapes, even though they're vine fruit.)
  • atzilut (essence) represented by etrogcello / strong etrog-infused spirits.
I didn't expect a big crowd for Tu BiShvat. I set up two tables and assumed that would do. Instead we had four tables' worth of people! We had to keep pulling tables out of the storage room and hastily adding them to the line. Some folks probably came because this is the first Shabbat potluck we've had in 2013. Others probably came because they were interested in Tu BiShvat. There's no telling what made each person or family decide to show up on this very cold Berkshire night, but I'm glad they did.

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 sap begins to rise

506969604_c6b985e591_mThe 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.

1694396916_dc49c4f9c4_mRashi 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.

Continue reading "The sap begins to rise" »

Another year, another batch of etrogcello

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..."

etrog peels under vodka


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.