BY RABBI BARRY COHEN
Imagine a holiday so all-pervasive that it encompasses the preciousness of each person’s internal holiness with the grandeur of the creation of the cosmos.
Tu B’Shvat is that holiday.
This “New Year of the Trees” begins at sunset on Feb. 5. Originally, it was related to the taxes that landowners had to pay for their various trees, including citrus, almonds, olives and pistachios, among others.
In time, as we became a Diaspora people, Tu B’Shvat kept us connected with the land of Israel and represented dreams to return to the Promised Land.
The North American Jewish community continued the evolution of Tu B’Shvat by connecting it with the environmental movement in the 1970s. This holiday embraced the notion that we are always to be caretakers of the land. Moreover, Tu B’Shvat taught how we are intimately interconnected with the environment, not above and beyond it. In that spirit, Tu B’Shevat has motivated us to respond to unregulated pollution, the degradation of the ozone layer and even how humanity has caused climate change, which represents an existential crisis.
In this way, Tu B’Shvat has evolved from a particularistic, minor holiday based in the land of Israel to a generalized concern about the health and welfare of our entire planet.
But of note, Tu B’Shvat also evolved in the opposite direction, to address the status of each person’s unique internal holiness. We owe this to the mystical Kabbalists. They created a Tu B’Shvat seder, modeled on the Passover seder, which features eating a variety of foods as inspiration to improve our spiritual selves. Doing so increased God’s presence in the world and connected the participants conceptually to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
The Kabbalists teach that there are four levels of creation: Azilut, divine emanation; Beriah, creation itself; Yetzirah, the creative process; and Assiyah, the physical entities that are the products of creation.
The Tu B’Shvat seder ritually attempts to express these levels of creation. That being said, Azilut is purely spiritual and cannot be symbolized in a concreate way. We express Beriah by eating fruits that have neither pits on the inside nor shells on the outside. We experience Yetzirah by eating foods with pits on the inside. Finally, we enjoy Assiyah by eating foods that have an outside shell that must be discarded.
When we take part in this seder, we recognize that food connected with the land of Israel is not just food to be consumed for the sake of calories in order to exist. We eat first to reconnect with nature and then, step by step, transcend toward godliness.
At the same time, we learn about our inherent holiness, as represented by the parts of the food we can eat, and that which protects the holy, as represented by shells and pits.
Tu B’Shvat in part reminds us both to embrace and to protect our inherent holiness. We can fulfill our obligation of self-protection by eating well, getting enough sleep, periodically exercising and resting … and in general developing healthy habits.
When we do so, we are able to reach beyond ourselves. Simultaneously, we can reconnect with the land, nurture it and protect it; and we can transcend toward God and continue the creation of our world.
Have a chag sameach/joyous Tu B’Shvat. The health and welfare of our individual souls and the balance of the universe depends on it.
Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area. firstname.lastname@example.org