As my feet crunch through the frozen snow, it’s hard to imagine that anything will wake up and start growing soon. Yet I am still hopeful, because in a few weeks we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the hidden awakening of the land. As I walk down this country road, I can see sugar maples with tubes attached to their trunks. It reminds me that in New England we too celebrate this first promise of spring. When the maple sap starts a-risin’ up from the roots in New England’s trees, sugar shacks become filled with steam as they boil the sap down into sweet amber syrup.
Our sages teach that on the full moon of Shevat the trees of Israel awaken from their winter dormancy. New leaf buds need sugar to grow, but they can’t make any new sugar until they grow their leaves back. To solve this annual dilemma, trees slurp up last year’s sap that was stored in their roots. The sap rises from roots to shoot, and nourishes baby leaf and flower buds. This is the very beginning of the fruiting process, so our ancestors called it, “Rosh Hashanah of the Tree.” Farmers used this date to divide the tithing of one year’s fruit crop from the next.
When the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Tu B’Shevat went underground, like a seed waiting to be germinated. In 1492 Spanish explorers sailed the ocean blue, while hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain. The center of the Jewish mystical tradition transplanted itself from Spain to the northern mountains of Israel. Since Tu B’Shevat was originally called, “New year of THE TREE” (not “trees”), the kabbalists developed rituals to celebrate the renewal of THE TREE, the great cosmic Tree of Life.
On “Rosh Hashanah for the People” we work on healing and sanctifying our relationships with people. On “Rosh Hashanah for the Tree” we work on healing and sanctifying our relationship with nature. During the seder, we recite blessings over fruit and practice eating more mindfully. Kabbalah was long kept hidden from the public out of fear that someone might use it for the dark arts or idolatry. In Jewish mysticism, nature is not worshipped separately from God. Rabbi A.J. Heschel once wrote, “When a Jew prays among the trees, the trees are also facing God and shukeling (swaying) along with him.” Maimonides taught us to, “think of the entire earth as one individual being endowed with life, motion and a soul.” In Kabbalah, nature is likened to the turtle’s shell. Nature is the shell on the surface that hides and protects the Divine life within. We begin the Tu B’Shevat seder by peeling the dead husk off of a fruit to symbolically reveal the hidden life force within.
If you want to experience this ritual firsthand, please join us at Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich. On Feb. 6 at 6 p.m., we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat as part of our musical Friday night service and dinner. Instead of eating apples dipped in honey, we will eat apples dipped in maple syrup (yum!). We will sing traditional Jewish songs about trees and the land of Israel, and with Torah, we will renew our connection to the Tree of Life.
As Rabbi Shalom Noach Berzhovsky said, “Every renewal in nature activates the power for renewal within a person.... The Torah says, ‘a person is like a tree of the field.’ When the natural world is renewed in Israel, when our land wears a garment of newness, it also affects our bodies.”
AARON PHILMUS is rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.