RABBI SCHOENBERG'S EREV SHABBAT MESSAGE PARASHAT BO
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The winter of our social distancing continues, and we might despair: will spring, will sufficient vaccine, will family gatherings ever return? In the midst of this dark season, our rabbis in their wisdom instituted a small holiday, Tu BeShevat, meaning "15th Day of Shevat." What makes this day special?
In Israel, the heavy winter rains have tapered off. The sap that brings food to the limbs of the trees starts to rise. In the Mishnah, the next book of holy laws after the Bible, Tu BeShevat is designated as the "New Year of the Tree." Certain mitzvoth in the Torah make it important to know the age of trees:
· The Torah says we may not eat the fruit of a tree until the fourth year after it was planted.
· The Torah requires farmers to give a tithe (one tenth) of all the crops they grow during the year to the Holy Temple
It was too hard to expect farmers to remember exactly when they planted each tree in their orchards. So trees planted in the spring, summer or fall season before the winter rainy season all had their birthday on Tu B'Shevat. As long as Jews were predominantly farmers in their own land, Tu BeShevat served an important agricultural purpose.
But Jewish history took other paths: first we became craftspeople in towns in the Holy Land. Then we took our urban skills into the cities of the Roman Empire and Europe in the West, the Sassanian Empire and Arabia in the East. The holiday of Tu BeShevat no longer seemed relevant to the lives of our ancestors.
After the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were forced to leave the land of Israel, the original purpose of Tu B'Shevat was not needed. The rules about plantings and giving part of the crops to the Temple don't apply outside of Israel. But Jews kept celebrating Tu B'Shevat as a way to demonstrate their love for the land of Israel.
In modern times, Tu B'Shevat has taken on a new meaning. When the early pioneers cane to the Holy Land over 100 years ago, the land was swampy and barren after centuries of war and neglect. All the trees had been felled to build the Ottoman railroad. Poor peasants eked out meager livings trying to farm plots that were part of vast estates owned by absentee Ottoman landlords.
On the swamp land abandoned even by the peasants, the pioneers planted trees to make the land bloom again. In Israel, Tu B'Shevat is a day for planting trees. Children leave their classrooms to go out into the fields to plant hundreds of saplings. Jewish children all over the world contribute to the effort of growing new trees. Tu B'Shevat reminds modern Jews of the story of creating the modern State of Israel.
We celebrate Tu B'Shevat to connect to our ancestors who lived peacefully as farmers in Israel for thousands of years. We celebrate Tu B'Shevat to help reforest our modern State of Israel.
For the mystics, there is an additional reason for celebrating Tu B'Shevat. The Mishnah,
the holy book, uses striking language when it mandates a New Year honoring Trees. The text calls it Rosh Hashsana la-Ilan. the New Year of the Tree, in the singular. For the Jewish mystics, the Tree is an important symbol of the Divine. The tree has a magnificent structure we can see: the trunk, branches, leaves, fruit. It also has an amazing structure usually hidden from the human eye: its extensive root structure that anchors it to the ground and helped improve the soil around it. Similarly, the mystics taught that we see the Divine on earth through the blessings in our lives and the kindnesses we do one another, but there is an entire aspect of God that it beyond our perception, an entire root system, as it were.
For our mystics, calling Tu BeShevat the New Year of the Tree suggested mystic understandings of human connection to the Divine Tree of Life. In the 16th century in the city of Tzefat in northern Israel, a group of Jewish mystics gathered together to celebrate Tu B'Shevat. Their leader, Rabbi Isaac Luria, created a Tu B'Shevat Seder. They assembled around a beautiful table decorated with candles and sweet-smelling flowers. They ate the fruits of Israel and drank four cups of wine. The mystics studied parts of the Bible and Talmud that mention trees. They wrote down their Seder in a book called "Pree Etz Hadar"- "The Fruit of the Beautiful Tree." For the mystics, the focus was on the Kabbalistic understanding of the Tree of Life, their connection to the Divine during a meal of companionship and ritual.
Our rabbis imagined both heaven and hell as sitting around a a beautiful table. The say that during Tu BeShevat, a mystic was so transported that she saw a vision. Her guide took her to hell, where she saw poor souls seated before a table laden with tasty treats. But attached to the arms of each of the souls was a spoon so long that they could not bring the food they scooped up to their mouths. The people groaned and sighed, but as much as they tried, they could not bring the tempting morsels to their lips. The mystics shuddered by the pain and despair of this vision. 'Oh these poor souls," she exclaimed. I bet now they wish they had been good enough to get to heaven and be free of those wretched spoons. No said the guide in surprise. Heaven looks the same. Only in heaven, people have figured out that they can feed each other.
Tu BeShevat teaches us: by caring for each other, by feeding each other, we can find heaven.