The secular world has just passed the Gregorian reckoning of the New Year of 2013. But for Jews this isn’t a New Year. For those of you who have heard Bob’s teachings concerning the Jewish calendar then you’ll know that the New Year is not January 1st. But in case we seem like party poopers, you should know that we don’t have one New Year’s Day, we have four! - 1st Nisan; 1st Elul; 1st Tishrei; and 15th Shvat. At a time in the calendar divested of leaves and greenness but rich in magic and metaphor, when the land of Israel is experiencing the end of the cold winter and the budding of the springtime to come, Jewish tradition establishes on Tu B’Shvat, on the 15th day of the month of Shvat, (Jan 26) the beginning of nature’s flowering, the New Year of the Trees.
The image par excellence of creativity and rebirth, the holiday has undergone changes in “foliage” over time, from the establishment of its Judaic economic and social trunk in the times of the Talmud to the subsequent unfolding of its mystical branches under the influence of Tzfat Kabbalism. With the establishment of political Zionism in the nineteenth century, and in present-day Israel, Tu B’Shvat symbolizes rebirth and the redemption of the land as well as our indissoluble bond with it.
But Tu B’Shvat comprises not only a social meaning and shared expression in the act of planting trees and seeds or in activities involving ecology and preservation of the environment, but also a commemoration: it offers a glimpse into the inward constitution of every living being. Tu B’Shvat invites us on a journey through our internal winter to find the beginnings of the first bloom. The Torah says that man is like the tree of the field (Deut. 20:19); therefore his growth implies the deepening of his roots to penetrate the darkness of the ground that feeds those roots. Only by confronting his feelings born in the darkness will he grow in the search for the light and warmth of the sun.
Tu B’Shvat reminds us through its metaphors that in our most private self, as in nature, there often is a crossing from the dark emotions we harbor (and dark ones are inevitably part of the human condition) into the gentle, warm, and happy territories of more harmonious and placid states of mind. This is the idea outlined by the Kabbalists and taken up in the Seder of Tu B’Shvat when we eat the seven fruits of Eretz Israel – the shivat ha minim – together with the four glasses of wine accompanied by the corresponding blessings; we are every single one of the shivat ha minim with their distinctive characteristics, and even though at different times in our lives one of these characteristics may predominate over the others, each one is a part of us.
Tu B’Shvat reminds us every year that of necessity, the sweetness of fruits is nourished by the darkness – the sometimes bitter darkness – of winter. In the hope that we might be able to get through the cold of winter, convinced and encouraged by the sweetness of the fruits—which we will have helped to grow—that arrive with the first fragrance of spring.