The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat began last night. While it’s a minor holiday, it’s one I can’t help but love. It’s the new year for trees; that’s right, trees. It just tickles me that we have a holiday that celebrates trees!
It all started several millennia ago, when the Hebrews tithed tree fruit to support the priests and their families. Times have changed, and the holiday has changed with it. When I was a child, it was a holiday for planting trees or donating money for trees to be planted in Israel. And while there are no traditional foods for the holiday like latkes on Chanukah, it is customary to eat dried fruits and nuts.
Why in the winter?
Now one might ask why celebrate trees in winter, when they are barren? Why not wait until spring? And these would be good questions. But while winter still lingers in my home town of Portland, the almond trees in Israel are just beginning to bud. It’s the beginning of spring in the lands where the holiday began. And while spring has not started where I live, the days are getting longer. Even though we do not see buds forming, there are transformations inside the tree that we don’t see. It is these transformations that make trees such wonderful metaphors for personal growth, and why this is a good time of year for the holiday.
I find the metaphor of internal transformation within trees a powerful one. How often have we gone through times of transformation that we don’t even recognize or appreciate until later? I think of times when my son has worked on changing a swim stroke. For months he works to improve, but at first it seems like his swimming gets worse. It’s not until later, after a ton of hard work, that he finally sees noticeable improvement. And then there is my writing. I spend months crafting stories and setting words down on the page, but it is not until I’ve finished a manuscript that the story truly comes alive for the reader. It takes time to change and create, and for a long time the impact seems invisible to ourselves and others, but just because the day-to-day steps are hard to perceive doesn’t mean we won’t reach our spring.
Kabbalah and Seders
Jews have often used trees as metaphors. We have the Tree of Knowledge of Life and Death and we have the Tree of Life, which connects the physical and spiritual worlds. Kabbalists studied the hidden meanings in the holy texts and charted their mystical teachings on a diagram of the Tree of Life. They gave it ten branches or sefirot, which we can use to climb to higher spiritual contexts. Recently, some Jewish groups have started celebrating the Kabbalistic meaning of Tu B’Shevat with seders, similar to the seder for Passover but with its own symbolism. In the article “An Original Environmental Tu B’Shvat Ritual”, Rabbi Goldie Milgram and Kayla Niles, describe a Tu B’Shevat seder. I don’t always get to attend a seder, but I still celebrate by taking time to appreciate the trees surrounding my home and anticipate the coming of spring.