Can a person ever really change their nature? Can I?
There are moments as a parent — and as a person — when I feel I have had it. When patterns of behavior (mine or my children’s) make me feel like I am locked in an endless repetitive cycle. Why are they behaving this way? Why is this how I choose to respond again and again? Our daily battles over screen time or mealtime. The mismatch of their desires and my expectations.
During another season of the year, like the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, personal change is the language of the day. At that time, it lines up with a clear process. Teshuvah invites me to work through what’s going wrong to get to something working right again. It’s like the Jewish 12 steps.
In the late summer months the metaphor of the Book of Life calls to me. How will each of my actions be counted and weighed? Will they bring more life or more death to the world? Can I be more generous, loving and caring to those around me, or will pettiness, small-mindedness and indifference take over? The metaphor of God as a judging King creates high stakes. It’s an “or else” relationship to the spiritual world.
Today in the chillier weather of winter, the metaphor for change with Tu B’Shevat is more gentle and gradual. It’s an “I’m here no matter what” relationship with the spiritual world. Here we are, midway through the year, celebrating one of four New Years (Rosh Hashanah is only one of them, Tu B’Shevat is a second). In one of the rainiest, snowiest, and coldest months, the physical world beckons us inside: inside our coats, homes and down comforters, and inside of ourselves, too. Introspection during this season can take on a different tone. We long for change the way we long for the change of seasons, for the buds that are beginning to blossom, for the way that the seeds in the ground long to grow again.
The change of Tu B’shevat reminds us that change happens in an ecosystem. Every tree, blade of grass and patch of earth has a role to play in the health of the system. So too with our families. We let in what is healthy, and we let out what is not. And like the trees, the blades of grass and the patches of earth, each member of our family also plays a role. My daughter will tell me, “Why do you need to yell, Imma? You can just speak to me in words.” She’s right. I should try harder to control my impatience. But she will learn to cooperate as well. We are all a part of the system. A shift in my behavior may also cause a gentle shift in hers, too.
The changes of Tu B’Shevat invite us to learn from nature, to observe the natural process of change and growth we see around us. Be open to it, whispering something true to you about your nature. Falling and failing are a part of the natural process. So is growth.
My teacher, Rute Yair-Nussbaum, asked her students the question last week, “Why do we eat fruit on Tu B’Shevat and not vegetables?” Dried fruits like apricots, dates, figs and pomegranates are plentiful on the Tu B’Shevat seder plate, a ritual tradition that began with the Jewish mystics around the 16th century, not cucumbers and carrots. Rute’s answer is that fruit is process. Fruit grows from trees and when they have reached their fullness, fall, and decay, and their seeds, the very essence of the thing, are planted and grow again. The cycle of growing, falling, and longing to grow again is what we celebrate on Tu B’Shevat.
Even in that gestation time, of the seeds buried deep beneath the hard winter soil, there is movement. There is potential.
Each Jewish holiday calls to us. Rabbi Irwin Kula guided writer Abigail Pogrebin in her book, My Jewish Year, asking “What is the yearning to which the holiday is a response?” Every holiday invites us to open up a part of our soul that was kept hidden before. My yearning is for growth this season. It is to recognize that growth comes not because we alter our nature, but rather because it is an intrinsic part of our nature. Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s poet laureate writes
הגעגועים הם הפרי
,המעשים והדברים שבאמת קורים בעולם
הם הפרחים שנובלים מהר ולא נשארים
הפרי נשאר קצת יותר ובו זרעים לגעגועים הבאים
השורש נשאר באדמה
Longing, that’s the fruit.
Actions and words that inhabit the world
They are the flowers that fade quickly and don’t remain
The fruit lasts a bit longer and inside are the seeds for the longing yet to come
The root remains in the ground