Tu Bishvat! and COVID: Making do vs. making it great

Kate Holdsworth (c) 2021, get hi-res 4 your seder @ neohasid.org/tree used with permission

Tu Bishvat is upon us!  The New Year of the Trees – the full moon falling two months before the full moon of spring equinox. In this year where every week and every season seems to last forever, in this moment when spring finally feels at least possible.

Other years I would be going to three different grocery stores, and I would end up with an array of fruits well over the thirty that the Mediterranean Kabbalists would gather for their seders – enough for 20 people or more. In New England no less!

But it’s no news to anyone that this year is radically different, as it has been for every other Jewish observance since Purim. Some of us had a normal Purim last year, while some were already in lockdown. But come one month from now, after our second Purim under COVID, we will all have had a full year of Jewish observance under these strange and painful circumstances.

Five years ago, I was basically incommunicado with the wider world on Tu Bishvat, kind of like quarantine. My mom was in the hospital for the last time, and I was staying with her, some 250 miles from home. Though I was scheduled to lead several events where I live, none of that was happening. Instead, I had the barest Tu Bishvat, joined by just arrived family for the most impromptu seder, over dates, almonds and raisins set on a rolling hospital tray-table.

We didn’t even use a haggadah, though I have half a dozen haggadot to download on my website. I just said, “now we’re in this world”, “now the next one”, etc. (“world” = level), and recited a blessing for each fruit. But it was still a precious moment to step back and reflect on momentous happenings.

Tu Bishvat is especially a time for prayers – prayers for abundance and sustenance, for beauty and revival. I don’t need to tell anyone that not all prayers get answered, but at least the small prayer five years ago that we could be together was.

Today we are swimming in resources – enough to create a stupendous or at least very sufficient seder. There are abundant websites, downloads, text sheets, mp3s and videos about trees, and probably hundreds of zoom seders to choose from. The first modern Tu Bishvat eco-seder only happened in 1976. (Jonathan Wolf in New York City created it out of whole cloth.) All this is less than 50 years old.

But the blessing of being together with just your household or pod doesn’t require all the bells and whistles. YOU CAN DO IT on your own! Even if you are not getting a Tu Bishvat box from your local shul or Jewish farm.

Here’s a super-quick version of a Tu Bishvat seder, like we did in the hospital that year: get one thing with a shell (any nut, like almond), one thing with a pit (like avocado, olive), one thing with only small seeds (like apple, pear, grape, raisin, fig), and one spice or tree with a beautiful smell (like cinnamon, cedar).  Eat or smell them in that order, and say a blessing for each one.

More than that, if you care about celebrating the Earth, make sure you also compost the fruit scraps, shells, peels etc., because that’s how to treat the stuff of life with the respect it deserves.

That’s it. But you can go up a level by reciting a little teaching and a blessing before tasting each fruit. You can sample some teachings below that also make for great discussion!

One level up from that: Get white and purple grape juice (or white and red wine, or a light-colored juice like apple and a dark-colored juice like cranberry) and drink a glass before each fruit or smell, starting with light-colored juice and adding more of the darker juice each time.

Don’t neglect to say a blessing for the juice/wine, and for the fruit – according to the Kabbalists that is the whole point: to experience and show gratitude for what the trees give us. You can find the Hebrew blessing formulas (here for example), and you can also just bless from the heart. Giving the small but holy gift of gratitude that can nourish the trees that have gifted so much to us.

Each level of fruit goes up in the degree of symbiosis it represents. Eating the seed or nut destroys it, for example, even though we may still tend the tree, while swallowing the seed and pooping it out feeds the seed and more directly participates in the tree’s life cycle. The whole Tu Bishvat seder is a celebration of the way our intertwined lives weave the world together.

A great seder doesn’t just help you feel gratitude, it also helps you articulate your own Torah. But a really great seder makes you feel connected to the divine energy coursing through Creation. Ultimately, Tu Bishvat teaches us that not only does the world sustain us, but we sustain it. And by “we” I don’t just mean humanity, but all our relations. Every level of relationship between species, including between humanity and other species, sustains the world that sustains us.

Reaching that awareness may sound extra hard this year, when so many more of us than usual are facing the illness of a parent, or the loss of work, or mourning for someone who succumbed to the virus. It may seem contradictory, but those times can become the most powerful and empowering moments to experience gratitude, to become aware of grace, and to acknowledge that in our fragility, we are sustained by an entire world.

May you be together with someone close to you for Tu Bishvat. May you have time to reflect on this moment, and on what is momentous. May you feel held by this world, and by the Holy One who created it.

 

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Here is a brief flight of texts for Tu Bishvat, with something for each world-level. You can download the artwork at the head of this article here.

1. Nuts with shells – עשיה  Asiyah Doing (Walnut)

“I went down to the nut garden…” With the walnut/ egoz, you take one from the pile, and all of them scatter and roll, one after the other. So too with Israel: strike one of them, and all of them feel it.  (Song of Songs Rabbah 6:11)

Likewise, when a single species is endangered, the entire ecosystem is shaken and affected.  (From The Trees Are Davening Tu Bishvat Haggadah)

Blessed be You, Creator of tree fruit / borei p’ri ha’eitz!

2. Fruit with pits– world of יצירה  Y’tsirah  Making (Olive)

“And the dove came in [to the ark] at evening, and here, an olive leaf / aleh zayit torn off in her mouth.” (Gen. 8:9) From where did she bring it? Rabbi Bibi said: The gates of the Garden of Eden were opened for her. Rabbi Abahu said: If she came from the garden of Eden, wouldn’t she bring something special, cinnamon or balsam? But she was hinting to Noah: Better is bitterness from this place rather than sweetness from your hand.   (Genesis Rabbah 33:6)

Blessed be You, Creator of tree fruit / borei p’ri ha’eitz!

3. Fruit whose seeds you can swallow – world of בריה  B’riyah  Creating (Fig)

Rabbi Yochanan said: Why is it written [about wisdom], “The one who guards a fig-tree will eat its fruit”? (Prov. 27:18) In what way are words of Torah compared to a fig / t’einah? With a fig-tree, whenever one searches her, one finds [ripe] figs in her [because they don’t ripen at once, but some each day]. So too with words of Torah: whenever a person meditates upon them, he finds [new] meaning/ta`am טעם (taste).  (Talmud Eruvin 54a-b)

Blessed be You, Creator of tree fruit / borei p’ri ha’eitz!

4. Beautiful plant smells – world of אצילות  Atsilut  Emanation (Cedar)

R’ Yochanan said: The world was not worthy to make use of the cedars, for they were created only for the needs of the Temple that makes all holy.   (Genesis Rabbah 15:1)

For one hundred and twenty years Noah planted cedars and cut them down [in order to build the ark without cutting down any existing trees].    (Genesis Rabbah 30:7)

Blessed be You, Creator of fragrant plants / borei atzei b’samim!

From The Ultimate Text Crunching Sheet for Tu Bishvat

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and a well-acclaimed English translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer.
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