Tu BiShvat – Teaching Vulnerability

Growing up, I always felt particularly connected to trees.  I remember how I found this big tree on the kindergarten playground and felt this sense of connection when I sat or played under it – I felt like the tree could hear me, support me, and protect me from the chaos of other kids when I needed a few minutes of quiet.  And yet, Tu BiShvat, the holiday of trees, never really spoke to me.

Tu Bishvat is the Rosh HaShanah for trees (1). It is the day on which we count the age of trees to determine when we can pick their fruit.  A tree’s fruit cannot be taken for the first 3 years of its life – this is known as orlah.  It is also the day on which we calculate the amount that we should tithe.  It’s a very practical marking of time.

Over a thousand years later, Tu BiShvat gains another layer of meaning when the kabbalists create the Tu Bishvat seder.  They developed a set order of eating particular types of fruits and drinking four glasses of wine with appropriate blessings, and believed that this ritual would bring us, and the world, closer to spiritual wholeness, through reflecting on symbolic meanings of trees and its produce.  I had been to several Tu Bishvat seders over the years and even helped organize a few, but it seemed forced to me – it seemed like trying to fit an sequence of fruits into the structure of the incredibly rich Pesach seder.

But then I realized what I had been missing.  I realized that there is another narrative embedded in the Tu Bishvat seder that has resonated with me:  vulnerability.

The Tu Bishvat seder leads its participants through four worlds*

  1. Assiyah or action
  2. Yetzirah or formation
  3. Briyah or creation
  4. Atzilut or emanation

Each world has a category of fruit and a glass of wine associated with it.

As we transition from one world to the next, we move from fruits with a thick shell or peel, like a walnut or an orange, and gradually move to fruit that is completely edible.  With each world, we move closer and closer to being fully vulnerable to the world around us. To allow yourself to be truly vulnerable may be one of the hardest things that we encounter.  Even when patients of mine would receive terrible news in the hospital, many of them tried as hard as they could to appear to be okay, to put up that thick skin, to not let the world around them realize how much they were hurting.  And how little control they had over their impending brokenness.

The Tu Bishvat seder pushes us to become vulnerable even when nothing catastrophic is happening in our lives.  Even in our day-to-day lives, we each face decision points in which we can allow ourselves to take risks and be vulnerable or we can continue to raise the fence around our inner, tender selves and stay static.  Brene Brown gave a TED Talk on vulnerability and explains how she asked others to define the term.   She said,  “I sent something out on Twitter and on Facebook that says, “How would you define vulnerability? What makes you feel vulnerable?” And within an hour and a half, I had 150 responses. Because I wanted to know what’s out there. Having to ask my husband for help because I’m sick, and we’re newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying off people — this is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.”(2)

Vulnerability is everywhere and numbing it – or avoiding it – is an easy answer.  You are thinking about asking someone out, but there’s a chance that they might say no.  If they said no, it would hurt and expose your vulnerability.  Instead of letting yourself be vulnerable, you walk away and never ask.  But you never know – opening up and sharing your feelings may just lead to something incredible.  And conversely, when you are faced with something terrifying or heartbreaking, allowing yourself to name the fears and losses and share them with someone – a friend, a rabbi, a chaplain – can help you find solace.  It won’t make the situation disappear, but it may allow you to find a sense of meaning or healing or release.

To be human is to be vulnerable even though we spend our lives trying to run away from that fact.  The Tu BiShvat seder calls upon us to stop running.  It reminds us that the fear of vulnerability – of being truly visible – is part of nature.  But different elements of the natural world have different levels of vulnerability.  And so it is with us.  An orange will always be an orange – a thick-skinned, protected fruit, but we human beings have the power to transform ourselves and shed some of our skin.

The four worlds and us:

Assiyah (action):  When we keep ourselves busy, we may be trying to distract ourselves from the things that keep us up at night:  wondering if we are doing anything that matters in our lives, feeling that we aren’t being a good enough partner or friend or parent or sibling, worrying about the news that a doctor gave us.  I have found myself at times creating incredibly busy schedules for myself only to realize that by being so busy, I may actually be trying to hide from the big internal projects that I have been meaning to tackle for some time.  Our defenses are up.  The fruits that are associated with this world are ones with the thick skin or shell, an inedible outside but an edible inside: orange, banana, walnut, almond, and pomegranate.  In this part of the seder, we also drink a glass of white wine.  You might look at a glass of white wine and think that its transparency doesn’t fit in this world, but perhaps it is actually the transparency that makes it appropriate for this world in which our inner selves are not visible to the outside world, or often, even to ourselves.  You can’t see the substance in the wine – you see right through it to the other side of the glass

Yetzirah (formation): The power of creativity lies in how we see and interact with the world around us.  In order to reach into your ability to form something new, that run-do-go-keep-going energizer bunny of assiyah needs to slow down.  You need to pause, to look around, to notice, to reflect.  To connect ideas and images.  To form something new, you need to know what is already around you and what is missing.  God saw the tohu vavohu – the chaos – and knew that there could be something more, so God formed the world, beginning with lightness and darkness an culminating in human life.  That outer layer of the fruit is no longer impenetrable – creation demands interaction.  So the fruits of yetzirah are ones with an edible outside but an inedible center: dates, olives, apricots, plums, nectarines.  Even though the person is interacting with the people and environment around them, there is still that hard pit that holds their vulnerable core.  That is still not exposed to others but you are beginning to reflect on your own emotions internally.  The wine glass for this world is mixed – it is half white wine and half red wine – you can see the interaction between the two as the wine becomes pinkish.

Briyah (creation): To create something entirely new – whether a relationship, a business, or the great American novel, you need to put yourself on the line.  That proposal could fail.  But, of course, it could also thrive and become the most critical piece of your identity moving forward.  In the world of a hospital patient struggling to face a painful diagnosis, briyah is when they turn the corner from bargaining and begin to accept what stands before them.  The fruits in briyah are ones that are entirely edible – you are exposed now.  Think of a strawberry or blueberry or cranberry.  This glass of wine is ¼ white and ¾ red.  If the red wine symbolizes your core – your spirit, your hopes, your dreams, your fears, your longing – more and more of it is now visible to the naked eye.

Atzilut (emanation): We will never become perfect, yet we keep striving to nearer and nearer to our ideal selves each year.  On Yom Kippur, the measure is not only against a perfect, blameless year, but also about whether or not we have been able to inch a bit closer to that kind of year since we know that perfection will always be just out of reach.  We are human.  We will always make mistakes even when we strive not to do so.  So too with vulnerability.  We will never be completely transparent to our deepest vulnerabilities but our lives will be fuller if we can become more vulnerable than we are today.  The world of atzilut is emanation – fully radiating our souls, completely sharing our selves that we hold so tightly to ourselves.  Atzilut is always going to be just out of reach, but it should continue to be our aspiration.  Its fruit isn’t fruit at all.  In its place is only spiritual sustenance.  The glass of wine is now fully red.  Our selves are now fully visible.

If we don’t know what to aim for, we will be much less likely to get there.  But these four worlds give us a map.

You might choose to plant a tree today.  I will water the herb garden that I am trying hard to keep alive.  But perhaps more importantly, ask yourself, “Which of these worlds am I standing in right now?” What are the barriers to moving to the next world between this Tu BiShvat and next?”

*  Inspiration and ideas for this come from the Hazon Tu BiShavat Haggadah,

(1) Rosh HaShanah 1:1


About the Author
Jill Cozen-Harel is a rabbi who lives in San Francisco. Among other things, she has worked as a chaplain and educator.