Sarah Ruth Hoffman

Tu B’Shevat, Lunar Eclipse, and #GamAni

A tree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2018).
A tree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2018).

I was born on Tu B’Shevat. I think about my own renewal on this date each year. It is also my favorite of the holidays for some ineffable reason.

This year, the holiday begins with a total lunar eclipse. It is the middle of the month, and thus a full moon. The next full moon will bring Purim, and the one after that Pesach. On this journey, we first pass through an agricultural holiday, a new year for the trees, with a meditation on the four worlds, then we pass through a holiday of victory with a feminine victor, and finally one of freedom — a journey into the wide unknown.

Tonight’s [Sunday night’s] total eclipse might be viewed as something with many contemplative implications, especially with the recent uptick in anti-Semitic activity and revelations regarding the widespread problem of rabbinic sex abuse and sexual misconduct in the Jewish professional world — or perhaps just as something beautiful to add to the evening for those who are beyond the bonds of their nature. Or perhaps somewhere between — a little bit of both.

There may be winter, with the concealment of the flowers and the fruits, and some winters especially cold, with the concealment of the moon itself. But always, there is a spring to follow: “In a way, winter is the real spring – the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.”-Edna O’Brien

On this holiday and especially in light of the eclipse, we must bear in mind that a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. In other words, manifestations of G-d and divinity are not divinity or G-d in themselves. To conflate the object with its creator is idolatry. While we do have a holiday that celebrates trees, some superstitions about eclipses, and a calendar based on astronomical phenomena, we are not worshipers of nature. We are not worshiping the trees, or prostrating to the full moon. Let us remember that, and its deeper implications.

The chief implication is that ours is not a faith that worships the mere physical and devalues human life, lowering it to the level of mere physical phenomenon. We are beyond nature. We must be respected as such, and respect ourselves and each other as divinely unique. Each one of us is on a journey: “Only the human being has to power to grow, mature and change, because he or she is a reflection of G‑d, who is unlimited.”

With this comes a great deal of responsibility, including the responsibility to overcome the bonds of nature and to blossom into our fullest potential as distinct individuals with unique fruits to deliver to the world. For it is said“The righteous shall flourish like the date palm; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Remember, the physical is a metaphor only, and not the totality of our being.


In this day and age, in this lowest of worlds, the physical often takes precedence over the spiritual, and human beings are made into sex objects rather than sexual beings with autonomy and sanctity. As often discussed in my blog, even our rabbis are eclipsed by their own predatory sexual compulsions, unable to escape the bonds of animalistic nature, even going so far as to twist kabbalah and spiritual truth as a means to their sexual gratification. And their boards of directors and rabbinical and congregational associations eclipse their own potential by prostrating to money and concerns about liability while marginalizing, belittling, and dehumanizing victims. Bystanders remain silent, or even complain that the victims came forth, much like the people complained to Moses about being taken out of Egypt. We are eclipsed as a people when we should be flourishing like the date palm.


When the opportunity for informed consent is taken away from us through unwanted touching, unwanted penetration, coercion, or fraud, our free will is diminished. Is not free will a defining element of our humanity? And herein lies the dehumanization inherent in sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, and all forms of sexual violence, no matter how small they may appear to onlookers.

When the opportunity for informed consent is taken away from us through unwanted touching, unwanted penetration, coercion, or fraud, our free will is diminished. Is not our free will a defining element of our humanity?

The essence, and perhaps relevance, of the #metoo/#gamani movement resides in the truth that informed consent is necessary to honor the human being as a full human being endowed with free will, and not a mere object. Those who cry #metoo are crying for a restoration of the sanctity of sexuality and humanity.

Those who cry #metoo are crying for a restoration of the sanctity of sexuality and humanity.

Of what significance is it, this year, to have an eclipse of the moon on a day that we consider our renewal, the four worlds, the tree of life and nature, and begin our three-full-moon journey towards freedom? Just as the moon reflects the sun’s light, man reflects G-d — or at least he is supposed to. What does it say that the moon is concealed tonight [Sunday night], big as it is and as much potential as it has to shine?

How interesting, this synchronicity between scientific wonders and human behavior. Coincidence or not — we can use this moment as a catalyst for contemplation. How has our behavior, including denial, minimization, and outright cover-up of abuse (and abuse itself) concealing of G-d and our divine potential? How do the common reactions to the Kavanaugh situation reveal a problematic kavana in how we approach sexuality in 21st Century America? 


Some closing thoughts and musings, to inspire our personal spiritual repertoire on this day:

  1. Trees are worth considering for their contributions to physical reality. Gratitude feels good to cultivate, and a day of cultivating gratitude for trees is always really uplifting.
  2. It is a whole day to consider trees as more than plants, but as a spiritual metaphor. (Should we re-name the holiday “Tree of Life” day?) It is also a day to consider trees as beings in their own right — beings that we have responsibilities towards. How are we doing in terms of being good stewards of nature? Of our own nature? Of our impulse control?
  3. Tree art is soothing to the soul. Judaism has the tree of life. Buddhism as the wheel of life. Both are often gorgeous, intricate works of art, with timeless spiritual teachings built in.
  4. You can celebrate by planting a tree, taking a hike in a forest, and mindfully just being in nature. These days, an agricultural holiday might lose its relevance, as many of us are several generations removed from toiling in the soil. It is a good thing to reconnect, and to consider our place in the lineage, the continuity, of our long family tree(s).
  5. It is a day that we can taste the foods mentioned in the Torah, which we’ve been reading about all year. We now get to taste these foods, thus putting ourselves more in the shoes of its characters. That shift in perspective can be really (spiritually) fruitful.
  6. It makes us feel connected to Israel, through the foods we eat, the trees we pay to have planted there, and the knowledge that the date itself is relevant to the seasons in Israel.
  7. Trying a new fruit every year is increasingly challenging. It forces us to expand our horizons, to look beyond what we know is possible and into the full breadth of the potential for our lives.
  8. The seder leftovers create a festive mood all week. Uplifting fruits, nuts, juices…
  9. The seder is a non-intimidating, simple way to engage people who are eager to learn about Judaism. If they like what they see, the just might come to your Passover Seder a few months later. (The point is not to gain converts, but to gain allies and to combat ignorance.)
  10. It is a wonderful holiday for showing Judaism as a multifaceted religion. There is the practical, agricultural significance, as well as the more overtly mystical tradition. It shows Jewish life to be robust, dynamic, and nurturing of the whole person — beautifully superimposing spiritual and physical reality in a way that is perhaps more transparent than on other holidays.
  11. The four worlds is an invitation to reflect on the year before and where we feel that we are at, spiritually and emotionally, as individuals. Finding our sense of proximity to G-d, self, and the world is a good assessment to take time for on an annual basis. Do I feel like a walnut, a date, an apple, or a fig? Some years I feel like I am cold, and a thick protective layer is keeping me from my own happiness. Other years I am in a place where I feel like a fig, sweet and completely melted or melt-able into the universe. If I’m not being honest with myself about something in a particular year, I might find that I feel like an apricot, with a pit between me and my own truth. Perhaps one year, I will be beyond describing myself with fruit!
  12. Given that “man is a tree of the field,” it need not be your birthday to contemplate your own personal renewal on this day. Considering myself like a tree: (1) How firmly am I rooted? (2) How tall have I grown? (3) Am I in need of nutrients, water, sunlight? Has anything made this an especially nurturing or exasperating year? Do I need a change in soil? (4) What fruits am I about to bear? How will they benefit the world? This is a time to contemplate what has been, what is, and what is coming.


A tree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2018).




About the Author
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of any organization that she is affiliated with. Sarah Ruth Hoffman was a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when an older male rabbi (now suspended by his rabbinical association) groomed, raped, and abused her. She has since completed the PhD and converted to Orthodox Judaism. She continues to write as part of her healing, and she often writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from the ongoing sexual violence that was inextricably linked to roles and scripts in Jewish institutions. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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