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Act on Tu B’Shevat

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Members of Young Israel Shomrei Emunah in Silver Spring, Md., participate in a Tu B'Shevat seder on Feb. 11, 2007. ()

Members of Young Israel Shomrei Emunah in Silver Spring, Md., participate in a Tu B’Shevat seder on Feb. 11, 2007. ()

PHILADELPHIA (JTA) – Wouldn’t it seem strange if you heard that mystics had transformed April 15, income tax day, into a festival for celebrating God’s re-emergence? Yet that is what the kabbalists of Safed did in the 16th century when they re-created Tu B’Shevat.

Tu B’Shevat, the full moon of midwinter, had been important only in Holy Temple days in the calendar of tithing. It was the end of the “fiscal year” for trees. Fruit that appeared before that date was taxed for the previous year, fruit that appeared later for the following year. The Talmud called this legal date the “New Year for Trees.”

But the kabbalists saw it as the New Year for the Tree of Life itself – for God’s Own Self, for the Tree Whose roots are in Heaven and Whose fruit in the world itself and all God’s creatures. To honor the reawakening of trees and of that Tree in deep midwinter, they created a mystical seder that honors the Four Worlds of Acting, Relating, Knowing and Being.

These Four Worlds were enacted with four cups of wine and four courses of nuts and fruit. The fruit moved from less permeable to more permeable – for Acting, those with tough shells and soft, edible insides (e.g., walnuts); for Relating, those with soft outsides and hard insides (e.g., peaches); for
Knowing, those that are soft and edible all the way through (e.g., figs); for Being, fruits so “permeable” they are not tangible at all and exist only on the plane of Spirit.

The symbolic system of this seder held still deeper riches: echoes of generation and regeneration in the worlds of plants and animals.

* Nuts and fruit, the rebirthing aspects of a plant’s life cycle, are the only foods that require no death, not even the death of a plant. Our living trees send forth their fruit and seeds in such profusion that they overflow beyond the needs of the next generation.

* The four cups of wine were red, rose, pink and white. Thus they echoed generation and regeneration among animals, including the human race, for red and white were seen in ancient tradition as the colors of generativity. To mix them was to mix the blood and semen that to the ancients connoted procreation.

* The Four Worlds of the mystics also were connected with what they saw as the four primal elements of the natural world: Action, earth; Emotion, water; Intellect, air; Spirit, fire (energy). Earth, water, air and fire
must be free of poison and must be interwoven in balance if the world was to prosper.

So why did the kabbalists of Safed connect these primal urgings toward abundance with the date of tithing fruit? Because they saw that God’s “shefa,” abundance, would keep flowing only if a portion of it were returned as rent to God, the Owner of all land and all abundance.

And who were God’s rent collectors? The poor and the landless, including those priestly celebrants and teachers who owned no piece of earth and whose earthly task was to teach and celebrate.

These mystics saw a deep significance in giving. They said that to eat without blessing the Tree was robbery; to eat without feeding others was robbery. Worse, because without blessing and sharing, the flow of abundance would choke and stop.

Tu B’Shevat this year begins on the evening of Jan. 21 – ­ the day in which we celebrate the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – and runs through the next evening.

The connection is appropriate: King was himself a teacher and celebrant who risked and lost his life to forward the cause of the poor and the need for justice.

Today, even more than in King’s lifetime, the trees of the world are in danger; the poor of the world are in need; the teachers and celebrants of the world are at risk.

So Tu B’Shevat must continue to be a time for teachers and celebrants ­ to celebrate through the life-giving sacred meal of rebirth for the Tree of Life, God’s Own Self. It must also become a time for action to feed the endangered earth and the endangered poor. Both are in the greatest danger from the poisonous overload of carbon dioxide and methane that human societies are pouring into God’s wind, the “ruach ha’olam,” and from the destruction of trees that soak up the CO2.

Already the spreading desertification in Africa, the unprecedented drought in Georgia, the diminishment of the Great Lakes so they can no longer bear the vessels that bring food to the world, the Katrina hurricane – all are caused in part by the global climate crisis, global scorching. Earth, air,
water, fire – all are in danger. So Tu B’Shevat must change as it has in the past, becoming a day to act – to demand new laws and interrupt old destructions.

Today the seder might include time to write a letter to the local papers calling on Congress to strengthen and pass the Lieberman-Warner bill to combat the global climate crisis, or calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to allow states to set more earth-healing requirements for carbon dioxide emissions from autos.

Give! Share! Act! Otherwise, the flow of abundance will choke on the friction of its own outpouring,and God’s Own Self will choke on our refusal of compassion.

(Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center, the author of many books on “down-to-earth Judaism” and a frequent speaker at Jewish institutions. For information on the center’s Green Menorah Covenant campaign on the global climate crisis, go to www.shalomctr.org/taxonomy_menu/1/1.)

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