Friday, January 29, 2010

Tu B'Shvat: Ode to Trees

Spoiler Alert: I'll be using some of this material for my remarks on Shabbat morning here...

The Jewish Arbor Day

That's how my Religious School teachers explained Tu B'Shvat (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat - WHICH BEGINS TONIGHT) to me when I was a kid.  But - if you don't know what Arbor Day is (did you when you were a kid???), then how is that remotely useful?!

My issues aside...Tu B'Shvat is our tradition's annual celebration of the tree.

Sure...Our Jewish tradition has a lot to say about how important trees are.  (We'll get to that in a second.)  But, my earliest memory about learning that trees are worthy of celebration comes from the movies. 

Am I the only one out there that LOVES Superman II?  Cannot get enough of that movie.  (For those that haven't seen the movie, check out the You Tube video below, which is a very contemporary-style trailer with clips from the 1980 film.)

Anyway, I bring up Superman II, because there is a scene in the middle of the movie, when Lex Luther reaches Superman's crystal palace (or whatever that place in the Arctic is called), and starts putting in crystals into the "crystal computer" device that Superman used to learn everything about his background.  Anyway, Lex Luther randomly chooses a crystal that is intended to teach Superman about...the beauty of trees!  If you listen closely to the audio of the film, you can hear the recorded voice of Superman's mother reciting Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees."  You can click here for the audio clip from the film (the first few seconds of the clip are something totally un-related - be patient!).

Although it's such a miniscule detail, I always thought that this was one of the great nuggets of the film...that Lex Luther: a criminal mind who could not possibly care less about the earth, our environment, or natural resources, would choose a crystal from the 'computer library' that celebrates all things green.

(We'll be looking at a more serious text in services this weekend about the beauty and importance of trees...)

But beyond celebrating trees in general, Tu B'Shvat presents us with the opportunity to step back and contemplate the nature of our lives and relationships, through the lens of our planet's trees.

For example, there is a longstanding Jewish mystical tradition to consider trees, by thinking about the nature of the fruit that they produce.  Low and behold, our rabbis came up with a 'fruit hierarchy' (kind of like the Tu B'Shvat version of the Food Pyramid!).  In this hierarchy, the nature of the fruits that we eat represents the kind of people that we are, and the kind of relationships that we pursue in our lives.

The first level, which our rabbis call "Assiyah" (related to the relatively simple act of just doing something in the world), refers to fruits that have an inedible outer shell.  Like an orange:

And our rabbis tell us that an orange represents our default mode, when it comes to our relationships.  When we go out and about in the world, DOING whatever it is that we need to do on a given day, and we encounter people that are difficult, or different from us, or if we are just simply in too much of a hurry, we put up an outer shell....some kind of defense so that we don't have to really interact with others.  Just orange.

Not cool.

Our mystics believed, however, that there was a second level of fruits in the world.  They called this level (or category) Yetzirah, and connected the behavior that these fruits represent as being more significant, or meritorious, than simply "doing" in the world.  Yetzirah is really about "formation" - about getting ready to do something big and new and creative and different, or about being in transition.'s a middle step - it's getting ready to bring something new into the world...before actually doing it.

This category is represented by fruits that have transcended the limitations of the orange....we're talking about fruits that do not have any outer shell.  But - as these fruits are still metaphysically in formation...they still have an inner hardness (a pit, if you will).  This is the category of the peach:

The peach represents us - and the moments in our lives - when we are striving to remove those outer walls and barriers that we so often put up to others.  And yet, we know, deep down, that we are still holding back a part of ourselves...something personal on the inside.

The final level - the level that we should all be striving for - is Briah.  Briah relates to the act of bringing something new and different into being - into creation.  On an interpersonal level, our tradition believes that when we are truly "present" or "there" for another person...when we make it all about them and not about us...when we are able to temporarily put our own needs aside - that is the moment in which our relating to someone else can bring something new, and deep, and powerful into the world.

This category refers to fruits that have no outer shell, and no inner hardness (or pit).  Like a....blueberry:

I have been going through a blueberry phase recently.  THEY ARE DELICIOUS!  Close your eyes, and imagine the last time you experienced the simply joy of eating a tasty berry.  Berries are so amazing because there's no barrier between you and the fruit.  Soft on the outside and soft on the inside.

Okay: so the blueberry technically comes from a plant or shrub, and not from a "tree."  That's a technicality.  (In its favor, the blueberry is the State Fruit of my beloved New Jersey!)  Stick with the metaphor here, people.

Just as the blueberry is soft on the outside and inside, our mystical tradition teaches us that we should be striving to be like that as well.  We should be peeling off all our layers (oops: not literally please!), in an attempt to create a greater sense of empathy and trust with the people that surround us.  If we can somehow manage to do this, our tradition believes that we will have the power to literally create and bring forth holy sparks - something new - into this world.

What fruit best represents YOU?  Take a moment on this Tu B'Shvat to think about the question.  More importantly: consider using Tu B'Shvat as an incentive to work towards Briah - of striving to be more real, and honest, and present, with the people that you encounter day in and day out. 

I can't think of a better way of honoring our trees (and their fruit), then by learning from them, and ultimately emulating them.

Happy Tu B'Shvat and Shabbat Shalom.

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