As we prepare for Tu B’Shvat, I can’t help but grow more introspective. Over the past century, Tu B’Shvat has evolved into a primarily mystical food holiday incorporating a Kabbalistic seder, dating back to 16th century Tzfat.
At the center of our Torah lies our relationship to the natural world. In our Biblical stories, we are part of the natural world —and set apart from it. God gave us the ability to name the creatures that roamed the Earth and we are God’s own creation. The first human being took the name Adam, for it was from the Adamah (earth) that he was created. God gave us a garden to cultivate, while living within that garden. We are natural and social creatures, living among the swarms of life and reaching beyond it through the study of Torah
Tu B’Shvat reminds us of this paradox. The holiday connects us again to the natural world, reminding us that we have an enduring partnership with our land and fellow creatures. According to Genesis, it was from the same clod of earth that human beings and the Tree of Life sprang forth.
How are we to connect these spiritual foci, the natural and social? The answer is gastronomical, and in it we find the secret of Tu B’Shvat.
Like a tree, we rely on our roots. Our memories give us strength and direction. I’m reminded of this most when I visit the homes of the bereaved in my community. As friends and family gather in the shiva house where memories are shared, stories told and deepest truths uttered, I observe renewed strength blossoming in the heart of those who mourn. Rooted in our convictions, we can steady ourselves against the vicissitudes of life.
So too in our most prayerful moments, when we reach up–seeking the warm light of transcendence. We dream of a flourishing world, redeemed from injustice and suffering. Somewhere between the mundane here on Earth and our higher aspirations we stretch, spreading out like a tree’s canopy under heaven. As the Torah says, “for a human is the tree of the field.” (Deut. 21:19)
The Torah, our greatest social doctrine is described as the “tree of life for all that hold onto it.” (Prov. 3:18) According to the mystics, the Torah is an inverted tree: Its roots are heavenly, and its branches reach down and out toward the horizon. And according to the midrash, the canopy of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden stretched from one end of the universe to the other (Bereshit Rabba 9:5). These two foci — one natural, one social–are in fact mirror images.
On Tu B’Shvat, we unite our natural and social halves through study, meditation and the joyous eating of fruits and nuts. It’s in the unity of food and study that we find Tu B’Shvat’s greatest secret.
Rabbi Yochanan said: Whoever keeps the fig tree shall eat of its fruit. The fruit of the fig tree does not ripen all at once. The more one searches, the more figs one finds in it. So it is with the words of Torah. The more one studies them, the more relish one finds in them. (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 54a-b)
When we ruminate over its words and values, we internalize the Torah’s meaning. The Torah grows within us, just as the fig becomes part of us. Eating, then, is our greatest spiritual metaphor.
When we study and eat together on Tu B’Shvat, we return to the garden where the Tree of Life still stands. In the Divine mirror, its fruit are not forbidden. When we partake of the Torah’s wisdom, we unite the natural and the social, uncovering Tu B’Shvat’s greatest secret: the two are one in God. Kein yehi ratzon. So may it be God’s will.
Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is the founder of Netiya, an L.A.-based network of Jewish organizations focused on food education for environmental and social justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and @RabbiNoah on Twitter.