By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
Wouldn't it seem strange if you heard that mystics had transformed April 15, Income Tax Day, into a festival for celebration of God's reemergence?
Yet that is what the Kabbalists of Safed did in the sixteenth century when they recreated Tu B’Shvat. Tu B’Shvat, the full moon of mid-winter, 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 is the world itself and all God’s creatures. To honor the reawakening of trees and of that Tree in deep mid-winter, 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.
o 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.
o The four cups of wine were red, rose, pink, white. Thus they echoed generation and regeneration among animals, including the human race. For red and white were in ancient tradition seen as the colors of generativity. To mix them was to mix the blood and semen that to the ancients connoted procreation.
o 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.
Why then 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’Shvat approaches once again. This year, it begins in the Western calendar the evening of January 21 and runs through the evening of January 22.
Appropriately enough, we begin celebrating the rebirth of trees and of The Tree just as we finish celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King, 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’Shvat 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 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 today Tu B’Shvat must once again change as it has in the past, becoming a day to act — to demand new laws and interrupt old destructions.
Give! Share! Act! Or 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.