Rabbi Reflection: Tu BiShvat - When Our Spiritual Sap Begins to Rise

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat / Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires

Every year, as winter's darkest days give way to winter's coldest days, I look ahead to Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. Tu BiShvat is a beacon of spiritual spring on the calendar ahead even when the outside world remains frozen.

Many of us know the Stark house motto "Winter is Coming," from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books (made famous by the HBO series Game of Thrones.) If I have a spiritual motto, it might be "Spring is Coming," regardless of the time of year. I start humming "Tu BiShvat higia, chag ha-ilanot" ("Tu BiShvat is coming, festival of trees") sometime around Thanksgiving.

I am always, always ready for Tu BiShvat. This is in part because I love the literal, tangible spring. I look forward to soft breezes, to magnolia and lilac blooms, to the scent of newly-turned earth and the promise of growing things. But more than that, I'm always ready for what Tu BiShvat represents.

The spring that Tu BiShvat heralds is not necessarily about almond blossoms or fig trees – though of course those may be blooming in Israel when we reach the full moon of Shvat. Tu BiShvat is about potentiality. First our tradition gives this to us in a fairly literal sense, as Rashi teaches that Tu BiShvat is when the sap begins to rise to feed leaves and fruit for the year to come.

The metaphor of sap rising makes sense here in the Berkshires. We all recognize good sugaring days, right? (Nighttime temperatures in the 20s, daytime temperature in the 40s: a good time to go out for pancakes! I can already picture how the snow at that time of winter melts each day in a little vortex around each tree trunk and refreezes at sundown...) But moving beyond the science of temperature and sap, our medieval mystics spiritualized Rashi's teaching even more.

Tradition analogizes a human being to a tree in the field. Ergo, Tu BiShvat is when our spiritual sap begins to rise to nourish our new growth of the spring to come. Tu BiShvat is about hidden potentiality within us. It's about opening ourselves to who we haven't yet become.

I've buried both of my parents in the last few years. In times of mourning, I've experienced Tu BiShvat as a time to cultivate faith that the emotional winter of grief won't last forever. Even when our hearts feel deadened or our spirits frozen, we can affirm that someday there will be sweetness that we can't yet feel or see. This is a way of embracing potentiality, too.

One of the mitzvot often cited at Tu BiShvat is the prohibition on orlah fruit. Torah teaches that when a tree is planted, we may not eat of its fruit for three years. So far, so good.

But the word orlah is a strange one for Torah to use here. Usually it refers to circumcision, and often appears in the phrase orlat ha-lev, "the foreskin of the heart." In the words of Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz, orlat ha-lev is "a metaphor for disconnection and numbness, a barrier to giving and receiving the compassion that is the nature of God, the fabric of the universe, naturally available to every conscious human."

That's where I see the connection between orlat ha-lev and Tu BiShvat. One central practice of the Tu BiShvat seder takes us from eating tree fruits with hard shells (e.g., walnuts) to tree fruits with a pit (e.g. plums) to tree fruits that are edible throughout (e.g., apples). These shifts symbolize each soul's journey from walled-off, to partially accessible, to (w)hol(l)y open – a journey we re-enact time and again.

Tu BiShvat invites us to relinquish our protective shells and become vulnerable before each other and our Source. At Tu BiShvat we can choose to recognize our orlat ha-lev, our disconnection and numbness, the barriers that prevent us from being real with each other – and then choose to let those fall away.

That's the spring for which I am always ready. Here's to embracing and embodying the openness of that kind of spiritual spring, no matter the time of year.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires in North Adams. You can read more of her writing at: velveteenrabbi.blogs.com.

The image is of a Jewish National Fund certificate testifying that Samuel Glasberg planted a tree in Eretz Israel to commemorate the 7th anniversary of his mother's passing (1933). Credit: United States Holocaust Museum