On Tu B’shvat

Have you ever tried eating a ripe, sweet strawberry, then taking a bite of chocolate cake, and then eating another bite of strawberry?  If you do, and you are paying close attention, you may notice the strawberry no longer tastes as sweet.  This is because our tongues are overloaded with sweetness from the processed sugar in the cake and can no longer taste the fructose sweetness of the strawberry as distinctly.  The strawberry has not become less sweet because of the existence of the chocolate cake, we are simply desensitized to its sweetness.

We are all beneficiaries of many sweet and excellent types of fruit that occur in nature.  Some of these things were planted by us ourselves, if we are gardeners or farmers, some are planted or raised by others, but today it is especially important for us to enjoy delicious fruits.  You see, in addition to being Shabbat, we are also marking Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of the month of Shvat, and it is the New Year for the Trees.

During most of the year, we may eat fruits, nuts, and other tree products as a side dish or ingredient in our favorite dishes.  Today we are encouraged to eat new and exotic fruits and let their sweet juices run down our chins (or into our beards, as the case may be).  We are encouraged to stop and enjoy the produce that we have.

Why is that?  Well of course, because its the Jewish equivalent of tax day!  Alas, the Jewish IRS that collected this fruit tax is defunct, so our way of paying this tax is to eat the fruit ourselves.  Before you get upset that I’ve made some kind of political statement, let me explain what I mean.

In the Mishnah, a corpus of laws compiled in the year 220, there is a list of the Jewish New Years.  There are four of them, even though we only think of Rosh Hashanah as New Years.  In fact, we have multiple New Years in America too, we just don’t think of them that way.  We have regular New Years, the Fiscal New Years, the first day of School, that is, the academic New Year, and of course, the first day of baseball season, the baseball New Years.

The Mishnah listed out four New Years, they correspond to the agricultural cycle of ancient Israel.  The first one is the 1st of Nissan, the time around Pesach.  This was the New Year for government officials and calculating the holidays, since Pesach is the first holiday our people ever celebrated.  Then there was the 1st of Elul, tax day for animals.  Then the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the agricultural year because of the grain harvest.  Finally there is Tu B’shvat, the tax day for tree produce.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Abbun said: In the next world, a person will be judged for all the fine fruit that he saw but did not eat.

Tu B’Shvat’s custom of eating ripe, rare fruits by themselves allows our tongues to taste the sweetness of the fruit without it being drowned out by processed sugar.  It is a beautiful metaphor for how we live our lives.

The Kabbalah, that is, Jewish mysticism, says that Tu B’shvat is not simply a New Year for regular trees, the first day when sap starts to rise after winter’s chill, it is also the New Year for the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.

The tree of knowledge is the famous plant from which Adam and Eve ate, giving them the ability to determine good from bad.  Tu B’shvat is New Years for this tree as well.

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they gained the ability to discern good from bad and sweet from bitter.

Lets think about the strawberry from earlier in terms of our own lives.

Our knowledge and discernment concerning natural pleasures and feelings can become overwhelmed by with synthetic sensory and informational bombardment.  The sweetness of our lives can become overshadowed by numbing amounts of stimulation.

Whatever the strawberry represents for you, be it family time, the warmth of friends, or a walk in nature, Tu B’shvat gives us all, through its metaphors, the ability to cherish natural and intimate joys.  Joys as close to us as the dazzling taste of a fresh strawberry.

The strawberry is no less sweet because of the existence of chocolate cake, its only seems so.  So too, simple and intimate pleasures are still there, when we can allow ourselves time and freedom to savor them.  I encourage you all to eat fruits, unadorned and unsweetened, and let the symbolism penetrate to the depths of your soul.

Concentrate on those natural and often ignored pleasures, drowned out by the noise and hubbub of liff.  Savor those pleasures like fruit and let the juice drip down your chin and onto your shirt.  Even if it stains.

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