Boker Tov and Happy Tu B’Shevat.
It’s the middle of winter, we have had plenty of miserable weather on the east coast. Some people observe Groundhog Day, Jews celebrate Tu B’Shevat. The 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat is the birthday of trees. Trees need a birthday because we are not to eat their fruit till the fifth year, so that they can grow strong trunks and branches and not be busy producing new fruit because we picked the old; the actual “birthday” would be nearly impossible to determine so all trees get the same arbitrary one at the time that the sap begins to flow. Trees were always important, long before environmental concerns. Two thousand years ago Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said that if you are standing with a young sapling in your hand when the Messiah arrives, you first finish planting the tree and then go and greet the Messiah.
In Talmudic times, and then beginning again with the Kabbalists in the 16th century, Jews have celebrated Tu B’Shevat in a special seder format, drinking four cups of wine and aiming to enjoy at least thirty different fruits (one third with edible insides, one third edible outsides, one third totally edible), blessing each as we eat it. The theory is twofold: 1) that we are judged on delights in nature that we saw but didn’t take advantage of and 2) that we are thieves if we fail to thank God for those delights before partaking of them.
Our original Empty Nester group BEENs I enjoyed a Tu B’Shevat seder on Sunday. We had many more than 30 fruits. The variety in nature is extraordinary, for me an example of God’s wonders. What is different about this seder today is how easy it is to get 30+ fruits at a time when very few are in season. When I did my first Tu B’Shevat seder, in Ann Arbor in the 70’s, we searched high and low for summer fruits, usually finding few. We had to eat 10 kinds of apples to get anywhere close to 30. Now consumers expect their favorite fruits all year round. I know it’s is old fashioned thinking, but apart from Tu B’Shevat I think it’s good to take a break from some of our favorite things so we appreciate them more when they return.
In the creation, the world was outfitted not only with delicious fruits but all kinds of foods that we use to sustain ourselves and secondarily to tickle our taste buds. (People on feeding tubes always comment about how they are missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures.) Every part of the process of choosing what we will eat (e.g. kosher or veggie?) and getting the food to our door (e.g. do we fly plums from Chile so we can have them year round?) brings us face to face with both general and Jewish value questions. That is why we declared this year’s synagogue theme to be Food and Jewish Values. To our myriad of programs on this topic we now add this year’s Scholar In Residence, Dr. David Kraemer, Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Seminary whose latest book is “Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages.” We are excited to hear him in four talks beginning this Friday evening until Sunday morning. Information and Shabbat dinner RSVP can be found in yesterday’s listserv or on our revamped website, www.bethelmc.org.
Our Beth El mission to Cuba launches tonight in Miami. It’s been a great learning process to reach this start, and with Cuba in the news every day we are extra excited. I hope to have decent internet connections so I can write next week, but if you don’t hear from me don’t assume the worst. In the meantime, have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph