By Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman
The month of Shevat is paradoxical: it is still winter, to all external
appearances, but there is a sense of growth, of gestation, of transition
soon-to-happen,
that deep within the earth the new growth that signals the coming of spring
is almost ready to appear. The plague of hail described in last week?s
Torah
reading, that quite possibly occurred at the beginning of Shevat, captures
that sense: ?the flax and the barley were ruined, but the wheat and the
spelt
were not damaged, for they were as yet ?dark? [i.e., beneath the earth?s
surface]? (Exod 9:31). On the trees that I see right next to my house, the
last
year?s yellowed leaves are still sitting on the lower branches, waiting to
fall off, while on the upper branches one can already see the hard knobs
that
will soon bud, and then blossom. And today my wife reported that, on the
way home from shul, she saw the first kalaniyot (red poppy flowers) and
almond
trees in bloom.
This sense of transition in nature is symbolized by the minor holiday of
this month?Tu bi-Shevat, the ?New Year of Trees,? marked by a new and an old
custom:
the new custom, introduced by the Zionist movement, which saw the
reforestation of the Land of Israel as a kind of secular mitzvah, is the
planting of
saplings on this day (although, between the building developers, the strip
malls, and the new toll highways ?clothing her with a dress of cement,? and
the separation wall from the Palestinians, one wonders whether the tree
population of Eretz-Yisrael is in fact growing or declining: the rape of
the Land?s
ecosystem is a veritable eleventh plague). The old custom is that of eating
all kinds of fruits on the night of Tu bi-Shevat, on which more below.
Interestingly, the Torah portions for this month seem to symbolize the
blooming or blossoming of the Jewish people. One week after another, we
read of
three cardinal, formative moments, in our ancient history: the first
Passover and the Exodus from Egypt (Bo); the splitting of the Sea,
signaling the
final liberation from the yoke of the Egyptians (Beshalah); and the great
moment of revelation at Sinai (Yitro). A major group of midrashim on Bo are
marked by this feeling of freshness and renewal. Elaborating on the words,
?this month shall be for you the first of months,? they begin with the motif
from the Song of Songs, ?For behold the winter has passed, the rain is over
and gone away, the blossoms are seen on the earth, and the voice of the
turtle
dove is heard in our land? (Song of Songs 2:11-12). The ever-repeated
miracle of new life is paralleled liturgically by the birth of a people,
ever-renewed
in its own consciousness.
The zodiacal symbol for this month is Aquarius, deli, the water carrier.
(In the 1960s, hippies used to speak of the putative beginning of a new
astronomical
?Age of Aquarius? as a significant landmark, signaling a new era of
liberation for mankind; why this symbolism was considered fortuitous, I
have no idea.)
In any event, in Judaism water is symbolic of Torah, a metaphor for its
?living waters? that fructify and nourish the soul, just as water is needed
to
sustain bodily life. ?Ho, let every one who is thirsty come to water? (Isa
55:1; and compare Ps 42:2; 63:2, and many other places; and see my
comments
on the name/word Ma?ayan in the supplement, ?Grandfatherly Reflections?).
Students of Lurianic teachings note that the tikkun for this month relates
to eating?surely one of the most problematic of human activities. This is
one
of the meanings, in the Kabbalistic tradition, of the Tu Bishvat Seder, at
which one eats many different kinds of fruit, savoring the sight and smell
and
taste of each kind, reciting its blessing with special kavvanot, reading
Zohar and other passages that relate to the worlds of meaning and
associations
embodied in each one (the olive with its goodly oil that must be squeezed
out of it painfully, like the Jewish people who have so often been
?squeezed?
and oppressed during its difficult history, but always end up floating to
the top; the pomegranate, filled with seeds as numerous as the mitzvot;
the
apple tree, to whom the lover in Song of Songs is compared; the stately
date palm, whose fronds are used to praise God during Sukkot; etc.,
etc.)?in
brief, a night of deep meditation on the various kinds of fruits and by
extension other good things with which God has filled this world. It is a
night
for tikkun?a night when we ate and taste thoughtfully, with attention, with
awareness, an attempt to ?correct? all those times during the year when we
eat hastily, perhaps grabbing fast food on the run, when we fail to
appreciate the abundance and richness of our lives, when we don?t take the
time share
words of Torah or wisdom with our companions, when we fail to eat with the
dignity and sense of value required for eating to be a truly human act.
For me personally, Shevat carries an important personal association: it
marks the Yahrzeits of both my rabbinic grandfathers: my father?s father,
Rabbi
Simhah Eliyahu b. Meir Cypkewicz, who died on 15 Shevat 58 years ago; and
Rabbi Avraham Naftali b. Yisrael Yitzhak Gallant, my mother?s father, who
died
70 years ago on 29 Shevat. These two men represent almost diametrically
opposed images of the rabbi: the former, a Matmid, an introverted, lonely,
ascetic
Talmudic scholar, perpetually learning, whom, family legend has it, died
sitting at the shtender?in certain circles, the highest imaginable praise!
The
other, a powerful, charismatic preacher and communal leader, author of nine
volumes of derush widely used by other rabbis of his day as sermonic
material,
an activist deeply involved in the issues of the day, especially the
movement to create a Jewish homeland, who dedicated several of his books to
his children,
whom he hoped would one day merit ?to go up to Zion with joyous song.?
Taken together, they symbolize for me the two poles between which Jewish
religious
life must fluctuate: the profound inner life of Torah and avodah, of prayer
and leaning; and the outward-reaching life of sharing, of teaching, of
building
community, and of tikkun olam, of broad social concern.
For more divrei Torah by Rabbi Chipman, visit
http://hitzeiyehonatan.blogspot.com

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