Friday, January 19, 2007

Shevat (Months)

Month of Shevat

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).

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.


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