Awakenings (Tu b’Shevat / Pre-Spring Edition)

By definition, awakening happens before we’re ready, and exactly on time. It’s Tu b’Shevat this weekend (Sunday evening, February 5), so we’re exactly on time.

By Rabbi David

Happy February, TBE and friends!

Our northern hemisphere’s darkest quarter of the year is history. We’re about to get a sharp cold snap, but the light is returning. Have you noticed that 5:00pm isn’t dark anymore?

Outside near my courthouse on January 31, I took this picture of a flowering plant:

An outdoor plant flowering in January? in New York? Waves of guilt about climate change punctuated my giddy glee that sunlight is returning. After all, Tu b’Shevat is this weekend. It’s Judaism’s start of spiritual spring: Israel celebrates her first almond blossoms, and we in the Cold North begin training our eyes to see tree sap (and our own spirits) rise.

More than any year since the pandemic began, this year’s approach of Tu b’Shevat reminds me that this time of the Jewish year – from now through Shavuot in late May – is all about awakening. Physical metaphors of increasing sunlight and nature’s response are obvious enough. Over the next few months – haltingly at first – nature will begin unfurling in ways that scientists can explain with precision and yet are all the more wondrous to behold.

And spiritually, too.

The next three full moons correspond with the three Jewish holidays of Tu b’Shevat, Purim and Passover. (Yes, you read that right: two months until matzah and flowers on seder tables.)  Understood as sequential and increasing calls to awaken:

    • Tu b’Shevat peers through winter’s layers of fallow numbness to begin feeling ourselves stir with hope for new growth. (A Tu b’Shevat seder’s four cups of wine might help.)
    • Purim dons costumes, masks, and humor amidst adversity (and the Esther anciently modern story of antisemitic hate) to awaken us to resilience and ultimate inner truth.
    • Passover follows by awakening us to collective celebration, liberation and the continuing urgency to free the bound.
Then Passover launches our seven-week ascent to Sinai and Shavuot – literally a “peak experience” awakening us to revelation and the Jewish legacy of Torah.

It’s big stuff.  The “spiritual technologies” of Jewish life – the pacing and flow of the Jewish year, the rituals, the opportunities to celebrate and make meaning together in community – can be powerful.  There are reasons they’ve stood the test of time over centuries and millennia, kept our ancestors together, and helped them (and us) overcome great odds.

A confession: Even this rabbi will confess that it can feel a little just beyond reach, or like a word salad, or a mirage, or perhaps sometimes even a lie. We all know what it’s like to feel like we’d rather not wake up: we’d rather sleep, or glide through, or stay numb.

A story is told of someone who fell down a deep, dark well. Thankfully uninjured, they called for help, but their calls were swallowed by the well’s depth. By the time neighbors found them, their strength had waned.  Rescuers threw down a thick rope with instructions to tie it around themselves and hold tight so they could be pulled to safety, but they were too weak.

Rescuers called down the well, “Can you hold onto a shoelace?”

“I think so,” they said. So rescuers took the shoelaces off their shoes, tied them together and threw one end down the well. The stuck person asked, “I can hold onto this, but it’s too thin to pull me up!” They agreed, and pulled the shoelaces out of the well.

Moments later, they threw down the well another set of shoelaces, this time doubled in thickness – one set braided with another.  “Can you hold onto this?”

“I think so,” they said.  And on and on it went, until the rope was thick enough to pull them to safety.

Tu b’Shevat is like that – a first shoelace, a first hint, before we’re ready, fanciful, seemingly too thin to connect with anything. We begin our journey to awakening not with Passover’s liberation and Shavuot’s revelation, but with a shoelace.  And then a little more, and a little more, until finally – perhaps despite ourselves – we’re pulled into the light.

Happy spring.
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