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Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut: Preparing for Tu B’Shvat

Mike Wallace, the legendary

60 Minutes correspondent, kept to a Tu B’Shvat diet.

When I was one of his producers years ago, he prided himself on his intake of nuts and raisins, insisting they were the secret to his longevity and jet black hair.

Mike, rest his soul, would never have called his regimen the Tu B’Shvat Diet, because he couldn’t have told you what Tu B’Shvat was, (he was a proud Jew without ritual,) but it occurs to me that he was onto something. Because he lived to 93 and never went gray.

Tu B’Shvat, which begins tomorrow evening, February 3, is often described as the “New Year of the Trees.” According to the Talmud, it was a time to tithe to the poor — to pay taxes on our fruit trees — but it was reimagined by the Medieval Kabbalists as a celebration of creation and the bounty of the earth.

These days, we’re supposed to plant trees on Tu B’Shvat. Or plant plants. Or give money to enable others to plant or protect plants.

The holiday, I’ve now learned, should make us alert to the preciousness of air, water, animals, and foliage…and all that we’re doing to destroy them.

“We are partners with God,” says Rabbi Michael Cohen of Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. “We’ve been given this earth on loan, and we need to take better care of it.”

The Arava Institute educates students from Israel and abroad to be environmental leaders, while also conducting research on projects such as solar power fields and sustainable water management.

Tu B’Shvat has become an important conservationist holiday in the last three decades, Cohen says, thanks to an increasing Jewish awareness of natural resources in peril. “The overwhelming scientific world says, ‘The crisis is here, it’s now and it’s happening,’” Cohen says. “The religious response to that reality is that we need to do something about it.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, says: “Tu B’Shvat should affirm the importance of the physical creation and healing the physical damage – the wounding of Mother Earth that human beings, and more specifically the giant corporations of big oil, big coal, big unnatural, gas have imposed like plagues upon the planet.”

Waskow calls out those people who say either, “It doesn’t apply to me,” or “I’m too overwhelmed to act.”

I fall in the latter camp. Waskow says I should feel galvanized, not helpless. “The same scientists reporting the danger are saying we do have a window of time when we can, in fact, make a difference,” he says. “If we don’t do anything, it’s unimaginable.”

The Shalom Center is launching “MOM and POP” – an acronym for “Move our Money, Protect our Planet” – which urges all Americans to find out where our electrical power is coming from (and choose wind over coal if there’s a choice,) and where our banks are investing our savings (“Find out if it’s big coal or oil”).

Waskow also suggests I can take a small first step by planting parsley to use in my Passover seder.

So I do. I buy a packet of seeds, a flowerpot and some soil. Tiny as the gesture is, I’m aware of my hands in the loamy earth, sowing kernels that might actually yield greens for my seder table.

Assuming I can harvest parsley successfully (not a safe assumption), let’s get back to the nuts. Nuts are the only food at a Tu B’Shvat seder, along with the seven species associated, in Deuteronomy, with the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

Waskow says, “The Tu B’Shvat seder is extraordinary because the eating of fruits and nuts does not require the death of any animal whatsoever….It’s the most deliciously life-filled meal because it doesn’t require any death.”

Tomorrow night, I’ll attend my first Tu B’Shvat seder – a ceremony invented by 17th century Kabbalists in the Israeli village of Safed to honor nature, the Tree of Life, and the four worlds.

I had no idea there were four worlds, but the categories tug at my environmental consciousness:

The world of action (Assiyah).
This makes me think about what I actually do – for my family, community, strangers, and for the future. When do I act, when am I inert? I realize few of the people close to me devote their time to rescuing the environment, but nor are they indifferent to the importance of clean air and oceans. What rouses our “assiyah”?

The world of formation, reinterpreted as emotion (Yetzirah). Okay, I can get emotional. But I’m also impatient with those who exhibit too much pathos. Then, too, I’m wary of people who seem detached. But who gets worked up about the danger to nature these days? And when someone is vociferous about the ecological emergency, do we write them off as extreme? If we were forced to grasp the severity of the threat, maybe we’d all be more emotional. Maybe, on some subjects, we’ve deadened our “yetzirah.”

The world of creation, reinterpreted as intellect (Beriyah). I respect intellectual mastery and covet it, too. I’m grateful to the people who spend most of their time thinking about the planet we’re going to leave for our children and grandchildren; I know they’re doing the heavy-lifting for all of us. In the world of “Beriyah,”should anyone with intellect enough to understand the latest reports on climate change be radicalized by them?

The world of emanation, reinterpreted as the spirit (Atzilut) The spirit — like the spiritual — has always been a mushy area for me. But when I do feel transcendence, it’s often in nature. The poetry and power of a glassy lake or a snow-crowned mountaintop is hackneyed for a reason. I can easily name the moments when I’ve felt God, and they often involve streams, peaks, deserts, glaciers, forests, oceans, or cliffs. It’s harder to list the steps I’ve taken to safeguard those vistas. The Atzilut (spirit) hasn’t yet translated to Assiyah (action).

It’s challenging to memorize the four worlds and their accompanying four fruit-types, but the metaphors are provocative:

For the world of action, the mystics tell us to eat fruits with hard shells and soft insides, such as walnuts and coconuts.

For the world of emotion, we eat fruits with soft shells and hard insides, such as dates and plums.

For the world of intellect, we eat fruits that are wholly edible such as grapes or blueberries.

The world of the spirit is not represented by any fruit.

Is it too much of a stretch to liken ourselves to the seder comestibles?

“It’s not going too far at all,” Waskow replies. “The fruits and the nuts of the Tu B’Shvat seder clearly represent different kinds of human beings. Human beings with tough outsides, but soft insides; those who are open — soft, you might say — to each other with chesed, loving kindness, outside and inside. So when we go through the Tu B’Shvat seder, we should be asking ourselves, ‘When do I need a tough outside? When do I want to make sure my outside is soft and my inside is clearly strong? And when do I want to be open —outside and in?’ They’re all legitimate parts of us. The question is how to judge which part of us is the life-giving one for the moment that we’re living in.”

I’ll be asking myself that at my first Tu B’Shvat seder tomorrow.

And in the meantime, I’ll remember to water my parsley plant.

“i thank you God for most this amazing / day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees / and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes.” -e.e.cummings

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