Sunday, January 31, 2010

901. Trees

This weekend I attended not one, but two Tu Bishvat seders. I'd been to just one underwhelming one before this, where I got very bored discussing the mystical meaning of nuts and berries. It didn't make much more sense to me than drawing pictures of trees when I was in Hebrew school in an attempt to celebrate "Jewish Arbor Day." (I never understood the the American version of Arbor Day, either.) Recent additional rainforest- and global warming-related content only helped me feel guiltier.

This weekend I began to understand. While acknowledging that the holiday was extremely minor compared to others in the Jewish year, the rabbi pointed out how important trees were to our story. They're singled out in the story of creation, and figure prominently in the event that got us banished from Eden; we wouldn't be here (theologically speaking) if not for trees. We call the Torah "the Tree of Life" and, as this beautiful article on the Tel Shemesh site explains, they're a recurring motif in the Psalms.

But I'm a city person. There are little, skinny trees all over the streets of New York, and much bigger ones in the park where I love to run—great green umbrellas that completely disguise the fact that I live in the middle of concrete—and some individual trees have been sources of beauty and comfort in my life. I am angered and distressed at all of us and our governments for killing them slowly, and ourselves in the process. But they are not omnipresent for me; I can go days without seeing a tree. (Unlike one of my college roommates, an ornithologist specializing in birds of the Costa Rican rainforest. She spends months at a time living under the canopy, studying the inhabitants of each level of green.) Trees are on my mind but not so much, I am sad to say, in my heart.

In both seders this weekend we focused on the Kabbalistic tradition of the seder that assigns to each ritual food—all fruits of trees—a contemporary interpretation of the "four worlds" (too complex to sum up in a few words, but basically steps in the path that takes us from intention through the physical world of action, and finally to the highest, holiest state where we can realize our potential). First we eat a nut with a hard shell, to symbolize the barriers we tend to place between our true nature and the face we show the world. Next, a food like the apricot with a hard center surrounded by softness, representing the ability to let down our guard and become vulnerable. And finally we eat figs and raisins, fruits that are naked and whole, a symbol of the most honest selves to which we aspire. We had lots to drink at these seders, too (especially on Friday, accompanied by loud and happy zemirot), white wine at first, with drops of red added throughout the evening until the color in the cup was solid and definite.

So maybe trees and I have a relationship like Judy Collins and clouds:

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
"Both Sides Now"

But Tu Bishvat this year help me understand the illusion a little better, and become aware of the mirror that trees and their fruit hold up to my own life.


rbarenblat said...

I'm glad you had a good seder experience this year! I didn't go to one at all, but I did eat some maple syrup (fruit of our most local trees) and also some of the etrog preserves I made at Sukkot. Of course, I live in the country, adjacent to woods, so trees are always part of my consciousness...

On a semi-related note: I thought "Both Sides Now" was by Joni Mitchell?

alto artist said...

Thank you! Yes, I think I've finally learned to appreciate this holiday (and be jealous of lucky people like yourself who get to actually live with trees). And of course you're right--Joni Mitchell wrote "Both Sides Now," but Judy Collins sang the version I remember from growing up ( So I will forever associate her with that song (and Joni MItchell with parking lots...)