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Celebrating Pleasure: A Mystical Interpretation Of Tu B’Shevat

By David Aaron

The celebration of Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat) is not mentioned in the Bible. The oldest reference is found in the Talmud, where Tu B’Shevat is called “the new year of the trees.” The Talmud ascribes significance to this date only in terms of the legal implications of taking tithes from fruits.

About 500 years ago, the Kabbalists revealed the deeper meaning of Tu B’Shevat. They taught that Tu B’Shevat is an opportune time for rectifying the transgression of Adam and Eve. Amazingly, just through the simple act of eating fruit during the Tu B’Shevat festive dinner, we are able to contribute to this cosmic repair (“tikkun”).

But how? How are we “fixing” the transgression of Adam and Eve, according to the Kabbalists? First let’s explore the transgression of Adam and Eve, and then we can understand the mystical meaning of the Tu B’Shevat holiday, and why eating fruit is the way we celebrate it.

The Torah says that G‑d put Adam and Eve in the garden “to work it and to guard it” (Bereishis 2:15). The Jewish oral tradition teaches us that this refers to the do’s and don’ts of the Torah. The do’s are called the “positive mitzvos” and the don’ts are called the “negative mitzvos.” Adam and Eve were given very little to do: “eat from all the trees of the garden” (Bereishis 2:16).

And their only don’t—their single prohibition—was not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Bereishis 2:17). What was that about?

The Torah teaches that G‑d created the world so that we could experience goodness in general, and His goodness in particular. Experiencing His goodness—bonding with G‑d—is the greatest joy imaginable. G‑d empowers us to bond with Him by serving His purpose for creation. Just as when we do for others, we feel connected to them, so, too, serving G‑d enables us to bond with Him. Ironically, serving G‑d is actually self-serving—profoundly fulfilling and pleasurable.

If we eat and enjoy the fruits of this world for G‑d’s sake—because this is what He asks of us—then we are actually serving G‑d and bonding with Him. We serve G‑d by acknowledging that the fruits of this world are His gifts to us and by willfully accepting and enjoying those gifts.

The root of Jewish life is, in fact, enjoyment—the pleasure of connecting to G‑d. We connect to G‑d by serving Him, and this means obeying His command to enjoy the fruits of this world.

While in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s entire obligation was to enjoy all the lush fruits—with the notable exception of one forbidden fruit. Sure enough, they went after that one. This misdeed demonstrated their confused orientation to the real meaning of pleasure. Rather than seeing the fruits as pleasurable because they were G‑d’s gifts and enjoying them as part of their service to G‑d, they wanted to partake of them independently of G‑d—in fact, contrary to His will.

Following Adam and Eve’s fatal mistake, G‑d told them, “Because you ate from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from, the earth has become cursed” (Bereishis 3:17). G‑d was not punishing the earth because of Adam and Eve’s transgression; rather He was informing them that their distorted orientation towards physical pleasures had turned the earth into a source of curse rather than blessing for them and for their descendants.

Depending on how we view the physical world, it is cursed or blessed. If we look at the physical world as a conduit to a connection with G‑d, and if, as a service to G‑d, we gratefully receive His gift of delicious fruits, we thereby experience His presence and the physical world becomes blessed. The physical world then becomes a bridge between the human and the divine. But if we fixate on the physical, independent of any relationship with G‑d, and mistakenly perceive this world as the source of our pleasure rather than as a bridge to G‑d, then this world becomes a barrier to G‑d and a curse for us.

Now that we understand the transgression of Adam and Eve, we can begin to appreciate how we can contribute to its rectification on Tu B’Shevat.

On Tu B’Shevat, the new sap begins to rise up into the trees. And we bring abundance to this process when we celebrate Tu B’Shevat.

The Talmud says that more than the baby wants to suck, a mother wants to nurse. The mother not only gets tremendous pleasure from nursing her baby, but the flow of her milk is actually generated by its sucking. The more the baby wants to suck, the more milk the mother has to give. This principle also applies to our relationship to G‑d.

G‑d wants to give us the greatest of all pleasures, which is a connection with Him. But if we don’t recognize that to be the greatest pleasure, and we don’t want it, then He can’t give it to us. Or, rather, G‑d could give it to us, but it would just be a waste, because we wouldn’t recognize it for what it is.

The Power

Of A Blessing

On Tu B’Shevat, we take a fruit, and before enjoying it, we recite a blessing: “Blessed are You, G‑d our G‑d, king of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree.” In other words, “You, G‑d, are the source of this blessing.” In doing this, we attempt to rectify the transgression of Adam and Eve.

An apple is not just an apple; an apple is a blessing. Maybe I could believe that apples come from trees, but a blessing could only come from G‑d. If I really contemplate the mystery and miracle of the taste, fragrance, beauty, and nutrition wrapped up in this apple, I see that it’s more than just a fruit—it is a wondrous loving gift from G‑d. When I taste an apple with that kind of consciousness, I cannot help but experience the presence of G‑d within the physical. When I recite a blessing before I eat and acknowledge it as a gift from G‑d, I reveal the divinity within it, and the transient sensual pleasure of the food is transformed, because it is filled with eternal spiritual pleasure. The food then feeds not only my body but also my soul. However, when I eat without a blessing, it’s as if I stole the food. Perhaps it will nourish and bring pleasure to my body, but it will do nothing for my soul. The soul is only nourished when it experiences its eternal connection to G‑d.

Tu B’Shevat is an opportune time to celebrate how eating and enjoying the fruits of trees can be a bridge to G‑d, and how it can bring back the blessing to the earth.

When we enjoy the fruits of the previous year as wonderful gifts from G‑d and affirm our yearning for G‑d’s presence manifest in the fruit, we are like a baby sucking its mother’s milk with great appetite. We draw forth with great abundance the “milk of the earth”—the sap in the trees rises up with great abundance, so that they will bear much fruit in the coming year.

Unlike Adam and Eve, who sought pleasure separate from G‑d and who turned physical pleasure into a barrier to G‑d, we—on Tu B’Shevat—enjoy the fruits as G‑d’s gift and experience their pleasure as a connection to G‑d. In this way we rectify the transgression of Adam and Eve. We free the earth from being a curse for us—a barrier to G‑d. We transform it into a bridge, so that it becomes a wellspring of blessing and G‑d-given pleasure. ( v

Rabbi David Aaron is founder and dean of the Isralight Institute and the internationally recognized author of several books on Kabbalah. This has been excerpted from Rabbi Aaron’s book Inviting God In: The True Meaning of the Jewish Holy Days.

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Posted by on January 18, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.