Tu B'Shvat: Celebrating Pleasure
- Rabbi David Aaron
- Feb 3, 2006
The celebration of Tu B’Shvat - the 15th of the month of Shvat on the Hebrew calendar – is not mentioned in the Bible. The oldest reference is found in the Talmud, where Tu B’Shvat 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 (10%) from fruits. However, about 500 years ago, the Kabbalists revealed the deeper meaning of Tu B’Shvat. They taught that Tu B’Shvat is an opportune time for fixing the transgression of Adam and Eve. Amazingly, just through the simple act of eating fruit during the Tu B’Shvat festive dinner, we are able to contribute to this cosmic repair. 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’Shvat holiday, and why eating fruit is the way we celebrate it. The Torah says that God put Adam and Eve in the garden “to work it and to guard it.” 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 mitzvot and the don’ts are called the negative mitzvot. Adam and Eve were given very little to do: eat from all the trees of the garden. And their only don’t—their single prohibition—was not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What was that about? The Torah teaches that God created the world so that we could experience goodness in general, and His goodness in particular. Experiencing His goodness—bonding with God—is the greatest joy imaginable. God 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 God enables us to bond with Him. Ironically, serving God is actually self-serving—profoundly fulfilling and pleasurable. If we eat and enjoy the fruits of this world for God’s sake—because this is what He asks of us—then we are actually serving God and bonding with Him. We serve God 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 God. We connect to God 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 are God’s gifts and enjoying them as part of their service to God, they wanted to partake of them independently of God—in fact, contrary to His will.
The Art of Receiving
As already explained, real pleasure is experiencing a connection with God. We enjoy the ultimate spiritual pleasure when we enjoy the physical pleasures of this world as part of our divine service. Then, the act of receiving and enjoying God’s gifts to us is amazingly transformed into a selfless act of serving God. We can understand now that God’s only desire in giving Adam and Eve those two mitzvot was to give them the ultimate pleasure—bonding with Him. True pleasure was not in the taste of the fruits, but in eating and enjoying these gifts from God. This was the way to serve and connect with Him—the Ultimate Pleasure. But Adam and Eve misunderstood this. They did not see physical pleasure as a conduit to the spiritual pleasure of bonding with God. Rather, they sought pleasure independent of God. This is the root of all wrongdoing. Do we see the pleasures of this world as a gift from God, enjoying them in the service of God, and using them as conduits to a connection to God? Or, do we seek pleasure independent of any connection to God? In other words, is the pleasure about us, or is the pleasure about our relationship with God? There is a fundamental difference between having pleasure and receiving pleasure. If we want to have pleasure, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Having pleasure is void of any connection to a reality greater than ourselves. It is simply a selfish desire to experience a particular pleasure for its own sake. Receiving pleasure, however, is rooted in the soul’s desire to serve God’s purpose, which is to receive the ultimate joy of connecting to Him. Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit, because they were totally confused about their purpose on earth and, consequently, what is truly pleasurable in this world. They were clueless about what would bring them meaning and joy in life. Following Adam and Eve’s fatal mistake, God told them, “Because you ate from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from, the earth has become cursed.” God was not punishing the earth because of Adam and Eve’s transgression, rather He was informing them that their distorted orientation towards physical pleasures has 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 God, and if, as a service to God, 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 God, and mistakenly perceive this world as the source of our pleasure rather than as a bridge to God, then this world becomes a barrier to God 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 fixing on Tu B’Shvat. On Tu B’Shvat, the new sap begins to rise up into the trees. And we bring abundance to this process when we celebrate Tu B’Shvat. 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 God. God 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. Of course, God 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’Shvat, we attempt to fix the transgression of Adam and Eve when we enjoy the fruits of the earth preceded by the recitation of an appreciative blessing to God—“Blessed are you, God…..” in other words, “God, You are the source of this blessing.” 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 God. 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 God. When I taste an apple with that kind of consciousness, I cannot but experience the presence of God within the physical. When I recite a blessing before I eat and acknowledge it as a gift from God, 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 God. Tu B’Shvat is an opportune time to celebrate how eating and enjoying the fruits of trees can be a bridge to God, and how it can bring back the blessing to the earth. When we enjoy the fruits of the previous year as wonderful gifts from God and affirm our yearning for God’s presence manifest in the fruit, we are like a baby sucking his 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 God and who turned physical pleasure into a barrier to God, we—on Tu B’Shvat—enjoy the fruits as God’s gift and experience their pleasure as a connection to God. In this way we fix the transgression of Adam and Eve. We free the earth from being a curse for us—a barrier to God. We transform it into a bridge, so that it becomes a wellspring of blessing and God-given pleasure.