Let The Trees Teach You Torah

pomegranate-treeby Rabbi Wendy Spears

One of my favorite Broadway musicals is now a major motion picture. I’ve seen Into The Woods twice on stage and I’m looking forward to seeing Meryl Streep play the Witch, an iconic role played so brilliantly by the fabulous Bernadette Peters. One of the themes of the play is to be careful of what you wish, because it might come true.

The forest of European folktales is a dark and scary place, full of carnivorous animals that consider humans an easy meal as well as numerous other dangers that can catch the average walker unaware and unprepared. Certainly, Cheryl Strayed finds this to be the case when she walks the Pacific Crest Trail on her own as portrayed in her book and the film Wild. She faces down a bear and suffers through blistering heat and bone chilling cold. These experiences change her irrevocably, as are those who venture into the woods in European folktales. The characters are called to draw on their inner resources of intelligence and ingenuity, as well as their physical strength and perseverance. The folktale woods are places of magic and revelation, both about the world at large and the human psyche.

The trees in Jewish tradition aren’t clustered together as a dark and forbidding forest. They are the dry shrubs and scrubby trees of an arid landscape, providing shade and food. This wilderness, like the European forests, is also a place of magic and revelation; a bush burns unconsumed, a sea parts, and there is fire on the mountain. Jews recognize the wilderness as a place to participate in a revelation that God will continue to care for us and protect us. We experience awe as both wonder and a feeling that causes us to shake in our boots.

Historically, the trees that survive in the arid wilderness are the fig, the olive, the date palm, and the pomegranate. The pomegranate, with it’s abundance of juicy seeds, is by itself considered a symbol of abundance. It’s likely that Adam and Eve ate figs rather than apples, since figs are native to the environment of the Middle East. The honey in the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” refers to the sweetness of dates rather than honey from bees.

The Jewish festival of trees, Tu BiShvat (the 15th day of the month Shvat), begins the evening of February 3 this year. The medieval Jewish mystics expanded the holiday from simple tree planting and pruning to include a Passover-like seder that celebrates the turn of the seasons with 4 cups of wine (from white , to pink, to deep red), and a tasting of the various types of tree fruit (those with outer rinds or shells that are inedible, those that have inedible inner pits, and those that are completely edible inside and out) to increase our awareness and appreciation of trees and nature in general. It is also a time to share stories about trees.

Since we are dependent on trees, shrubs, and grasses for the balance of oxygen on our planet, let’s renew our celebration of Tu BiShvat with more tree planting in our own yards as well as in our community, and invite family and friends to share stories around a table with many kinds of fruit and wine. This is a great way to remind ourselves that spring is just around the corner, and to give thanks to God for all of our abundance and blessings.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

A Chocolate Covered Passover

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

I must admit that as a child and even a teenager, I didn’t really like the holiday of Passover. I saw it as a time in which I had to give up something I loved. A week without pizza, cookies, and even pasta? How could it be a holiday if I felt like I was being restricted- if I felt like I was giving something up? Shouldn’t holidays increase your joy, not make life harder?

But then one Sunday as a teenager my entire outlook on Pesach changed. About a week before Passover, I went to a youth group event unlike one I had ever attended…it was a “Chocolate Seder.”  We had a mock seder and almost everything was made of chocolate.

This is my favorite type of egg!

This is my favorite type of egg!

Instead of four cups of wine, we had 4 cups of chocolate milk. Instead of bitter herbs we had bittersweet chocolate. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, we dipped strawberries in chocolate sauce. Instead of a roasted egg on the seder plate we used a Cadbury’s chocolate egg. Instead of a meal we had an ice cream sundae. I’ll admit it wasn’t the healthiest of events, but it felt like one of the first times I saw the joy in Passover. By eating fun foods and even using a crazy chocolate-themed Haggadah, I was able to see Pesach in a whole new light.

In a way, you could say that this Chocolate seder liberated my views of Passover to enable me to see the holiday as the true story of liberation.   Without the restrictions, I saw the joy- the joy of being with friends, the joy of celebrating our freedom, and the joy of celebrating God’s miracles.

Ever since the chocolate seder, I have seen Passover as a time for freedom not restrictions. I have seen Passover as a true celebration. Yes, we give up chametz (bread products), but what we receive in return is far greater. By spending one week to give something up we allow ourselves a chance to remember the enormous sacrifice of our ancestors. In our small sacrifice of not eating bread for only one week, we acknowledge and give thanks to God for the miracle of our freedom. And more than that, we give honor to all of our ancestors- to all of the Jews throughout the centuries. Our mere practice of having seders and following the laws of Passover is a statement that says our faith-our religion-our Judaism is something for which we should make sacrifices.

A seder plate made of chocolate you can buy online!

A seder plate made of chocolate you can buy online!

In the years since I was a teenager, I’ve often had “chocolate seders” with my students in the hopes that they too will learn to see Passover as a time for celebration and not merely restriction. However, even without chocolate, I believe we can focus on the real meaning of Passover- the real meaning of freedom and liberation.

May this Pesach be one in which we truly are grateful for all that we have- even if we have to make a small sacrifice to acknowledge that. May we celebrate our freedom and celebrate Passover in the hopes that one day- all the people of the world will be free, as well! Chag Pesach Sameach- Happy and Healthy Passover!

Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY, where her congregants are begging her for a Chocolate Seder.