Dear TEE community,

We tend to think of winter as a bleak, barren time of year. The cold and the snow convey a sense of life in frozen suspension, but that is far from the case. Like sleep, this season of dormancy in parts of the natural world around us is actually a time of regeneration. And, as with sleep, we cannot fully function without periods of restful renewal.

In Jewish tradition, creation itself is rooted in the rhythm of six working days followed by Shabbat, during which we, like God, are “re-souled.” This year, we are observing Sh’mita, the cycle in which six working years are followed by a sabbatical year. In our monthly Sh’mita discussion group, we have been exploring ways in which to integrate values and practices of sustainability into our lives and community.

It was, however, from the observance of Tu b’Shevat that I learned to value the spiritual lessons of winter.

Tu b’Shevat originated as an agricultural practice. It simply means “the 15th of Shevat” and farmers in the land of Israel would use that date to count the age of trees they planted. Medieval Jewish mystics, who imagined God and existence as a Tree of Life, created a Tu b’Shevat celebration loosely based on the Passover seder. They used four cups of wine to symbolize the four seasons, as well as symbolic fruits to convey the spiritual teachings of trees.

The Tu b’Shevat seder begins with a glass of white wine and fruits whose outer shells are inedible, such as tree nuts or pomegranates. As with the winter landscape, the nourishment beneath is invisible on the surface, but it is there.

For the mystical creators of the Tu b’Shevat seder, reflecting on the qualities of these symbolic foods was an opportunity to consider how these insights applied to their own experience. We all have strengths and abilities unseen from the outside. We all need periods of quiet and relaxation to nourish them. From this perspective, I have learned to value winter in a different way. I view this season’s dark nights as time for indoor activities that play a counterpart to the summer gardening I love so much, things that slow me down and give me time for quiet reflection, such as cooking or crafting.

Having a sense of harmony with the rhythms of the natural world is one of the great treasures our Jewish tradition offers us. I hope that learning more about and from the observance of Tu b’Shevat will deepen your sense of connection to the season. This Friday, we will discuss traditional and contemporary writing about Tu b’Shevat to understand more about the holiday. In ten days’ time, on January 16th, I hope you will participate in our online holiday observance, which will include options for all ages and interests.

Wishing you wellness and warmth,

Rabbi Drorah Setel