Tu b’Shevat helps us align with holy eating from the earliest moment of the development of this year’s delicious fruits. This day gives us a new beginning at the very fulcrum of our lives, the primal and decisive act of eating.
Tu b’Shevat repairs one’s eating for the entire year, so much so, that our eating can become like that of Adam and Eve before their spiritual fall. (Pri Tzadik, Parashat Beshalach) Since their spiritual fall and contraction came about through impulsively eating from a tree, we can create a spiritual elevation and expansion by eating fruits in mindfulness and holiness.
The Kabbalists created a simple and informal “seder” for Tu b’Shevat that can initiate us into the spirituality of eating. Like the Passover Seder, this seder includes drinking four cups of wine. One may also meditatively eat four kinds of fruit, in a progressive order: 1) first, nuts with a hard inedible shell (or kelipa, representing negativity), then 2) fruits with a soft, edible outside, but also with a hard, inedible pit which must be separated from the edible part, 3) fruits with both an edible outside and inside, and finally 4) fruits that can be appreciated even for their scent or essence alone.
Similarly, there are four ways of relating to food, corresponding to four ways of life:
1) To impulsively indulge in food, ‘the Way of the Mundane World’. This represents our tendency toward addiction, the kelipa of eating, which we must break.
2) To fast, or separate ourselves from indulging in the pleasures of eating. This is ‘the Way of Self-Rectification’, or the classic teachings of Mussar.
3) To exercise ‘hishtavut/ equanimity’ in relation to the pleasure of eating. This is ‘the Way of Transcendence’, or Kabbalah. The Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak of Acre teaches that we can reach a spiritual level where we are not affected inwardly or outwardly by people, whether they shame us or praise us. The same principle can be applied to the taste and quantity of food.
4) To take pleasure in the Divine essence within food. ‘Holy pleasure’ is the highest level of eating, for it fulfills the injunction, ‘B’chol Derachecha De’eihu/In all your ways know Him.’ This is ‘the Way of Essence’ or Chassidut.
Obviously, the first is not really a “way of life”, for it is a detriment to life. The three paths of Mussar, Kabbalah, and Chassidut, however, are each valid ways of relating to the physical world. Within every person’s life, these three ways will be appropriate at different times, depending on the circumstances. These ways are also a continuum: if we are indulgent or dependent on food, we may need to move to stage two and fast. Once we are detached, we can move to stage three and eat with equanimity. From a place of equanimity, we can reach stage four and truly appreciate the holy beauty and wonder of food.
In the path of Chassidut, the Baal Shem Tov unites aspects of the paths of Mussar and Kabbalah. On this level, we can fast from the self-centered desire for taste, while at the same time eating sumptuous foods. We can practice equanimity and taste G-d’s Presence simultaneously, whether the physical taste is pleasing or not.
We are capable of expanding holiness into the realm of pleasure because the source of our souls is located in the supernal ‘Ta’anug/ Divine pleasure’. (Noam Elimelech, Parashat Shemot) The Shabbat Maariv prayer calls us an ‘am medushnei oneg/a people saturated with delight’. Each of us is capable of this ecstatic delight, even amid our worldly needs and concerns.
During this month, may we let go of our egoistic attachment to taste, and actualize our capacity for deeper pleasure. On Tu b’Shevat, as we partake of delicious fruits and delicacies, may we taste the Divine Presence, and expand the boundaries of kedusha, permeating the world with the light of wisdom. In this way, may we begin to revive the correct flow of the Divine Name, and open a flow of rachamim into the world. May we bring the day, when for all people, the ‘taanug olam hazeh/pleasures of this world’, will be one with the deepest, formless pleasure of knowing G-d, as King David sings, “V’hitaneg El Havayah/ take pleasure in the Infinite One.” (Ps. 37:4)