Tu B’Shevat 5777 - Opening to the Beginning

Some beginnings are dramatic and obvious:
Move-in day. The birth of a sibling or a cousin. Commencement.

Beginnings like this are identifiable, recognizable--you can celebrate their anniversary.

But sometimes beginnings creep up on you.

A friendship grows in trust and depth.

A task becomes a vocation, somehow.

NYU turns into “home,”
but you can’t remember the first time you used that word for this place.

Tu B’Shevat is a beginning: the new year for the trees.

And it’s happening when we’re covered in snow,
Wondering what spring will feel like, should it ever come (G-d willing, it will!).

We sit together and eat different kinds of fruits,

Fruits full and ripe, with the potential of a new seed inside,

And fruits locked into themselves, encased in a shell.

We are mindful of what is seen and what is unseen,

Mindful of what is hidden just beneath the surface.

We eat fruits we have never eaten before--
Or fruits we have not eaten for a long, long time,

So that we experience their tang or their sweetness

As if for the first time.

And before we eat each fruit, we say a beracha, a blessing.

In Jewish tradition, we are obligated to bless something

Before we enjoy it, before we gain benefit from it (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 50:1).

Easy to do, with these fruits laid out beautifully in front of us.

Easy to eat mindfully and gratefully, with a seder to guide us.

But what if our new beginning, what if that enjoyment, what if that benefit and blessing,

What if it sneaks up on us?

We are obligated to bless before the miraculous renewal we feel
in enjoying the fruits of this world.

But what if we don’t notice until it’s too late.

What if we’re like Jacob,

Who ran through the wilderness in fear of his brother’s anger.

Jacob sleeps on the ground, a stone for his pillow.

And something happens.

He has a miraculous dream.

He experiences a new beginning.

A ladder, with angels traveling down and up.

And G-d’s Presence, right there with Jacob in the middle of the desert.

Jacob awakens.

אכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי

Wow! The Eternal was in this place, and I, I did not know.

Jacob experienced something new, something unprecedented,

In the most unexpected place.

He wasn’t ready.

It took him a beat or so to catch up with his experience.

And then he sprung into action,

Marking the place with a stone, anointing it with oil,

And making a promise to G-d.

Jacob renamed the place of his new begining Beit El, the House of G-d.

Our beginnings aren’t always announced to us.

Every day isn’t “the first day of school” or “the hundredth day before commencement.”

Or Tu B’Shevat, when bounty is laid out before us.

I keep thinking about how this holiday, this seder,

Is happening just after a blizzard.

How are we supposed to think about beginning, about budding?

The medieval Rabbi Menachem Meiri calls this day
the midpoint between winter and spring (Beit HaBechirah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1).

Winter is weakening. The sap is flowing in the trees.

The author Kurt Vonnegut claims that there are six seasons, not four.

Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.

But also “Locking” and “Unlocking.”

Between Winter and Spring,

The time we are just on the cusp of approaching,

Is “Unlocking” (Palm Sunday: Bits of the Collage, 1981).

The earth needs to get ready for spring.

The beginning doesn’t happen in that glorious moment
when the crocus peeks up from the rich brown in all its green and purple glory.

The beginning is before that,
When the grown begins, imperceptibly to humans, to thaw.

The beginning is when the worms begin to stir.

The beginning is when a flow of energy happens

Just beneath the surface.

Everything is unlocking

So what does this have to do with us, tonight?

On Tu B’Shevat we bless before we eat and enjoy,

And we’re mindful of this process.

But all the time we are invited, we are called, we are obligated,

To unlock ourselves to the possibility of beginning again.

If we must bless before we enjoy,

And if the potential for benefit and blessing is all around us,

Then we’d better get ready!

Our challenge, all year round, is to be open to the possibility of the new.

To be open to the possibility of blessing.

To be open to saying Achein!

What just happened here, that’s blessing, that’s goodness!

Any place could be that Beit El, a place where something Divine has taken root
And blossomed.

Indeed, the very place that Jacob named “Beit El” was originally called “Luz.”

“Luz” is an ancient word for almond-blossom:

The shaked, the almond-tree, is the first to bloom in the land of Israel.

The first to bloom at this time of year, at Tu B’Shevat.

So this New Year of the Trees
Is a reminder to us

That every Luz, every almond-blossom,

Might be the opportunity for a Beit El,

For a place where surprise and blessing and miracle and holiness

Can take root.

Be open to the possibility of beginning again.