Four Worlds of the Tu B’Shevat Seder

by Idelle Hammond-Sass

TreesClappingWatercolorOn Saturday evening January 23, AARC visiting rabbi Michael Strassfeld led about 60 people on a ritual journey through the mystical four worlds of the Kabbalists, exploring the different qualities of each world and our relationship to them. The Tu B’Shevat seder, modeled loosely after the Passover seder, was created by the mystics of S’fad in the 16th century, but the original holiday itself grew out of ancient tithing, and later was associated with planting trees in Israel and caring for the land.

Seder-01-23-2016

In an earlier study session, Rabbi Michael led an exploration of Jewish teachings about the environment.  The Tu B’Shevat seder is more mystical, a product of rabbinic imagination. Each mystical “world” is associated with a category of fruit, its season, an aspect of self, and an intention–and accompanied by a glass of wine. The Haggadah for the Tu B’Shevat seder, put together by Rabbi Michael and AARC co-chair Margo Schlanger, was rich with readings and illustrations that deepened our understanding. And, yes, like Passover, it is structured on fours: four worlds, four glasses of wine, four seasons.

This ancient New Year of the Trees or “Rosh Hashanah L’ilanot” was also associated with the mystical feminine aspect of God, or Shechinah. We added Miriam’s cup to our seder, and said a blessing for Miriam’s well, for without fresh water, the trees and plants cannot flourish. The cup was dedicated to the people of Flint, whose water has been polluted.

Our room was set with a U shaped arrangement of tables beautifully set with platters of fruits and seeds (carefully following the no nuts rule of the JCC) that illustrate the four worlds. The platters were piled high with figs, bananas, grapes, apple, pomegranate, pears as well as olives, dates, apricots, raspberries: Fruits with pits, hard shells and soft, dried and fresh.

Tu B'Shevat Seder Plate

Tu B’Shevat Seder Plate

The beauty of the ritual pairs a mystical sphere or world with a fruit that symbolizes it, as well as mirrors our own spiritual state. For instance in the physical realm of Assiyah (winter, white wine) we ate fruit with protective outer shells, such as banana, pomegranate, or oranges. When we peel away our protection, and can be vulnerable, we can share the sweetness inside. If you are unfamiliar with the Kabbalah, this is a sweet way to become familiar with the four worlds of Assiyah (Physical), Yetzirah (Formation), B’riyah (thought), and Atzilut (Spirit).

A delicious and plentiful dinner was organized by Rena Basch and catered by El Harissa Café. (Khallid explained our menu, featuring a Tunisian egg Tangine, Lablabi, Mama Houria, a carrot dip, with a lovely salad with figs and pomegranate seeds, and poached pears with Michigan fruit sauce.)

This event was co-sponsored by Jewish Alliance for Food Land and Justice with an impact grant through the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor. The seder helped us reach our goals of bringing together people from the wider community and celebrating the deep roots we share in the Tree of Life.  AARC was joined by Rabbi Alana Alpert and members of Congregation T’chiyah of Oak Park, fellows from Hazon Detroit, and many others from the Ann Arbor community.  Like all ARRC events, we could not have done this without volunteers, and a big thank you to all who planned and worked so hard–Margo Schlanger, Clare Kinberg, Carole Caplan and Rena Basch.

For more information on Tu B’Shevat there are many good resources on the web at Hazon.org, and Ritual Well, to name a couple.  The Jewish Alliance for Food, Land and Justice Facebook page is active–come visit!

Planting Parsley in a Leap Year!

parselyThe days are just beginning to lengthen, and though the cold is just settling in, the extra light signals the tree sap that spring will come. And so begins the Jewish cycle of springtime, full moon holidays: Tu b’Shevat, Purim, and Passover.

In addition to the Tu b’shevat Shabbaton on Friday and Saturday January 22/23, Rabbi Strassfeld will help our Beit Sefer students on Sunday January 24 to do some Tu b’shevat planting. Though the holiday is the “New Year of the Trees,” in our cold climate it is a custom to do some indoor planting of parsley in anticipation of Passover. I’ve done this many times and noticed that sometimes the parsley is ready to harvest by Passover, and sometimes not. I consulted with Erica Kempter of Nature and Nuture Seeds about how to better ensure our parsley seeds will grow by Passover (keep them in a warm and lighted place). But the Jewish calendar gives a very strong reason for why some years are better than others for growing indoor parsley for Passover. In each 19 year cycle there are seven leap years during which an extra month is added between the holidays of Tu b’shevat and Passover. Some years there are ~60 days between the holidays, and some years (like this year!) there are ~90 days! A good year for planting parsley on Tu b’shevat to be harvested for the Passover seder plate!

This year, the Beit Sefer students will be planting not only parsley, but arugula and lettuce, too. Here are some instructions if you want to try this at home. This is the year!

Choosing Life?

Kol Nidre 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WIn the Torah portion we read just before the High Holidays, God says: I set before you life and death, choose life. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Except in the most dire circumstances, we would choose life if we could. So what does the Torah mean when it enjoins us to choose life?

What is life? How would we define it? For Judaism, a core part of the answer lies in what we are doing right this moment. Not praying, not talking, not even studying, but doing any or all of those things together in community. As Robert Putnam, noted in his seminal book entitled Bowling Alone, fewer and fewer Americans are participating in civic and community life. Through an examination of bowling leagues and other forms of group activities, he found a serious change in the pattern of Americans as the role of the individual was elevated and the group demoted.

The internet has only made this issue more complex. Does the enormous virtual community created by social media diminish or increase peoples’ connections to one another? If you have 200 or 500 Face book friends—is that real connection even if it is only virtual, or is it a superficial “friendship,” or no friendship at all? Is it enabling connections you couldn’t possibly have face to face or is it a way of distancing yourself from others and controlling their access to your life?

In our contemporary world, Judaism is counter cultural when it suggests community as an essential aspect of religious life. The intimate act of pouring one’s heart out to God is not done in solitude but rather in the context of a minyan, a prayer quorum. The language of prayer, even the al het the confessional of Yom Kippur, is recited in the plural, though it is clear to most of us that the litany of sins we recite may have little to do with us. Shabbat and holidays are to be celebrated with family and friends.

While some religious traditions encouraged a renouncing of the worldly, Judaism called for an embrace of the world. Tikkun olam—repairing the world—may be a newly coined expression but love your neighbor as yourself has always been an essential teaching of Judaism. We are meant to live life in relation to other people—not in a cave alone, subsisting on a few berries. Don’t gossip, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t oppress the stranger because you were a stranger… all these injunctions found in the Book of Leviticus are about the challenges and opportunities for holiness in the everyday interactions with other people. Yes, we, each of us is created in the divine image/tzelem elohim. The Torah said it first: each human being is created with inalienable rights. Yet, those individual rights are supported and modified in the context of relationships. Caring and supportive relationships lead to community. [Read more…]

Torah Accompanies Us in Our Uncertainty

Rosh HaShanah 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Editor’s note: The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation wants to take this opportunity to profusely thank Rabbis Michael Strassfeld and Joy Levitt for leading our High Holiday observances, teaching us, and sharing the New Year with us.

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WThere is a great deal of discussion these last few years in the Jewish community about its future. Based on recent surveys including the Pew study, there is concern about decreased participation in Jewish life by many people. The open society of America has led to assimilation.

A related phenomenon is a growing perception of religion as a force for intolerance and conflict in the world. What is and what should be the future of Judaism as a religion?

In pre-modern times, religion was a way to explain and understand a mysterious world. Why did things happen? Why did people get sick? Why did one side win a battle?

The answer: because God or gods created the world and controlled what happened. Over time, a belief in one God, a God of justice pre-dominated. It became the unified theory to explain the world. God punished sinners and rewarded the righteous. If the suffering of the innocent wasn’t completely explained by this notion at least there was some context for a way to strive to understand the world or a foundation to have faith that God had a plan even if you didn’t understand it. The world was not random but a world of purpose. But then over time, humans came to understand the world more clearly and discovered the laws of nature. Humans discovered germs and contagion, and disease no longer seemed either random or the scourge of God. Or as the atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2007: “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”

Does religion in general and specifically does Judaism still have a purpose? Is that why recent surveys show an increasing number of Jews who define themselves and their Judaism as non-religious?

Reconstructionism encourages us to ask what needs reconstructing in Judaism—not just tinkering around the edges—but what needs to be radically recast or reunderstood. In his time Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, propounded a different understanding of the nature of God. In the face of the growing evidence of the decline in the adherence to Judaism, especially as a religion, I have come to believe that it is the fundamental way we think about Judaism that needs reconstructing. It struck me that part of the problem of religion in the modern world is that we both look to religion for certainty, especially in moments of crisis, and as moderns we rarely find that certainty. The theology of our ancestors, if it ever was their theology, simply doesn’t work for most of us. We don’t believe God saved this child fleeing from Syria because we don’t believe God caused that three year old to die on the beach in that terrible photo we all saw. We don’t think God gave cancer to that person, and let the other person recover from a heart attack. We just don’t organize our world this way. Religion for liberal Jews is not about certainty. [Read more…]

Shabbaton: Privacy/Security/Inclusivity/Salad

By Dave Nelson

Dave Nelson and a goat
On the weekend of August 14 AARC was pleased to host a shabbaton with Rabbis Michael Strassfeld and Joy Levitt, who will be visiting us several times this year, including for High Holy Day services. Strassfeld and Levitt are two of the most distinguished rabbis currently working in the Reconstructionist movement, and the mid-August Shabbat evening service they led was fresh and lively—a promising glimpse of what we might expect for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Joy’s Kabbalat Shabbat sermon was concise and graceful.  She deftly explored what appeared to be trivial (and somewhat contradictory) rabbinical opinions on the proper construction of courtyard entryways: Who can be obliged to chip in to pay for it, how the doorhandles are to be mounted, where a gatehouse should be located, and so on.  But she teased out a very powerful, surprisingly relevant message about how we are morally obligated to work together to maintain our privacy and security, without inadvertently fostering exclusivity.  While there are obvious overtones here—especially in an age of shared and contested borders, gated communities, large-scale protests, and larger-scale dumps of hacked databases—what the rabbi chose to highlight was the slightly more subtle moral hazard: When we become too wholly focused on maintaining our own security and privacy, we make ourselves entirely inaccessible to the cries of those in need of our assistance.

As ever, the potluck was delicious and diverse.  Quinoa and kale were in surprisingly short supply, but a variety of exceedingly fresh tomato and cucumber salads more than compensated for this omission.