This past week, we celebrated Tu BiShvat, which is also called Rosh Hashanah la'Ilanot, the new year of the trees. This holiday, which falls on the full moon of the month of Sh'vat, was celebrated by the mystics of S'fat during the 16th century as a renewal of the cosmic Tree of Life through which the flow of God-ness from the supernal worlds is channeled into our lives on Earth. We mark the day, as they did, with a special meal of fruits and nuts, symbolic of the Four Worlds of being, imagining, feeling, and doing, through which the Divine bounty flows to us.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the special tikkun or healing opportunity of Sh'vat is the tikkun of eating, of making the choice to consume what nourishes and strengthens us, rather than what drains and weakens. Carrying this teaching a step further, the TuBiShvat seder invites us to attend not only to what we eat, but also to how we eat it. The Rebbe of Zhidachov (18th-19th century) taught that doing every action for the sake of G~d is the sign of a good heart, but is not what we would call "perfect service." Rather, perfect service is that "after which no other service follows." When we eat not simply to strengthen ourselves for prayer or for study or for work, but with the intention of refining and elevating the holy sparks in the food. Then, said the Rebbe, we are able to unify as much with our eating as with our prayer. (Thanks to Rabbi David Seidenberg for passing on this teaching.)
On the morning of Tu BiShvat, I took a hike in Wildcat Canyon to be with the trees. I brought along a banana and an apple for breakfast, and after hiking and meditating for an hour or so, sat down on a stump to eat them. Peeling the banana, I took the first bite. Ahhhhhh! Ohhhhh! Bowled over by the complex flavor, sweet, fruity–so tasty, so banana! But after the first three consciously chewed and tasted bites, the complex flavor faded, leaving only a dull sweetness.
Knowing that much of the flavor is in the smell, I realized that our sense of smell is designed to accommodate or diminish after a moment or two of exposure to a single odor. No wonder that, as I continued to eat banana, it became difficult to stay present with my eating: the sensory experience had faded. Suddenly, I understood why it's so easy to mindlessly eat something after the first few bites. I ate on, perhaps unconsciously hoping to recapture the now-fled pungency of those first few bites.
I finished my banana, and bit into the apple, expecting the first bite to be as vividly "apple" as that first bite of banana had been "banana"-but no, its flavor was dulled by my taste buds' memory of banana. Only halfway through the apple did its complex, tart, coconut-like flavor start to blossom. It had taken me half an apple to get over the banana! These two fruits were teaching me, in a very visceral way, how memory obscures present experience. But, by that time I was beginning to notice another sensation, the fullness of my stomach. I observed my tendency to keep on eating despite feeling satiated.
When I finished the apple, I tossed the core into the field, but the banana skin I placed in a plastic bag in my backpack to carry out. Why did it feel right to toss the core, but not the peel? Later that evening, a truth came to me–the core of a thing, the secret place where its generative seed-force lives, is like our heart. In our hearts we are all one, with each other, with the trees, with the field. But the banana skin, a thick, protective outer covering, is a klipah or husk. Like our own skin, it both protects and hides the essence of a thing, the sweet, moist fruit. The skin, where we interface with the world, can easily be bruised, irritated—I needed to tend to it carefully.
Holy sparks of awareness, holy torah (instruction) embedded in the food itself-may our eating become prayer, liberating sparks of awareness, nourishing us and repairing the world on many levels.