Winter's Seeds

In the dead of winter, when snow and frost cover the ground, and one wonders if we'll ever see the light of the sun again, our thoughts turn inward. We want to know, what is meant by this time of year when life itself seems to have been put on hold, when trees lose their leaves, animals hibernate, and wind howls through the atmosphere. We can appreciate the summer; it's a time of sunlight and warmth, when we absorb the solar rays and bask in illumination. But what are we supposed to gain from this time of year when all we can do is hide from nature and try to stay warm?

What happens in the physical world is a parable for what's going on in the spiritual realms. Everything in the physical world is an expression of something spiritual. During the summer, there is an expression of revelation, of enlightenment in the creation. Therefore, it's a time of brilliant sunlight and warmth. The winter is just the opposite; it's a time of retreat and hiddenness. The power of revelation and enlightenment in the creation seems to be completely missing, and this is expressed as cold lifelessness.

The two winter months of January and February roughly correspond with the two Jewish calendar months of "Tevet" and "Shvat". Both months contain in their names the Hebrew letters "tet" and "veit", the foundation of the word "tov", meaning good. Apparently, there is hidden good in these months. The month preceding Tevet, Kislev, is the month of dreams. Almost every weekly Torah portion of the month of Kislev (roughly corresponding to December), contains some sort of dream narrative, while the kabalistic sense of the month is sleep. Dreams are made to be realized. A person who doesn't attempt to actualize his dreams, is like one who is sleepwalking. It takes time to realize a dream. It takes courage, and very often it takes struggle. All beginnings are difficult. Often, one doesn't even know where to begin. He tries this, he tries that, and he only sees failure before actually beginning to see some results. It's a little like planting a seed. The seed sits in the ground, with no apparent results until the spring, when it germinates. But that doesn't mean that nothing at all is taking place. It just means that whatever is taking place is happening underground, away from the eyes. In fact, the most amazing process is taking place. The seed is actually rotting away. In order for what it has inside to become revealed and unfold in all its grandeur, the seed itself has to rot away. Only then can the essence flower. To realize our dreams, we have to put our former selves aside. To become a new dream-person, we have to let go of who we were previously. Then, slowly, but surely, the hidden good within us emerges full-blown. But, for awhile, like the seed during the winter months, we don't see anything at all.

The winter month of Shvat, roughly corresponding with February, contains the new year of the trees, meaning that it symbolizes the sprouting of the seedling. In the land of Israel, Shvat, or February, is the month in which the seven species of the holy land emerge from the ground. Wheat, barley, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives and dates all make their initial appearance this month. After the seeds dissolves and germinates during the month of Tevet, its roots finally take hold and it breaks the surface of the ground this month. After a period of trial and frustration, we finally grasp a direction, see the light at the end of the tunnel, and begin the process of development. The peak of the developmental process, begun in Tevet, is reached during the middle of the month of Shvat, with what sages called the new year of the trees. Snow may still be on the ground, all the signs of winter may still be present, but here and there a sapling pushes its way up out of the ground, making its small and tentative presence known. A modest beginning in an inhospitable environment, but a beginning nonetheless. So are dreams brought into fruition: first there is a vision, followed by a struggle in which we can't even see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then finally a modest beginning.

It's no wonder if somebody would ask "why?" Why go through all this struggle just in order to realize a dream? Or better yet, can't our dreams be realized in an easier way? The answer, though, is: that's what we were put down for here. Our dreams represent what we were meant to achieve in this world, and this world is a place where the highest dreams have fallen into the deepest places. We're meant to recover them, and to piece them back together again. It's not easy, but the soul-rewards are great. The lower the soul descends, the higher it will go back up!

Fixing the broken Vessels

The sages of the Kabalah tell us that as part of the process of creation was an "event" known as "shvirat halekim"- the shattering of the vessels. G-d wanted to create the world with a high level of revelation of His spiritual light, or illumination. He didn't want the world to be the spiritually dark place which is today. However, something happened in the process: the world was created, but it wasn't capable of receiving G-dly illumination. It simply wasn't a receptacle. It's a little like walking into a overly bright room, or pouring hot water into a cold glass cup (not pyrex). Either you cool off the water, or you end up breaking the cup. In this case the cup "broke". The world couldn't handle it, the revelation of G-dliness was too great. The result, the kabalists tell us, was that holy sparks of His illumination fell all over the place. Especially, they fell into unholy places which they had no business being. To this day, some of them are still trapped there. In addition, when we do something which the blueprint of the creation -the Torah- says not to do, a little or even a lot more of that G-dly light finds its way into these dark places, G-d forbid. When we do the commandments of the Torah, we shlep (drag) those sparks out again, but it's not easy. The majority of the job was actually done by our ancestors in slavery in Egypt. A lot of those holy sparks fell there We left Egypt, as the Torah puts it, as a sea without any fish in it; we shlepped all the sparks out. But there still a few holy sparks trapped here and there; if not, moshiach (the Jewish messiah) would be here already. The job of shlepping them out is called "avodat ha-birurim"- the process of purification.

The Chassidic masters explained that the process of shattering of the vessels was not by accident; that is, G-d was capable of creating a perfect world without going through this process. Rather, the process was a "shattering in order to rebuild". G-d wanted man to have free choice and be a partner in His creation, making the physical world into an appropriate vessel for His illumination. Our dreams of who we could be and what we might achieve as a result of these fallen sparks resounding like echoes in our consciousness, and calling out to us to return them to their source. When we actualize our dreams, while doing Torah and Mitzvot, we are performing the task of "avodat ha-birurim", and returning falling sparks to their source. When we collect the pieces of our dreams and put them back together again, we find our true calling. What we discover is not necessarily what we thought we might find: but is an organic whole--our actualized personality--which is greater than the sum of its parts. Nobody said it was easy, but the rewards are far more than the efforts.

Mystical Meditations

The months of Tevet and Shvat are full of hidden good. Here is some of it to meditate upon: There is a tribe, a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a sense of the body, and other correspondences to go with every month, as indicated by the Sefer Yetzirah (book of Formation), B'nei Yissachar, and other holy books. The tribe of Tevet is Dan. Part of his inheritance is in the far north of Israel, certainly one of the coldest parts of the country. He was known as the "measeph l'chol hamachanot", the in-gatherer of all the tribes. Dan was the tribe that walked last in the procession as the Israelites journeyed through the desert, and he picked up the lost articles which the other tribes had left behind as they traveled, and returned them. Thus, he did a lot of returning of lost sparks to their source as he went on his way. The gematria, or numerical value of "measeph l'chol hamachanot" is 770.

The tribe of Shvat is Asher. Also in the north of Israel, the inheritance of Asher flows with an abundance of the fruits which Israel is blessed, but specially olives, which produce oil, and are indicative of wisdom. Asher as a tribe was reputed to be so wealthy as to be able to wake up each morning and anoint their feet in oil.

The sense of the month of Tevet is anger. This could not mean anger in the normal sense of retribution, or temper, because such an anger is a negative trait compared by the sages to idol worship. Rather, the anger of this month is the frustration associated with struggling to get a new dream off the ground, to find a direction and to actualize one's potential. It is a positive motivating force, originating from the liver, which produces the bile which pushes us forward to achieve. The liver is the organ associated with Tevet. The sense of Shvat, on the other hand, in that of enjoyment and happiness. It is the result of seeing one's dreams come to fruition, of watching as the work begins to bear results. The organ of the month is the stomach, which gives us inner satisfaction as we watch our efforts bear fruit.

The letter of Tevet is the "eyin", literally means eye, which is ironic because this is the month when nothing is seen. It takes an inner eye to detect the hidden developments of this month and understand them. This is the eye that comes with wisdom (chochma), which is also associated with Tevet as the kabalistic emanation (sphera) of the month. According to the Kabalah, the letter "ayin" in a word is interchangeable with "aleph", which then gives the word "ayin", or nothingness. The "ayin" of Tevet in the nothingness from which the fruitfulness of Shvat emerges as creation exnihilo.

The letter of Shvat is the tzaddik. Together with the Ayin of Tevet, these two letters form the word "eitz" -or- tree. The month of Shvat contains the new year of the trees (tu b'Shvat), but the sprouting of the tree could only come about from the seed germinating quietly in Tevet. Such creation from nothing into something is a result of the sphera of keter (crown, or will together with enjoyment), associated with this month of Shvat.

A Chassidic Tale

Once, one of the people close to R' Mordecai of Lechovitch, ztz"l by the name of R' Meir, traveled on his way and stopped at a hotel to pray. In the meantime a caravan of poor people arrived at the hotel with several wagons, women and children. R'Meir spotted one particular old poor man, who was notable for his refined bearing and nature. R' Meir watched him intently. The lady of the inn gave them bread and food to eat, and most of the poor people grabbed the bread ravenously in order to satisfy their hunger. This particular pauper, though, walked slowly, took a vessel in order to ritually wash his hands, checked it carefully to see if it was kosher (such a vessel has several halachic requirements), and only then took a piece of bread for himself. As he was about to pronounce the blessing over the bread, though, he stopped short and returned the piece of bread. Instead, he took a piece of cake. R' Meir watched him closely all this time, observing every movement with a sharp eye. Afterwards, the caravan of poor people went on their way, and the old man went with them, next to one of the wagons.

R' Meir went off to pray and to eat, thinking all the while, unable to take his mind off the refined old man. In particular, he wondered why the man didn't want to make a blessing over the bread and eat it. After a while, he went up to the lady of the house and asked her, "when did you bake this bread?". She answered him, "Last night". "Try to remember for me", he requested, "did you take "chalah" (a small portion of the bread for holy purposes) from the dough?". With a shock, the woman replied, "oy, I forgot to separate the chalah" (one is not supposed to eat bread from which chalah has not been taken).

Right away, R'Meir realized that this particular pauper was a person in whom the spirit of G-d resided, and that he was a hidden tzaddik. Immediately, he hooked up his horse and wagon, and chased after the caravan, catching up with them on the road. To his surprise, the old man wasn't among them, and R' Meir asked them, "Where is the old man who was with you?" They replied, "oh, you mean that crazy man? He hooked up with us, and wherever we went, he went, and wherever we slept, he slept, and he acted crazy all the time. From time to time, he would leave us and go into the forest and hang out there, and afterward return to us. Once during the days of bitter cold, he saw a frozen pond, broke the ice, and dipped in the water underneath it. (for purposes of ritual cleansing--ed.)

R' Meir asked them, "where did he go now?". They pointed out the direction, and R'Meir went and found him, standing under a tree lost in thought, with a fiery countenance. R. Meir approached him and said, "Rebbe, give me a blessing!". The old man requested a specific donation, and gave him a blessing.

When R'Meir returned to his own Rebbe, R' Mordecai of Lechovitch, and told him what happened, the rebbe said to him, "you should be happy, you have been blessed by the holy man, R' Leib Shires."

From the book of "36 Hidden Tzaddikim"

Tu b' Shvat

Rosh Hashana of the trees

The holiday of Tu b'Shvat is a curious one. On the surface, it seems to have more agricultural significance than spiritual meaning; it's the commemoration of the emergence of new trees, especially those with which the land of Israel is blessed. But we know that the opposite is really true; in Judaism, nothing really takes on any type of meaning unless it first has spiritual significance. One of the interesting things about trees is that perhaps more than any other creation, they represent creation ex-nihilo- creation from nothing into something. We already saw how the tiny, insignificant seed, planted in Tevet, rots away to germinate and form in Shvat what will become probably the largest creation in the world: a tree. There could be no clearer parable for G-d's ability to create from nothing into something.

The tree is also a parable for a "tzaddik" -a righteous person. The word "righteous" doesn't really do justice to a tzaddik. The true definition of a tzaddik is one who has no evil inclination, and whose consciousness is first and foremost G-d awareness. Unlike most of us, for whom the physical world is the true reality and G-d is a question, to a tzaddik, G-d is the true reality, and the physical creation is of questionable reality. Thus , he serves as a conduit for the expression of G-dliness and spirituality in the world. People can to him for blessings and advice. Like a tree, he can protect, and he can give fruit. His fruit is the Torah he teaches, and the students he produces. The shade is the protection which he provides to those who seek it. His blessings both protect and give his adherents what they need. It's no coincidence that the letter of this month is also called "tzaddik"; when one looks at the form of the letter in print, it actually resembles a tree.

The Torah compares all people to trees, saying that a man is like a tree of the field. Like the tree is composed of roots, a trunk with branches and leaves, and gives fruit, so a man is comprised of, generally speaking, three aspects. The most important is our emunah, our faith. Like the roots of the tree, faith is hidden, yet it is the underlying foundation. If roots are strong, all the wind of the world won't uproot the tree. When one's faith is strong, one doesn't waver in commitment.

The trunk and branches are the largest part of the tree. From time to time they grow. In a person the trunk and branches are his spiritual growth; the Torah he learns, the mitzvoth he fulfils, and the good deeds he performs. Just as the age of the tree is recognizable by its width, so also one's spiritual maturity is recognizable by the nature of his learning and actions.

But the most important part of the tree is its fruit, because with the seed of the fruit the tree insures the continuity of its species from one generation to another. The ultimate achievement of a person is when, in addition to doing all that he is meant to do for himself, he has influence over his friends and environment that they should become people with faith, spiritual attainment (Torah and mitzvoth), and influence (capable of influencing their environment positively). The perfection of a human being is when he bears fruit; when he is able to persuade and convince others to do what is best for themselves and their environment.