The taste of Torah doesn’t get much sweeter than at a Tu b’Shvat seder, where the ancient Jewish fiscal year of the trees is celebrated by consuming fruit and wine in a manner symbolic of kabbalistic theories of the spiritual universe.
So it’s appropriate that this year’s Sweet Taste of Torah, the evening of Jewish study organized by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, takes place on Tu b’Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, and that a model Tu b’Shvat seder will be one of the evening’s two dozen classes.
Sweet Taste of Torah is “a wonderful opportunity for the rabbis on our board to teach the community Torah,” said Rabbi Ziona Zelazo, the chaplain at Valley Hospital and the program’s co-chair.
Tu b’Shvat makes for a fruitful theme for the evening. The other theme of the program, which takes place on Saturday night, February 11, at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, reflect that day’s Torah reading, which features the song Miriam leads the women in singing after the Israelites cross the Red Sea.
Besides the model seder, Tu b’Shvat-themed classes include “The Tree in the Midst of the Garden: Going Deep into Being Human,” “Sex, Death and the Tree of Knowledge: The Torah’s Big Story,” “Stewards of Creation: How Genesis 1 Informs the Torah’s Environmental Laws,” “The Development of Tu B’Shvat,” “Under Your Vine and Your Fig Tree: Jewish Theology in the Writings of George Washington,” “War, Peace, and Cutting Down Fruit Trees,” and “From the Tree of Knowledge to the Burning Trees in Israel.”
Rabbi David Widzer of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter and the evening’s other co-chair, called his session “Guardians of the Galaxy (Or At Least the Earth).”
The class “offers lessons on how we can bring Judaism’s environmental values to life through what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, and what we do,” he said.
“It’s a great night of Jewish learning,” he added. “You have the most motivated students, coming to learn from exceptional teachers, who are teaching what they love. Sometimes folks from my temple will come to my sessions. I tell them to learn from some of my fantastic colleagues instead.” The evening also gives him and his colleagues a chance to learn from each other in the hour they’re not teaching.
“We continue to learn from each other,” Rabbi Zelazo said. “We never stop learning as rabbis.”
Past years — this is the eighth year of Sweet Taste of Torah — have drawn 250 to 300 people.
A Tu b’Shvat Seder, Rabbi Zelazo explained, has four parts. “They represent the four different worlds the kabbalists believe we live in,” she said.
Like a Passover seder, the Tu b’Shvat seder features four glasses of wine, but with a visual twist. “There is a red wine and a white wine and two cups in between, one red with a little white mixed in and the other white with a little red. You mix the two wines together as a symbol of how life can be mixed,” she said. (At the model seder, the roles of red and white wine will be played by cranberry and apple juice.)
The seder also reflects “how trees resemble men and men resemble trees,” she added. “Just like trees grow from the roots, from a place we cannot see into the branching out that we can see, there is so much in all of us that we can’t see. The kabbalists wanted us to get into our inner essence and our potential to grow and change.”
Sessions dealing with the theme of song include a sing-along, a niggun jam, a class on Israeli songs, and some that look at the biblical songs of Deborah and Solomon. (There are of course a couple of sessions that don’t match either theme, including one about Jewish humor and one examining Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s teachings following the 1986 Challenger disaster.)
Lois Ruderman, a student at the Academy for Jewish Religion who is the rabbinic intern at Temple Beth Rishon, will lead a session taking a different artistic approach — drama. More specifically, bibliodrama, which combines midrash with improv.
“It’s taking a Torah text and turning it into an impromptu dramatic interpretation,” she said. “I guide the process. I tell the story and then I say, ‘If you were Moses, what would you say? Or imagine that you are the waves of the Red Sea engulfing the Egyptians. What would you say? What would you do? Anyone is free to say or sing any part of the story.
“It’s an opportunity to place yourself in the story. It’s quite liberating. Many times we do that for Passover at the seders,” she said. “This is the same kind of creativity.”
Save the Date
What: Sweet Taste of Torah evening of study
Where: Temple Beth Rishon, 585 Russell Ave., Wyckoff
When: 6:30 p.m., Saturday night, February 11
How much: $15 online by February 8 at sweettastesoftorah.weebly.com; $20 at the door (cash or check only)