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Shevat - The Essence of the Spiritual Reflected in the Physical


Spiritual Essence in the Physical, by Chana-Toni Whitmont


This image was created during Shevat 5782, January 2022. In this corner of the globe, Shevat occurs in mid-summer. Typically the weather is hot, dry and sunny. Australia has clocked off for the summer, which overlaps with the end of year festive season which is marked with frenzied celebration. Schools are on their annual six week break. Universities close for much longer. Many small businesses shut up shop. Summer in Australia means coastal holidays, camping trips, BBQs, cricket tests and the first of the grand slam tennis tournaments. It is festival season. The days are long stretching well past 9pm in the southern states On slow news days, it’s all holiday emergency stories - snake bites, shark sightings, and sadly, increasingly often, horrendous bushfires.


This January, the entire eastern half of Australia continues to be in the grip of an uncharacteristically strong La Niña weather system, with cyclones coming in from the Coral Sea and record breaking flooding rains blowing in from the Tasman. In my mountain garden refuge, there have been seemingly endless days of mist and rain, and a massive amount of lush, green, sappy growth. I keep having to cut back the verdure to maintain access to the paths. Branches are drooping and breaking, heavy with moisture. True to their name, the hydrangeas are gloriously happy. The roses however are largely spoilt, their ruffled petals pocked with mould. Inside the house, it is like living inside a terrarium - everything is moist, green and dripping.


I live in the thrall of the Jewish spiritual calendar, and I have to tell you that the reality of the month of Shevat in this part of the world is absolutely nothing like what is described in the texts or the commentaries. No almond tree sap rising. Instead we are harvesting almonds. No waiting waiting in the cold and dark for the first thaw of spring. Here it is the full flourish of summer.

So how do I make meaning from the spiritual calendar when my experience of it is exactly the opposite of what is assumed in the largely northern hemisphere normative Jewish world? How do I bridge the gap between the particular (ie the cycles of nature experienced at this time in Israel) to the universal (ie the Shevat according to the genius loci wherever on the planet you happen to find yourself)? We southern hemisphere Jews are absolutely part of klal Israel, and it is understood that Torah was revealed in the 70 languages so it remained continual, ongoing and not place dependent. Afterall, in more contemporary secular language, representation matters!


Over the last several years, I have come to understand Shevat from my own embodied experience right here my cool climate country garden in the mountains of this otherwise hot and sunburnt land. I live in an exilic diaspora to the power of three - I live about as far away from Israel as you can be (except for the New Zealanders across the ditch), eons away from the rhythms of the northern hemisphere heartland, and in self-imposed isolation from the Sydney shtetl which is home to almost half of Australia’s 112,000 Jews. I have come to understand Shevat through the cycles of nature in my own garden, through observing my beloved trees and their growth above the surface, imagining the growth below, and through celebrating the miraculous bounty of interconnection whatever the particular conditions are at any one moment in time.


This Shevat I have made a mixed media collage as an expression of my lived experience of the month.


Collage elements - clockwise from top right


Garden photos taken 11/1/22 (Shevat 9) and printed out on patterned cardstock.

On the left, a magnificent oak branch in full leaf overhangs banks of azaleas and grafted Japanese maples. The branch always reminds me of an overhead fairy track, covered as it is in Pyrrosia rupestris (rock felt fern), an epiphytic climbing fern native to the wet rainforests and high elevations of eastern Australia.

On the right, the one precious bloom of the Pierre de Ronsard pillar rose to have survived this year’s wet unscathed.


Title block - Spiritual Essence in the Physical - Shevat / שבט - Drawing down goodness into the God-house - printed on patterned paper

My experience of sounding and embodying the letters of the word Shevat / שבט itself.

ש - drawing down from the heavens/shamayim above - ש

ב - within the house/bayit, the world in which we incarnate - ב

ט - that which is good/tov - ט

an internal movement, rather like the form of the letter, the 9th in the alphabet, as in the nine months of internal gestation that leads to birthing.


Putting that all together, it seems to me that the spiritual vibration of those letters in that order can be expressed as the experience of drawing down into this God-house, the goodness from above and internalising its secret miraculous and life affirming properties. This seems to me very much in line with the metamessage about Shevat conveyed in the traditional texts, looking beneath the surface in preparation for a physical/spiritual rebirth in the coming months of Adar (Purim) and Nissan (Pesach).


I used the word “essence” in the title advisedly, given it derives from the Hebrew עצם/etzem/bone and עץ/etz/tree, both of which use the letter tzaddi (the letter of the month). Another word that is related is atzmut/ עצמות, the descriptive term referred to in Kabbalah, and explored in Hasidic thought, for the Divine essence, relating to the Divine essence of Torah and the soul, both reflecting the essential fifth level of the soul, Yechidah.

It is interesting to me that those same three letters, שבט, are used to spell the words for both tree branch and tribe.


More on bone/trees/tzaddi and tribes below.


Roots in Heaven - companion to the four worlds - sampled from Rabbi Me’irah’s magnificent Tu B’Shevat art print found at at www.versesilluminated.com, printed on patterned paper in a contrasting frame.


As she writes of her original painting: “The medieval Kabbalists of the northern Israeli town of S’fat reinvented the holiday of the 15th of the month of Shvat, or TuB’shvat. What had in Torah simply been a “birthday for the trees,” to count the age of the tree to three years, before one could harvest its fruit, the Kabbalists made into a holiday replete with appealing symbolism. For them the “tree” that was in the midst of the Garden of Eden, (Gen 2:9) was, obviously, the “tree” of the sephirot; the conceptual diagram of the emanations of God. But this tree is different: It has its roots in heaven! And when we do mitzvoth, with the proper intention, we eat the fruits of that heavenly tree here on earth. The swirls around the outside of the image (not shown in my collage) represent the shefa, the constant flow of God's bounty into this world. When we do mitzvot, we cause the flow to return to God. The various colours from white to red are the colours of the wine we drink during this seder, representing four worlds, or realms, from heaven down to our earth. The white space at the top represents Ain Sof---"without end," beyond our understanding”.


The letters in the painting are the first letters of each of the ten sefirot.


Letter, tree connection - mixed media - cardboard embellishments and wordlets overstamped with distress oxide inks, large letter tzaddi/צ cut out on patterns paper.

The upright tree is the physical mirroring of the Tree of Life depicted with roots in heaven. As above, so below, this earthly tree, which is supported by its trunk/bone/essence, has 10 branches, one for each of the sefirot. And of course, the earthly tree, joined as it is in a matrix of interconnection, is our physical Tree of Life, just as the upside down one is the spiritual Tree of Life. The main festival of the month is Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat, which is marked as the new year for trees/nature.


The letter of the month, according to Sefer Yetzirah, is tzaddi, also known as tzaddik, the righteous one. Tzaddi also refers to the hunter, and sounding the letter gives one the experience of highly concentrated, directional, condensed and contracted energy (as occurred in the TzimTzum). It is the vibration of the tzaddi that pierces the surface of how things appear and zeros in on deeper meaning that is not immediately apparent. Rav Ginsburgh points out that עץ/etz/tree, spelt with two consecutive letters of the alphabet, can be understood as the eye (ayin/ע) of the righteous (final tzaddi/ץ). In his explanation it is the tzaddik who connects the eye to Torah, which becomes the Tree of Life.


Nature + experience wordlets from my scrapbooking stash. Both the experience of nature as it actually is, and recognising that it is our true nature to actually experience. The sages explain that month of Shevat can be divided in two at the 15th, Tu B’Shevat. The first two weeks are said to be governed by Elohim/Din/Divine Judgement/the physical laws of the natural world. Then, after reconnecting with to our roots in heaven on the 15th, we can more easily open to the experience of God as Beingness itself, of YHVH, of rachmanin/mercy and compassion.

House and garden photos taken 11/1/22 (Shevat 9) and printed out on patterned cardstock.

On the left, boxes of bountiful summer fruits from local orchards. According to Sefer Yetzirah, the sense of the month of Shevat is taste and the whole month is an invitation to explore mindful eating (perfect after the gluttony that often accompanies the secular festive season in this country). Looking deeper, we can consider Tu b’Shevat, with tree fruit seder, as an opportunity for a tikkun of eating. Might we dare to consider that we can influence the repair of the great breaking that occurred when the prohibited fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was ingested in the Garden of Eden? Can we re-orient ourselves away from mindless consumption to Divinely inspired nourishment, with both joy and consciousness, for the purpose of bringing pleasure to the Divine?


On the right, my Tree of Life prayer and meditation courtyard at the bottom of the garden, laid out with ten sefirot and 22 connecting paths, as inspired by the opening verses of Sefer Yetzirah. The courtyard is framed with deciduous trees, silver birches and moon maples, which are in their full verdant summer glory at the moment. The climbing star jasmine (Trachelospernum jasminoides), with masses of white flowers, each headily perfumed, is in flower over the trellis. This is absolutely the experience of the nature of Shevat in this particular place.

Water jug and Hebrew text


On the left, my coloured illustration of a jug/bucket with cascading water on patterned paper.


According to Sefer Yetzirah, the constellation of the month is Aquarius, the water carrier. The tool of the water drawer is the bucket/dli/דלי, which is used to draw the water up from the wells. Torah is likened to a wellspring of nourishing water. Rather than using meteorological phenomena in Israel as a “proof text” of the qualities of the month, I am attracted to the idea that this is the season for drawing up the power of chiddush/innovation, for opening the wellsprings of Torah.


On the right, Ashrei yoshvei vetecha od y’hal’luchah - אַשְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵי בֵיתֶךָ עוֹד יְהַלְלוּךָ סֶּלָה - Happy are those that dwell in Your house; they keep on praising. - psalm 84:5 printed on transparency.


Sefer Yetzirah nominates Asher as the tribe of the month. Asher was one of the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid. His name means blessed/happy as she said at his birth, “happy am I”.


According to Rav Ginsburgh (https://www.inner.org/hebrew_calendar/shevat/the-asher-personality), in Kabbalah there is a unique phrase: Bait osher (בֵּית אֹשֶׁר), which means, “a happy home.” This is one of the most important anagrams of the first word of the Torah, Bereisheet (בְּרֵאשִׁית), in the beginning. This happy home also refers to this God-created world, God’s home in the lower realms. In other words, “In the beginning” God created the world so that it would be a happy home. It is the tribe of Asher that absorbs this Divine happiness and radiates it to the entire world.


On his deathbed, Jacob blessed Asher with riches of bread, riches that would come from the prolific olive trees on the land his tribe was allocated. Olive oil is equated with wisdom, and in particular, according to Ginsburgh again, with the inner level of Torah wisdom. “The regular secrets of the Torah are intoxicating and joyous as wine, but oil has more: oil seeps deep down, just like the Torah’s inner dimension, infusing the other aspects of the Torah and reality. It enriches them, affording them flavor and delight. This is the happiness of Asher, the pleasure of the secrets of the secrets of the Torah”.*


The joy and wisdom of Asher echoes through psalm 84:5, which epitomises to me the natural happiness that arises when we have that experience of knowing that we can live in a state of praise in this God-house. This surely is the potential of this month of Shevat?


Rabbi Shefa Gold writes: "Sometimes our perspective gets very narrow. Our view is determined by “small mind” (mochin de-katnut). From this state, the possibilities seem quite limited, and our sense of who we are and where our consciousness can reach is constricted and finite. From this state, it feels quite natural to complain and be filled with despair about the world. But then it is possible to step into a wider perspective, to expand into “big mind” (mochin de-gadlut). This is called stepping into the “God-house.” By chanting this sacred phrase we can move into a state of consciousness that is wide and spacious. From here we can feel a sense of limitless possibility. We can feel our awareness reach out to the far edges of the universe, as far as the imagination can touch. From this state, it feels completely right to express praise for everything we perceive. Praise becomes our natural way of being in the world. May we all radiate with the happiness that comes from knowing that we live in the God-House and may praise pour forth from that knowing”.**


Interestingly, oil (Asher) and water (Aquarius) don’t mix, and in many ways the month of Shevat can be considered having a fusion of opposites. From the function of the d’li we learn the essential power of drawing from our actual potency to discover our “inner essence” that is hidden within an easy material shell. According to the Sfat Emet (via Ryzlman) Moses’ explanation of Torah (which began on Rosh Chodesh Shevat) was in 70 languages, preparing the way for future exiles when Jewish people would be dispersed among the nations - yes, even in the antipodes! Through Moses, Torah has become available to all so that average person can be spiritually uplifted and open to Divine wisdom, simultaneously having the qualities of water, available to all, while remaining above the mundane world like oil floating on top of the mixture. Our mission, following the Shevat model, is to illuminate our lives in the mundane world with the bright light of Torah.


* Ginsburgh continues: “Before setting out on the journeys of our lives, we must immerse ourselves in the illuminating secrets of the Torah and dip our action-oriented foot in them.

In the foot, representing the characteristic of acceptance and devotion, there is boundless joy. How wonderful it is to perform commandments! How wonderful it is to be ready and willing to serve God—no questions asked. This is the secret of the blessing that we say before performing a commandment: “Blessed are You God who has (asher) sanctified us with His commandments.” There is wondrous osher (joy/happiness) in every commandment—the osher of Asher”.

** https://www.rabbishefagold.com/ashrei/


--------- Chana-Toni Whitmont is a collage artist, crystal sound practitioner, creative, teacher and student whose practice and passions are born from her spiritual connection to her Jewish lineage and the ebbs and flows in the annual calendar cycle. She lives with her husband close to nature in magnificent Dharug and Gundungurra country (also known as the Blue Mountains of eastern Australia).

Contact: sacredvesselsounds@gmail.com