Parashat Beshalach 5781
by Meir Sendor
The current lockdown in Israel keeps everyone close to home and shutters many businesses. But the restrictions for combatting the pandemic have created opportunities for some – including messenger services. Zipping around the country on scooters and motorcycles and in cars and vans, bringing packages of medicines, groceries, dry goods and gear between here and there, they have become an economic lifeline for many. You get to know the people who service your neighborhood. Yesterday, the guy who brings a prescription medication from our Healthcare service once a month said “wait, I have something else for you,” and handed me a little seedling of mint with a little flag of the Jewish National Fund a.k.a. Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, saying “here, plant this for Tu B’Shevat!” Now that’s service!
Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, comes at a point in mid-winter when there is the first hint of warming here in Israel, in the air and on the ground. As Rashi explains in the Gemara Rosh HaShanah, it is timed to be just after the heavy rains of early winter, as the sun starts to feel a little stronger, and the sap begins to rise in the trees stimulating new growth. There is deep affection for trees here in Israel – they nourish us, they enhance and protect our Land, and they also teach us life lessons.
In this week’s parashah, when Am Yisrael, having just escaped from Egypt, come to their first rest stop, the water they were desperate to drink turns out to be bitter. Moshe prays to HaShem:
שמות פרק טו פסוק כה
וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל־יְקֹוָ֗ק וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ יְקֹוָק֙ עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל־הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם שָׁ֣ם שָׂ֥ם ל֛וֹ חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּ֖ט וְשָׁ֥ם נִסָּֽהוּ:
He cried out to HaShem and HaShem instructed him about a tree, and he cast it into the water and sweetened the water; there He set for him a statute and a judgment and there He tested them.
Nachmanides notes that the verse doesn’t just say God showed Moshe a tree, but that He “instructed” Moshe – using the verb root that is also the root of the word Torah, to instruct and teach. He also notes that in the midrashim the Rabbis offer suggestions as to what tree it was that God taught Moshe to use, and all the suggestions are trees known for their bitterness. So Nachmanides concludes that the lesson God taught Moshe and Israel is the essential divine principle and life principle of how “to sweeten the bitter with the bitter.”
This principle is found all over. It’s the homeopathic principle behind vaccines and other medical therapies: to use a safely-controlled amount of a pathogen to stimulate the body’s own immune system. It’s used in psychological therapies: to face trauma in a controlled way and learn to sweeten it. It’s at the heart of all forms of self-discipline and training: we put up with the bitterness of mild physical or mental discomfort to strengthen body, mind and spirit.
Rabbi Yaakov Leiner explores how to put this principle into practice in all challenging situations. Every difficult circumstance presents us with a bitterness of some kind. The divine strategy is, not to ignore or deny the bitter reality, but to face into it directly, truthfully and honestly, trace it to its true root cause, including asking what it is that God is teaching us in this challenge, and work with this understanding to transform it to sweetness (Beit Yaakov, Beshalach, sec. 95).
This approach is based on one of the most important insights of Rabbi Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. The kabbalists and pious folk of his time had adopted severe ascetic practices to try to discipline themselves spiritually, trying to force mind to crush matter, denying all forms of physical desire. But the result was a dishonest denial of reality and a crushing of the spirit of Torah. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught a different path, described by his great student Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch:
The rule of all things is that everything that one sees or hears, and all occurrences that occur to a person, they all come awaken him, whether it is something of love or of fear, of beauty, of conquest, of majesty, or connection or governance in general. They can come in two ways. Either in prayer the bad thoughts or deeds the person has done come in thought in order to fix them and elevate them. Or at all other times – sometimes a person may be frightened of something or some creature. It all comes in order to be elevated… everything is in order to fix… and elevate and sweeten it at its root… (Likkutei Amarim, 28d).
The Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid, conveys the deep insight of the Ba’al Shem Tov, to face our challenges directly and honestly, to trace their causes to their root. The analytical categories he lists are based on the seven lower Sefirot. God is messaging us at every moment, and our job is not to deny or ignore but to read the message carefully, and trace its cause to its divine root, to learn the lesson we’re being taught. The bitter reality that may appear at first needs to be acknowledged, it’s due to the brokenness of this world and a brokenness in us which we are here to fix, and by a careful understanding of real causality we repair and sweeten the challenge. The guiding image is the tree – everything that appears at the tips of the branches traces back to its cause at the root, and if healing or fixing is needed, as skilled arborists know, the real therapy occurs at the roots.
In the current pandemic, there are many communities that have taken the foolish and dishonest posture that they “don’t believe in the Corona,” – and the consequences are clear. Their denial of reality is sickening and killing them in great numbers, and their selfish disregard of all others is sickening and killing others in great numbers. God is sending them message after message and they just don’t get it. They have lost the wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov and of Torah. The fixing that needs to be done is not just of a lethal pandemic, but a lethally misguided approach to Torah and to life that needs healing down to its very roots.
The pandemic is a bitter reality with many lessons to teach. Healthcare experts have had to learn the therapies necessary to treat the illness itself, and how to find effective vaccines and remedies, which has taken them to a deeper understanding of the roots of human health . Communities have had to learn a deeper level of discipline and care for each other, to put up with the mild bitterness of masks and social distance and find the sweetness of sincere community spirit. Political leaders have had to learn how to make principled and wise decisions that factor in complex dynamics and find the sweetness of noble responsibility. If we have not been successful yet at all these challenges, and in Israel and most Western societies we have not, it means we need to go even deeper, to the root causes and fix them.
Today is also the day chosen as International Holocaust Memorial Day, based on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. The Shoah forced the world to face the reality of ultimate human evil – and as many recent events have demonstrated, we have much, much more work to do to fix this terrible bitterness at its root. But at least the international acknowledgement, sincere or not yet fully sincere, is a start.
And so, when we got the gift of a little seedling from the messenger, Anne ran out and planted its roots in our garden. May it grow into a healthy mint patch, and may the New Year of the Trees bring us all a new year of health and solidarity, sweetened to our very roots.