Thursday, February 28, 2008

TU bishvat: plant and love

Thursday Jan 17, 2008

On the 22nd of January 2008, Tu bishvat - 15th Shvat 5768, will mark the celebration the New Year of the Trees/Eylanot. An agronomic annual rendezvous with nature and fruit, plants and flowers, trees. It can be very healthy to give charities promoting planting of trees before the feast, after the Shabbat and, in general throughout the year. It is also a time to buy fresh fruit and remember to pay some unpaid tithes, if any, or to pay some for the development of agricultural products. As the feast starts on Shabbat eve, bouquets of flowers should show our spruce (like wood) and stylish feelings towards our sweethearts. This also happens to be the Knesset 59th anniversary. The Scriptural tradition reminds us that the 120 members should grow because "the fruit of the righteous (p'ri tzadik) is a tree of life" (Proverbs 11:30) and "there is hope for a tree (la'etz tikvah), if it is cut down, it will renew itself and its shoots will not cease" (Job 14:7). It is very meaningful on this day of 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. In these hard times of moral interrogation about political ethics and individuals, it might be fit to consider all State institutions as a forest ready to act with righteousness and hope.

The parshat hashavua - reading portion of the week is Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17-16 for Shabbat "Beshallach": "And Pharaoh let the people go ".116 verses (pesukim) = 58 to go and get free, 58 conflicting ones, but the general atmosphere was corny, grouchy, definitely not a mind blower. The main issue is expressed toward the end of the portion: "Hayesh HaShem bekirbenu im eyn - Is the Lord present among us or not?" (Shemot/Ex. 17:7). The haftarah (prophetic readings) is from the Book of Shoftim/Judges 4:4-5:31, with slight changes from the Shkenazim to the Yemenites.

Miracles are natural. They are daily stuff. We may not care or be aware that small or bigger events positively change and even save our state of mind, life, physical and material, financial position. The problem is the same in Exodus. Did they really want to be delivered from bondage? Or enjoy some refreshing time in the wilderness? Something has pushed the Israelites to follow Moses' injunction to leave "Mitzra'im (Egypt) = place of imprisonment". Not only a jail, but Egypt was very famous for being a place of graves and tombs.

Versatility should be noted in the events of this week. Stubborn Pharaoh finally conceded to Moses to leave the country with a population of more than 600.000 people. Then, all of a sudden, the ruler felt wrongful, mistaken and ran after the Hebrews (Ex. 14:3). By the way, when the Israelites were fleeing from Egypt, God said: "The people may have a change of heart ("pen-yinachem ha'am") when they see the war and return to Egypt” (Ex. 13:17). They had not been free or centuries and slavery is hard but somehow secure. It does not involve in personal armed conflicts. God stiffened both the hearts of Pharaoh and of the Hebrews.

Pharaoh clumsily pursuit his slaves; his army perished in the waters. God knew that the Israelites might be "waking up" from some involuntary dream of a refreshing sea-shore cruise and decide to cancel their ticket, going back to slavery jail. Thus He made their way longer. The scene is grandiose, not that Hollywood style if we consider the local places and events. The waters split at the Yam Suf - The Sea of the Reeds? Nu? There are doubts about the grandeur of the event. Say that liberty implies a certain splendor. But the site is small and not proven to be splitting so much. Yam Suf is the "Sea of the Reeds", not really the Red Sea. This refers to a place of humility as suggested by the name of the location: the "reeds - suf": a deadline. Botanically speaking, this is not bombastic nor flamboyant, but humbling. This aspect is rarely taken into account. Ordinary men and women, people who fled from Egypt someway under condition of anonymity. Without much intimate conviction, they reached at least the deadline of human bondage. And this is at times unbearable. This sea marks an end (sof), the humbling moment that swirls a life into a totally new and unexpected direction. The right and left side walls of the waters allowed them to pass the sea in dry ground! With a cloud of darkness and a pillar of fire that panicked the Egyptians in the morning. A destruction conducted with mastery "between good and evil" (Talmud Tanchumah Bereishit 12).

But please, God, Moses, more miracles! We are not awfully afraid. We are only scared because we don’t feel secure. This makes the "chom" - "protective wall-warming" barely real. And still, they got saved. This may explain why we cannot "see" God; we would die. But we "see" Him in miracles. When the miracle has humbled and reinvigorated us, it clutches definitely to our beings. At the Yam Suf - Sea of the Reeds, a world was overcome and destroyed: slavery. Wow, this can take lives to be understood as a true human experience.

Thus, the prominent "shirat HaYam - Song of the Sea" in Exodus chapter 15 is essential. Its verses account facts that the Israelites did undergo, but the whole text - in Hebrew - is in imperfect tense. It is an ongoing, present, future daily involvement that any Jewish believer continues to live through. And the Prophetess Miriam, chanting it with a choir of women shows the full unity of the people and the coming generations.

The Christians experience a rather similar situation as Paul of Tarsus states: "For we were saved in hope. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But I we hope or what we do not see, we wait with endurance" (Romans 8:24-25). Or: "Our ancestors were all under the cloud and passed through the sea, into Moses. All ate the same spiritual food (manna) and all drank the same spiritual drink...Yet God was not pleased with most of them and they were struck down in the desert... God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial He will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it" (Corinthians 10:1-5.13).

In Israel, we often have some scatterbrained galut/dispersion attitudes. Ingathered? Right; but Jews recognizing Jews as wool-gathering groups of people. We are hardly conscious that we have constantly been saved by God's outstretched arm: He undoubtedly ensnared us from death. Still, we need to complain as Moses' flock. The Christians also need but they don't dare. It is exact that, considering some torturous diseases, lifelong ones, handicaps, mental or physical defects, all the sufferings of social and economic indigence and humiliation, the humans would firstly require substantial assistance. But God has the nerve - if not the chutzpah (arrogance) - to entrust faith and His kingdom to hokey children.

The Israelites got many miracles along the journey. We can't stand bitter waters? There we get some fresh sources. We had better died in Egypt with some bread: cool, guys: the Lord provides flesh (fat fowls) at night and "manhu - what's that (manna)" the bread that falls from heaven for a full month in the morning, i.e. one extra portion for the Shabbat. Because the exodus included a resting day, the institution o the Shabbat before the Torah was given. So they were sitting put in the wilderness, expecting a seventh portion of manna, they had already swallowed the day before. As concerns the "shelav - quails" or supper, the phenomenon is known in the region at specific times. These fat bird name comes from the root: "resting, overweight, pleasure" as today "shalwah". At Massa and Meriba (trial and quarrel), the Israelites felt a special thirst that Moses resolved by striking the rock with his rod and a lot of water quenched the complaining nation that still had to comment: "Is the Lord present among us, or not?" God had the endurance to oblige the Israelites to fight Amalek at Rephidim. A victory against Evil and Idolaters that is reminded everyday in the morning prayer and still a combat that continues "The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages"(Shemot 17:16).

The real problem is "emunah - faith". Crossing the Sea of the Reeds, yes, the Israelites saw the death of Egypt in the sea and "vaya'aminu baHaShem uvMoshe avdo - and they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses (Ex. 14:30). But they did not get to the point that they were getting totally free, boundless. Faith still appears as a dead-end. True, this generation had a lot of faith, but failed when Moses came down with the Torah and they died in the wilderness. They will rest forever in the sand of the desert: "midbar = place where God speaks", not in some polytheist Egyptian grave. The Amalekites will be exterminated by David, but Maimonides underlined that the Jews had the task to bring them to the Noahide rules in a peaceful way.

Miracles are daily, they happen everywhere, anytime, reaching out to anybody. Still, most people require "proofs, evidences". God has nothing to prove: He gives miracles. We are more sensitive to calamities, but God strengthens.

When the Churches confess that Jesus was born to a virgin young woman, walked on the waters, healed the sick and resurrected Lazarus/Eleazar, this requires to have faith beyond any natural faith as Moses Mendelssohn once declared. But the basic acts of faith are long to be integrated. In that sense, holiness consists in overcoming such doubts and life tragedies, especially in the natural and supernatural realm of the Mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva, tortured by the Romans, uttered the "Shm'a Israel, Hear Israel" proclaiming his lifelong faith, beyond any mistake, lack of understanding.

On the eve of Tu BiShvat and New years of the Trees, it maybe useful to say that "everything was very good- tov me'od" and that we can go ahead of the Yam Suf with confidence.

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