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Rabbi Avraham Arieh and Rachel Trugman have over thirty years of experience in the field of Jewish education.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Beshalach and Tu B’Shvat

Every year, the weekly Torah portion of Beshalach is read in close
proximity to the holiday of Tu B’Shvat. There are in fact many
beautiful and deep allusions to Tu B’Shvat (literally, the Fifteenth
[day of the month] of Shevat; the New Year of the Trees) in the
portion. Some of these relate to the healing power of trees and, on
a symbolic level, to the Torah itself and some relate to the process
of rejuvenation that trees undergo, in general, and in this season, in
After experiencing the miraculous salvation at the Reed Sea,
the Jewish people traveled for three days without water. When
they finally discovered water it was too bitter to drink. God then
showed Moses a tree which he threw into the water, causing it to be
sweetened. Subsequently, God tells the people that if they listen to
His voice all the diseases of Egypt will not befall them for “I am God
that heals you” (Exodus 15:26).
On a peshat level the tree appears to have had healing properties
sufficient to sweeten the bitter waters. On a deeper level, the use of
the tree in this episode and the juxtaposition of God’s blessing led
the commentators to conclude that the “tree” which Moses threw
into the water is a remez, an allusion to the Tree of Life, which in
turn alludes to the Torah. Indeed, the verse in Proverbs teaches
the following: “It [the Torah] is a tree of life for those who grasp
it” (Proverbs 3:18). The curative powers of both the tree thrown
in and the Torah alluded to are made explicit by God’s promise to
heal the people if they follow the Torah. The healing powers of the
Torah are further stressed by the Talmudic idiom, “I have created
the evil inclination and Torah as an antidote” (Kiddushin 30b). Just
as the Torah sweetens reality and has spiritual, psychological, and
emotional healing qualities, trees also provide us with physical and
psychological succor: offering us healing barks, roots, and leaves,
shade, beauty, and sweet, nourishing fruits.
Based on the grammar of the verse, the Ba’al Shem Tov explains
that the water was not actually bitter, it only tasted that way
because the people themselves were bitter. After experiencing the
miraculous redemption at the Reed Sea, they were shocked to find
themselves without fresh water to drink. Perhaps they expected that
the miracles they experienced in Egypt and at the Reed Sea would
never end; that this was not so was a bitter pill to swallow.
Our Sages, who in the Talmud (Bava Kamma 17a) presume that any
reference to water is a remez to the Torah, explain that the people were
still so involved in thinking about the physical booty that washed up
on the shores of the Reed Sea that it distracted them from immersing
themselves in Torah and more spiritual matters. This then lead to
their going without water on the metaphorical and physical levels for
three days, ultimately leading to the bitter state of mind recognized
by the Ba’al Shem Tov. By throwing a tree into these bitter waters,
Moses symbolically reminded them that by immersing themselves in
the wellsprings of Torah, they could reinstate the necessary balance
between the physical and the spiritual in their lives. Learning Torah,
particularly through the lens of PaRDeS, similarly affords us a well-
rounded, holistic view of the Torah that allows us to balance the
physical and spiritual in our lives.
Immediately following this episode, the children of Israel traveled
and camped in a desert oasis named Elim, where there were twelve
springs of water and seventy date palms (Exodus 15:27). Rashi,
drawing on a homiletical derash from the Mechilta, associates the
twelve springs with the twelve tribes and the seventy date palms
with the seventy elders. After learning the lesson of the bitter waters
the people were given the chance to experience the joys of the Torah,
a virtual oasis in the desert that life can become when devoid of
The seventy date palm trees further symbolize the seventy “faces”
or aspects of Torah that are revealed to those who eat of its fruit,
and quite literally allude to the PaRDeS system of learning Torah,
an “orchard” of spiritual and intellectual delights. Alluding to the
highest level of PaRDeS, seventy is also the numerical value of
the word sod (secret), the inner Kabbalistic dimension of Torah.
Furthermore, the date palm symbolizes the tzaddik, the righteous
person, of whom it is said, “The righteous like the date palm will
flourish.” (Psalms 92:13) Deep inside their very beings, every Jew
has a spark of the tzaddik, as the prophet states, “Your people are all
righteous, they shall inherit the land forever” (Isaiah 60:21).
It is interesting to note that dates are among the very highest
fruits on the glycemic scale, which measures natural sugar content.
Dates only grow in hot climates with abundant sunlight. The process
of photosynthesis, by which a plant takes the light of the sun and
converts it into energy and eventually fruit, teaches us how we can
take the light of God and Torah and, transforming them deep within
us, yield the fruit of inspiration and understanding.
The Hebrew word for date (tamar) has the numerical value of 640,
the same numerical value of the Hebrew word for sun (shemesh)!!
When we receive the light of God and Torah and are devoid of ego
and ulterior motives, we become transparent vessels that convert
the light into the very blood that flows in our veins. Like a date
tree, which is a pure conduit for transforming the sun’s energy into
unadulterated sweetness, when we are pure we too can transform the
light of God and Torah into inspiration and understanding.
Another subtle connection between this portion and Tu B’Shvat
relates to the underlying spiritual essence of the holiday itself.
According to tradition, the sap begins to once again ascend in the
trees on Tu B’Shvat. This sap is the life force that culminates in
the spring and summer with buds, leaves, and fruit. Therefore,
on a symbolic level, Tu B’Shvat represents the time when new
redemptive energy begins to well up from beneath the surface. This
understanding of the holiday, incidentally, provides an answer to
the perennial question of why we read the story of the ten plagues
and the exodus from Egypt in the winter and not in the spring at
Pesach time: Tu B’Shvat actually symbolizes the flow of redemptive
energies instrumental in the Pesach story.
This welling up of redemptive energy is reflected in the consecutive
cycle of three holidays that fall on the full moons’ of Shevat, Adar,
and Nisan. These holidays – Tu B’Shvat, Shushan Purim (the
additional day of Purim celebrated in walled cities), and the first day
of Pesach – symbolize both the transition of winter into spring and
the welling up of the forces of redemption. The Jewish people’s exodus
from Egypt and transition from slavery to freedom is analogous to
nature’s transition from hibernation and inaction to rebirth and
rejuvenation. The sap rising in the trees on Tu B’Shvat represents
the beginning of the redemptive process that climaxed in the Jews’
personal and national redemption from the narrow confines of Egypt
on Pesach. Therefore, from a deeper perspective, it is no surprise that
this portion is always read around Tu B’Shvat, for in this portion
Israel is redeemed from slavery and leaves Egypt.
Another connection between Tu B’Shvat, Purim, and Pesach is
that the drinking of wine is central to all of them. The Tu B’Shvat
seder, created by the Safed Kabbalists, is organized around drinking
four cups of wine, just like the Pesach seder. Drinking wine is also
central to the festivities on Purim. Indeed, the Talmud states that
“when wine goes in – the secret [sod] comes out” (Eruvin 65a). This
connection between wine (yayin) and sod is also reflected in both
Hebrew words having the numerical value of seventy (a number also
alluded to by the seventy date palms mentioned above.) Delving
into the inner dimensions of Torah on these holidays, a process aided
by the drinking of wine reveals deep concealed secrets and releases
redemptive energy into the world, just as the sap rising in the trees
on Tu B’Shvat culminates in new growth and life.
Rabbi Leibel Eiger in his commentary Torat Emet reveals another
deep connection between Tu B’Shvat and the redemption that occurs
in the month of Nisan. He notes that Tu B’Shvat falls forty-five days
before the new moon of Nisan, that is to say, forty-five day before the
world was actually created (see the portion of Vayikra for an in-depth
discussion of on what day the Sages believe the world was created).
He explains that the Hebrew word for “thought” (machshavah) can
be permuted to read “thinks of what”; and the word “what” has
the numerical value of forty-five. Thus, according to Leibel Eiger,
on Tu B’Shvat, forty-five days before the new moon of Nisan, God,
as it were, began to focus His thought on creation. This archetypal
Divine act of thought parallels the sap rising in the trees in the lower
“Who is the wise one? He who sees the nolad” (Tamid 32a). The
word nolad comes from the root “to be born” and denotes the sliver of
the new moon. The wise person divines from the initial appearance of
a situation what will ultimately transpire. Just as one cannot detect
from the exterior the sap rising from the roots to the trunk of a tree,
so too the arousal of new spiritual energy on Tu B’Shvat is concealed,
beginning from the point of pure potential deep inside an individual’s
soul and slowly ascending till it is fully revealed as new spiritual
energy ready for actualization on Pesach. (See Seeds and Sparks for
more insight into the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, pp. 142-151.)

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