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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 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 particular.

     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 simple 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 onto 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 (Baba 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.

     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 homiletic derash from the Mekhilta, 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 Torah.

    The seventy date palm trees further symbolize the seventy “faces” or aspects of Torah that are revealed to those who eat of its fruit. 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 sun. 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 as in 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 numeric 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.  


 
   
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