by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
Is this world all there is? While on Tu Bishvat we develop a love and appreciation for trees and the gift of nature, should there be any limits to that love? Or rather than set limits, should we perhaps balance that love with a countervailing infinite love of nature's Creator?
The splitting of the sea that we read in the Torah invites the notion of balance. The division implied in compromise is a positive division, a splitting of differences for the sake of achieving unity. The word in Hebrew for compromise is peshara, an anogram of shefer, meaning beauty, as well as reshef, meaning spark. Efsher, meaning "possible" in both hebrew and Yiddish, shares the same root as compromise- P-SH-R, as if to teach that with fair compromise, anything is possible.
To be able to compromise, to appreciate opposite notions of reality, is a Jewish value and a manifestation of beauty when it creates a spark for reigniting unity. The mezuzah on our doors is emblematic of the value of reconciling opposites, of seeking compromise, symbolized by its angled positioning- neither vertical nor horizontal. Peace in the home (entering the home) as well as peace in the marketplace (exiting the home) depends on the ability to compromise and to split the difference.
Splitting for its own sake is fraught with danger. The splitting of the atom can be used for massive destruction or for its opposite, energy independence and world peace. We can be consumed by the energy released in its splitting, or we can become its consumers.
We are wont to celebrate nature and to give thanks to the Alm*ghty for creating such a beautiful world, but at the same time we dare not see that same nature as the be all and end all of existence. G*d, though having had created this world, is yet both in it as well as beyond it.
Human consciousness invites despair when it fails to balance the material with the spiritual. The ability to connect to a higher realm beyond nature gives one the tools to better navigate the challenges of this world. Our parsha this week, Beshallach, coincides with the same week in which we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year for the trees.
The Torah uses nature-based terminology in describing the miracle of the splitting of the sea. "A strong east wind blew all the night" (EX 14:21). Clearly, though based in natural language to explain the occurrence, we need to go beyond our understanding of the usual machinations of nature to fully appreciatethe extent of the miracle. While the natural world may exist as a foundation for experience, the final fruition of life's journey unfolds beyond the parameters of this world.
Those elderly facing the prospect of the loosening of the proverbial mortal coils who lack this appreciation often succumb to severe depression, drowning in the bitter realization of the end's imminence. The very language of salvation in the physical plane hints to our ultimate salvation in the spiritual plane, serving as a means of avoiding debilitating depression and even embracing the possibility of joy in the knowledge of eternal life.
More pointedly, this concept is encrypted symbolically in the language of the text itself. The Az Yashir narrative richly alludes to the association between being tied down to the natural world and falling, literally drowning. The word TeVA itself bespeaks this dual imagery of both nature and drowning. (Ex 15:4):
"...umivchar shalishav tubu beyam suf...and the pick of his officers were mired (drowned) in the Sea of Reeds."
The word tubu (they drowned) has the same Hebrew root as the word for nature. TeVa is the Hebrew root for both nature and drowning! What this means on a symbolic level is that we must not become so enraptured or enveloped by the forest beauty of the physical trees that we forget that idealized spiritual Tree of Life, located in the proverbial Edenic center to which we all strive to return. Turning the adage on its head, we don't see the Trees (of Life and Knowledge) for the forest.
Exiled from the Garden for our lack of a sense of responsibility for our actions, only upon embracing responsibility from*within* the natural world, the world of the material trees, can we once again attain the possibility of reunion with the supernal etherial tree. TheTorah's code of ethics, morality and responsibility is the sign post guiding us along the path back to eternal life.
"It is a tree of life to those who holdfast to it. Eitz Chayim leMachazikim Ba."
The wooden handles to which the Torah scroll is attached are called eitzei chayim, the Trees of Life. Indeed, the very blessing made at the Torah says,
"...vechayei olam natabetocheinu......and eternal life you have planted in our midst..."
"You want eternal life?" G*d is asking, "I have already planted it in your midst! Grab on to its branches." As Reb Shlomo once remarked at Brandeis University in the early 1950's, and as Reb Zalman once recounted (they were recruited to be among the very first outreach emissaries by the "fryediker" rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, z"l, whose yahrzeit is today, yud shevat, 1880-1950):
"Os Mein Halt Zich Oohn Oiven, Falt Mein Nisht Hinten...If you hold on to Above, you don't fall from Below."
This was in response to the question as to how in the depths of winter they could skip down the icy steps without falling, whereas everyone else would be hanging on to the railing for dear life with each timid step lest they slip and fall.
The Egyptian charioteers only held on to Below, and therefore sunk down ever deeper into the muck and mire of the swirling waters. Israel, having been miraculously saved to remain physically alive, is now blessed with the possibility of attaining eternal life. By holding on to Above, by connecting to the Torah, we are kept from falling.
For what higher purpose in life were we saved from drowning, if not to come to Sinai and receive the Torah, our Tree of Life. This world is physically beautiful, but it is only spiritually beautiful when we see it as a vessel for fulfilling heaven's dream of peace, love and world harmony. This is Teva's deepest meaning.
Happy New Year of the Trees
© 2000 - 2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen Melman, z"l
Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
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When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.- Abraham Joshua Heschel
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- I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!
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