Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Bitter Tree Sweetener

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat B’Shalach
Reduce and Reuse
The Tree of Life
It is no wonder that we always read Parashat B’Shalach in proximity with Tu b’Shevat – the New Year of the Tree. There are several beautiful references and deep allusions to Tu b’Shevat, in this parasha. With all the work preparing my lectures and workshops for my upcoming 2015 North America Tour, I’m kind of cheating, but not really. Hashem made other people’s beautiful teachings on Nature in the Parasha fall literally into my lap. So in the Tu b’Shevat spirit of ‘reuse’ I will be sharing the insights of Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen zt”l and Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman who is very much alive. I have organized and spun my own glimmers into their teachings.

As a prelude, I like to emphasize that Tu b’Shevat is a time for strengthening ourselves in the mitzvah of bal tashchit – avoiding waste, especially of trees, characteristic of Western consumer society. Think about how many trees we cut down monthly without even knowing it, for uses like writing paper, cardboard packaging, envelopes, toilet paper, wooden furniture, etc. In this week’s parasha Hashem showed Moshe a tree to put in the water, for the specific, unique purposeful use of allowing the Israelites to drink otherwise intolerably bitter water. Let us be inspired by this to use Hashem’s resources only in a mindful purposeful way! Think about this next time when you reach out to take three napkins to wipe up some spilled water on the table. Why not use a rag that can be reused?

The Tree of Life Heals the Bitterness
“They came to Marah and they could not drink the waters for they were bitter. And he cried to Hashem, and Hashem showed him (or taught him) a tree and he cast it into the waters and they were sweetened” (Shemot 15:23, 25). The “Tree” that sweetens the bitterness of life is the Torah, which provides us with the waters of דעת/da’at – knowledge of how evil is joined to good as part of G-d’s unity. The tree, which Moshe threw into the water to sweeten them, alludes to the Tree of Life, as it says, “It [the Torah] is a Tree of Life for those who grasp onto it” (Mishlei 3:18). This tree is further connected to G-d’s promise to heal the people, “I have created the evil inclination and the Torah as an antidote” (Babylonian Talmud, Kidushin 30b). Similar to the Torah, which both sweetens reality and has spiritual, psychological and emotional healing qualities, trees serve the same purpose in a physical manner by providing us with shade, beauty, healing barks, roots and leaves, as well as sweet, nourishing fruits (Rabbi Avraham Trugman).

Being Bitter Makes Everything Taste Bitter
I personally learned with Nechama Leibowitz how it states, “They could not drink from the water because they were bitter” (Shemot 15:23). Sitting in her crammed Jerusalem apartment lined with books and teaching files, I heard her say, “It didn’t state that the water was bitter, it stated, ‘they were bitter.’ Their experience was a reflection of themselves. When we are bitter, everything we taste is bitter.” The children of Israel were devastated when they found themselves without water after leaving the miracles of the Sea. Perhaps they expected that their miraculous existence would continue forever, and regular life was therefore a bitter pill to swallow. “There is no water except Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 82a). The people were still so involved in thinking about the physical booty they collected at the sea, (Rashi, Shemot 15:22), 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 their bitter mindset. By throwing a tree, which also symbolizes Torah, into these bitter waters, Moshe 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 (Rabbi Avraham Trugman).

The Bitter Tree Sweetener
Rabbi Yissochor Frand explains how the Torah section immediately following the description of the Splitting of the Sea – literally in the dawning days of the Jewish nation – describes the incident when Israel traveled for three days and could not find water. They came to a place called Marah (bitter). When they were unable to drink the water there because it was bitter, they complained against Moshe. G-d then revealed a tree to Moses which he threw into the water to sweeten them (Shemot 15:22-25). The Midrash adds that the bark of the tree that G-d showed Moshe was itself extremely bitter (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 23:3). The bitter water was sweetened by a bitter tree. G-d does not perform miracles for no reason. Normal ‘procedure’ would be to sweeten the water with something sweet. This must be to include the following lesson: Sometimes, the sweetest outcome can emerge from the bitterest pain. This is a difficult lesson that not only the Jewish nation, and every nation, must learn. It is also a lesson for us as individuals. Situations that sometimes appear to us as terribly bitter may eventually produce the sweetest of results. While we are in the process of enduring and suffering through bitterness, it is hard to imagine what positive outcome can come out of this situation. However, we have seen over and over again, that a situation that seemed like a terrible pill to swallow turned out to be the Salvation of G-d (Yeshuat Hashem).

The Date Palms and the Seventy Facets of Torah
Immediately after this incident, the children of Israel traveled and camped in a desert oasis named Eilim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms (Shemot 15:27). Rashi, quoting Midrash 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 Torah. The seventy date palm trees symbolize the seventy “faces” or perspectives of Torah that are revealed to those who eat of its fruit. Seventy is also the numerical value of the word סוֹד/sod – secret, the inner Kabbalistic dimension of Torah.

Transforming the Light of G-d into Personal Torah Insights
The date palm also symbolizes the tzaddik, the righteous person, of whom it states, “The will flourish like the date palm” (Tehillim 92:13). Deep inside their very beings, every Jew has a spark of the tzaddik, as the prophet proclaims, “Your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever” (Yesha’yahu 60:21). Of all fruits, dates has the very highest natural sugar content. They 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 G-d and Torah, transform it deep within us, to yield the fruit of our Torah insights. The Hebrew word for date תמר/tamar has the same numerical value of 640 as the Hebrew word for sun שמש/shemesh. When we receive the light of G‑d and Torah devoid of ego and ulterior motives, we become transparent vessels that convert this light into the very blood that flows in our veins. This is similar to the date palm that is a pure conduit for transforming the sun’s energy into pure sweetness.

The Universal Date Palms

Given the bitterness of our current situation, we long for the promised sweetness. In this spirit, I will share with you some of Yosef ben Shlomo Hakohen’s sweet Torah about trees, which reminds us of our messianic vision. After our ancestors left Marah, where the waters became sweet,
ספר שמות פרק טו:כז וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵילִמָה וְשָׁם שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה עֵינֹת מַיִם וְשִׁבְעִים תְּמָרִים וַיַּחֲנוּ שָׁם עַל הַמָּיִם
“They arrived at Eilim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date-palms; they encamped there by the water” (Shemot 15:27)

What is the deeper significance of the twelve springs and the seventy date palms? Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the twelve springs represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the seventy date palms represent the seventy primary nations of the world – the roots of the diverse national groups and cultures that we have today. Hashem brought our people to an oasis of twelve springs and seventy date palms in order to convey the following message: Just as the twelve springs nourish the seventy date palms, so too, the twelve tribes of Israel are destined to nourish the seventy nations of the world. From this teaching, we gain an universal insight: At the oasis of Eilim, our ancestors were reminded that their journey towards Mount Sinai was not for themselves alone, but for all humanity. As the Midrash comments, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel in order that through the Torah they would enable all the nations to merit thereby” (Midrash Tanchuma, Devarim 3).

Planted in the Mountain of Tzion
Rabbi Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen notes another allusion to trees in this week’s parsha. Just as each of the seventy nations is compared to a tree – with its own unique roots and fruits – so too the children of Israel are compared to a tree. There is a Divine promise that the tree called ‘Israel’ will be planted in the Land of Tzion, where they are destined to produce their finest ‘fruits.’ In fact, after our ancestors crossed the sea, they had a vision of their future in Tzion – the Sanctuary of the Compassionate One – and they sang,
ספר שמות פרק טו (יז-יח) תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְהֹוָה מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנֲנוּ יָדֶיךָ: הָשֵׁם יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד
“You will bring them and implant them on the mountain of Your heritage, the foundation of Your dwelling place that You, O Compassionate One, have made - the Sanctuary, Hashem, that Your hands established. The Compassionate One shall reign for all eternity!” (Shemot 15:17-18).

Tu b’Shevat the Root of Redemption
On Tu b’Shevat the sap begins to ascend once again in the trees. This sap is the life force that culminates in the spring and summer with buds, leaves and fruit. Therefore, Tu b’Shevat represents the time when new redemptive energy culminating on Pesach begins to well up from beneath the surface. This 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’Shevat, 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. This explains 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. 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’Shevat 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, it is no surprise that this portion is always read around Tu B’Shevat, for in this portion the nation Israel is redeemed from slavery and emerges from Egypt (Rabbi Avraham Trugman).

From Tub Shevat to Pesach: Manifesting our Spiritual Sap
Another connection between Tu b’Shevat, Purim, and Pesach is that the drinking of wine is central to all of them. The Tu b’Shevat 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 – סוֹד/sod comes out” (Babyloniam Talmud, Eruvin 65a). This connection between wine (יין/yayin) and sod is also reflected in both Hebrew words sharing 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 opens up deep concealed secrets and releases redemptive energy into the world, just as the sap rising in the trees on Tu b’Shevat culminates in new life and growth. May we all have the ability to transform the spiritual ‘sap,’ – our deepest potential, that is now beginning to rise up within us, for humanity is compared to the tree of the field (Devarim 20:19). May our potential grow in power and potency as we connect to the redemptive power of Purim and Pesach! May we reach our full manifestation on Shavuot when we receive once again the Torah on Sinai! Throughout our process, may we always grow closer to the Torah – “the Tree of Life for all those who grasp onto it…” (Rabbi Avraham Trugman).

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Self-Restrained Dog

Nature in the Torah: Parashat Bo
Doesn’t this title sound like an oxymora? We all know that dogs are everything but self-restrained. This is why, in this week’s parasha, it was such a miracle that, “No dog wagged its tongue against the children of Israel,” during the last plague in Egypt. A large percentage of my community, Bat Ayin have dogs. These super-friendly wholehearted animated creatures are known to be “man’s best friend.” In addition, dogs can be excellent watchdogs that help protect Jewish settlements from Arab infiltration. One of my students actually went to volunteer at a dog-training center in Itamar settlement, Shomron. These dogs are trained specifically to search for explosives, and prevent terrorist attacks. They learn to remember several hand and verbal commands. The barking of dogs can warn us against impeding danger as well as scaring off unwanted intruders. When people live alone especially women and elders, the protection and companion of a dog can be very helpful. Nevertheless, for Jews to be dog-owners is a new phenomenon. I would say that only in the last century has it become gradually more popular for Jews to raise dogs. Although, in Chareidi (ultra-orthodox) circles this is less so, especially in Jerusalem. What could be some of the reasons many Chassidic Jews typically refrain from raising dogs? Making this week’s parasha our starting point, we can further ask, why did the dogs hold themselves back from barking during the Exodus and what does this teach us about the nature of dogs?

The Dogs Distinguished Between the Israelites and the Egyptians
ספר שמות פרק יא:ז  וּלְכֹל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יֶחֱרַץ כֶּלֶב לְשֹׁנוֹ לְמֵאִישׁ וְעַד בְּהֵמָה לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּן אֲשֶׁר יַפְלֶה הָשֵׁם בֵּין מִצְרַיִם וּבֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל
“But not a dog snarled at any of the children of Israel at man or beast; in order that you may know how that Hashem makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel: (Shemot 11:7).

As the Jews were leaving Egypt, the dogs are praised for keeping quiet so that the Jews could escape without drawing attention to themselves. No dog barked or bit even when the destroying angel came to smite their firstborn (Ibn Ezra). In spite of the fact that when the angel of death comes to a city, dogs usually bark (Baba Kama 60b), no dog wagged its tongue. The miracle is amplified by the fact that dogs usually bark when they see people holding rods. Yet, the dogs still didn’t bark when they saw Israel with rods in their hands (The Riba). Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that dogs are connected to the power of judgment that was smiting all of Egypt. The main time of judgment is in the middle of the night. This is why the plague of the firstborn took place then. There are three watches of the night. The second night watch corresponds to the barking of the dogs (Berachot 3a), which is judgment. Scripture thus emphasizes the power of the great miracle: At that very hour when it was the dogs’ time to bark, and they did bark at the Egyptians, “The dogs didn’t wag their tongue at any of the children of Israel, in order that you may know how Hashem makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.” The dogs are rewarded to receive our non-kosher meat as it states, “…therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs” (Shemot 22:30).

The Wholehearted Dog – Man’s Best Friend
The Talmud recognizes that dogs are loyal to their masters. “Rabbi Elazar was asked by his disciples: “Why does a dog know its owner while a cat does not?” (Horayot 13a). The Maharal answers the Talmudic question by explaining that the dog has a soul (nefesh), as it states, “The dogs are עַזֵּי נֶפֶשׁ/azei nefesh – “brazen of soul” (Yesha’yahu 56:11). This is why dogs have the ability to recognize their master. Furthermore, the dog is called כֶּלֶב/kelev in Hebrew, which comes from the words ‘k’lev,’ meaning “like the heart.” This is why dogs can be very loyal, as the English expression goes, “dog is man’s best friend.” Although not every dog is necessarily friendly by nature, there are stories of dogs becoming separated from their family and undertaking an incredible journey toward reunion. Dogs are used in therapy for Alzheimer’s disease and in clinical settings as comfort for the terminally ill. During the winter of 2008, five different families in North America were saved by their dogs when their homes caught fire (http://animals.howstuffworks.com/pets/dog-best-friend.htm).

The Responsibilities of Dog Breeders
In spite of the many benefits of keeping dogs, dog-owners are responsible to ensure that their dogs don’t cause damage to others. Here in Bat Ayin it has been a constant struggle for dog-owners to abide by the Torah law to keep their dog on a leash. Accordingly, we have a rule in our community that no loose dogs are allowed. Yet, it is still a challenge to keep dogs on a leash even when trying. Apparently, dogs know how to free themselves of their leash, or their owners have mercy on them and refuse to impede the freedom of their dog by tying it up, feeling this would be tza’ar ba’alei chaim (causing pain to animals) also forbidden by the Torah. The Torah is replete with teachings about the prohibition of keeping lose dogs. “Our Rabbis taught: No man should breed a dog unless it is kept on a chain. He may, however, breed it in a town adjoining the frontier where he should keep it chained during the daytime and loose it only at night” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 83a). It is prohibited to own a vicious dog. “He who breeds a vicious dog in his house keeps loving-kindness away from his house, the poor are afraid to call. Thus, he can show no loving-kindness to them, nor can he earn the love of G-d (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 63a-b). Even if the dog itself is not dangerous, the fear of dogs that many people have can be detrimental. The Talmud recounts a story of a woman who miscarried because of being traumatized by a dog. In this story, the immense fear that the woman experienced caused her to miscarry (Baba Kama 83a). Children are often petrified by barking dogs, which can cause them irreparable traumas. Rabbi Nachman ben Yitzchak said: He also casts off the fear of Heaven from himself, as it states, ‘He forsakes the fear of the Almighty’ (Iyov 6:14). A certain woman entered a house to bake. The dog barked at her, [whereupon] her child [in her stomach] moved [from its place]. [The householder said to her, ‘Fear not: his fangs and claws have been extracted.’ ‘Take your favors and throw them on the thorns,’ she retorted, ‘the child has already moved’ (Shabbat 63a-b). Since Torah living is very concerned with how our actions affect others, the halacha (Jewish law) teaches that it is prohibited to own a dog that could be perceived as dangerous, even if it’s not actually dangerous. This is because of the damage that the fear of dogs could cause people (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mispat 409:3, Shulchan Aruch Harav, Choshen Mishpat). See the well-written article on the topic by Allison Josephs (http://jewinthecity.com/2011/11/why-do-i-never-see-orthodox-jews-with-dogs-or-any-other-pets/#ixzz3NeemNVoH)

The Dog-Loving, Dog-Faced Generation of Mashiach
Although many Torah Jews in Western countries keep dogs as pets, you will not find a dog in a traditional Chassidic home, especially not in Jerusalem. The Torah does not recommend keeping dogs inside of the home, except for therapeutic purposes. The place of a watchdog is in a doghouse outside of the home where people live. Why blur the distinction between animal and human beings? Dogs easily mesh with us to such a degree as to affect our personality. People often keep dogs as companions for their children, and although the children benefit from taking the responsibility of caring for an animal, they may also learn animalistic behavior from bonding too closely with animals, something that dogs invite. Dogs are generally unrestrained and the nicest, friendliest dogs will come up and lick you all over your face with their dribbling drooling tongue, something which is neither sanitary nor conducive to kedusha (holiness). I remember staying at an orthodox Rabbi’s home on one of my tours. The family-dog would eat leftovers right off the plates on the table licking the dishes that the family eat from with gusto. No wonder the children were unruly and disrespectful to their parents. The Talmud teaches that in the times leading up to Mashiach’s arrival, “the youth will embarrass the elders… and the generation’s face will be like that of a dog” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a). Rashi explains that the faces of people will really look like the dogs. They will similarly not be embarrassed of one another (Rashi, Sanhedrin 97a). Alternatively, “פני/p’nei – the face is the language of importance, like the importance of the dog, as our sages said, [the generation will be] completely heart and faithful to its master. Likewise, each person of the multitude of the people will become faithful to the Master of the universe, and he will have the importance of having a complete understanding heart” (Benayahu ben Yehoyada, Sanhedrin 97a). Perhaps the increase of dogs serving as Jewish pets is part of the process of bringing the Mashiach?

May we learn and integrate only positive traits from the dog becoming more connected to our hearts and more faithful to Hashem – Master of the Universe!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Late Blooming Grain

Nature in the Torah: Parashat Va’erah
The Plague of Hail Corresponds to Chesed
The Late Blooming Grain in Rebbetzin's Garden
This week’s parasha includes the first seven the Ten Plagues, corresponding to the Seven Emotional Sefirot. Knowing G-d to be a G-d of kindness, why did He have to afflict the Egyptians with such cruel plagues? Couldn’t He have rescued Israel in other ways? All the miracles of the Exodus proves that Hashem created the world. At the Exodus G-d revealed His power of being in charge of Nature. Only the one who created the world has the power to completely change and revert nature. This is why Pharaoh’s magicians were unsuccessful in their attempts to copy all the plagues. Moreover, each of the plagues came to teach its own lesson to the Jewish people who were sunken into the slave mentality of the 49th level of impurity. The plagues also taught important lessons to the Egyptians. Why did Hashem bring hail upon the Egyptians? This is because they had made the Israelites planters of their vineyards, gardens, orchards, and trees. On this account Hashem brought upon them hail, which destroyed all these plantations (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 12:3).The Zohar tells us that since the Egyptians did not repent, the דֶבֶר/dever – Pestilence, literally turned about its letters and became בָּרָד/barad – Hail, which killed all those that survived the Pestilence (Zohar 2:31b). We just emerged from a bout of hail and snow here in our part of Israel. The harshness of the hail really feels as a slap on the face. This stands in sharp contrast to the soft caress of the snowflakes covering our landscape with its white winter blanket. The hail in this week’s parasha was everything but gentle. However, according to the Zohar, the seventh plague, hail, corresponds to Chesed, which is the seventh sefirah when you count from Malchut. Although this plague has the severity of a killing hail, it also has the aspect of Loving/kindness. This was the only plague where something could be done to be saved from its harshness. Pharaoh was told that the cattle could be saved if it was brought to shelter (Shemot 9:19). Another connection between hail and Chesed, is that hail is frozen rain and we all know that water is Chesed. While the plague of hail affected all the plants, it distinguished between barley and wheat. “The flax and the barley were smitten; for the barley was in the ear, and the flax was in bloom. But the wheat and the spelt were not smitten; for they ripen late” (Shemot 9:31-32). It is interesting to note that wheat, which correspond to the sefirah of Chesed was spared by the plague of hail which likewise correspond to the sefirah of Chesed.

Why exactly was the wheat not affected by the plague of hail? What caused it to survive?

The Softest Survives
Rashi explains, “The [wheat] was late in growing and it was still soft and able to resist the blow of anything hard…” This softness of the wheat concurs with the attribute of Chesed, which means kindness. Perhaps it is the kindness and softness of the wheat that makes it late growing, not pushing itself forward like the tough barley and flax, the first grains to ripen. The way of the world is to think that you need to be tough to survive in a tough world, but the nature of wheat, in this week’s parasha, teaches us the very opposite. Head on confrontations usually don’t get us very far, even when we win we lose. The resentment of the one we knocked down or preceded is not worthwhile any kind of victory. When we are unassuming and pliable we can withstand hard strokes and bounce right back. With softness, we can withstand the rigid frozenness of the hail melting it into the waters of kindness. This is the lesson of the wheat, which was saved because its stems were still pliable.

Miracle of Miracles
The word used by the Torah to explain why wheat and spelt were not affected by the hail is אֲפִילֹת/afilot. This word is usually translated to mean unripe or not grown up. The Midrash makes a pun with the letters of the word, אֲפִילֹת/afilot, which can be unscrambled to spell out the word for wonder or miracle in Hebrew פלאות /p’laot. “Miracles of miracles פלאי פלאות/p’lei p’laot happened to the wheat, that it was not smitten (Rashi ibid.). In the first place, the plagues were all miracles anyway so what was the big deal about the miracle of the wheat? It seems natural that it wasn’t stricken since it hadn’t become full-grown yet. However, the hail did mite all the other soft weeds of the field (Shemot 9:25), and since the hail included fire in it, even the young wheat sprouts would naturally have been burned up (Nachalat Ya’acov). This is what made Rashi conclude that the survival of the wheat was a miracle within the miracle. It was natural that the hard barley and flax would be smitten, but it was a miracle that the soft grasses also were smitten, and it was a miracle within miracles that the wheat was spared from sharing the same fate as the rest of the soft grasses. The Torah verses about the wheat and the barley appears inside of Moshe’s speech to Pharaoh. This is because Moshe hinted to Pharaoh that he shouldn’t think that he is safe, just because nothing happened to him yet. This is only because his time had not yet come, as it is known that Hashem never punishes people until their sins have accumulated enough to make them ripe for the punishment. Pharaoh should take the hint from the wheat. Just as it had not yet ripened enough to be destroyed, the only reason why Pharaoh was still unharmed, is that his time had not yet come (The Taz on the Torah).

Firstborn among the Produce
Another reason why the hail smote only the barley, was that the Egyptians venerated all kind of ‘firstborn’ whether among plants, animals or people. Therefore, the barley and flax, the ‘firstborn’ among the produce was stricken, in order to allude to the last and hardest plague of the death of the firstborn. Perhaps this is why the Kohanim wore linen garments spun from fibers of flax, as they take the place of the firstborn. Yet, for sacrifices, wheat is preferred over the ‘firstborn’ of the plants (Chatam Sofer).

Establishing the Time of ‘Spring’
I love to watch the ripening of the green grasses turning into grain during the spring period between Pesach and Shavuot. The Torah explicit instructs us to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt during the month of אָבִיב /Aviv.

You shall observe the Feast of Matzah; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Aviv, for in it you came out of Egypt” (Shemot 23:15).

In Modern Hebrew “Aviv” means ‘spring.’ However, our Torah verse teaches us that the word more correctly refers to a stage of ripeness in grain crops – when the stalks are stiff but the heads of the grain are still green. For this reason, before we had a fixed calendar, our sages would pay great attention to the progress of the barley crop, in order to ensure that the month of Nissan would correlate with the time in the agricultural cycle of the original month of Nissan in which the plague of hail took place. We must also celebrate Pesach specifically during the season of ‘Aviv,’ when we emerge from the harsh shell of Egypt compared to barley and metamorphoses into the soft pliable wheat.

Enlightening the Dusk

Wheat is a metaphor for Israel as it states, “Your belly is a heap of wheat” (Song of Songs 7:3). Spelt (כֻּסֶּמֶת/kosemet), is a metaphor for the Kohanim as it states, “Neither shall they shave their heads, nor allow their locks to grow long; they shall only כָּסוֹם יִכְסְמוּ/kasom yiksemu – crop their heads” (Yechezkiel 44:20). The word אֲפִילֹת/afilot, which we translated as unripe can also mean dark or dusk. Metaphorically, Israel (wheat) has been darkened in exile, but in the future Hashem will illuminate their dusk as it states, “The sun shall be no more your light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light to you; but Hashem shall be to you an everlasting light, and your G-d your glory” (Yesha’yahu 60:19), (Tzror Hamor). It is interesting to note that the word אֲפִילֹת/afilot shares the numerical value with the word תחזק/techezek, which means to harden or become strong. We look forward to the time when the dark will turn into light, and the strength of the soft will be revealed in the world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Burning Bramble Bush

Nature in the Parasha: Parashat Shemot
Connecting to Hashem by Taking Notice of Nature
Rubus Sanctus
Much is taught about the ‘Burning Bush,’ and how Hashem revealed Himself to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai while he was shepherding Yitro’s flock. Actually, the Hebrew word for bush סְּנֶה/s’neh shares the same root as Sinai, where Moshe later would ascend to receive the Torah. Hashem selected this desolate dry place in the wilderness for Moshe’s very first prophesy. G-d revealed Himself gradually to Moshe in order not to blind him from so much unexpected light in one go. First, He showed him an unusual sight, a bush that was aflame but not burning up. Inside of the heart of the flame, an angel of Hashem appeared to Moshe (Shemot 3:2). It was only after Moshe noticed and turned to see why the bush was not consumed (ibid. 3), that “Hashem appeared because he turned to see…” (Ibid 4). Hashem’s prophecy to Moshe was in response of Moshe’s taking notice of the nature surrounding him and asking questions, going closer to try to understand what he saw. How often do we completely ignore amazing sights happening right under our noses, as we walk around with our smartphones, our faces deeply buried in Facebook. If we want prophecy or even just a glimmer of a connection with Hashem, we need to lift our head out of oblivion to the nature around us and begin to open our eyes and ask questions about what we see!

Hashem’s Comforting Presence Within our Pain
Ironically enough even as I myself write this, I interrupted my writing to have a little chat via Facebook with a friend who was in need of chizuk (strengthening). During the Egyptian exile, the Jewish people were in need of encouragement and chizuk as we are today. From time immemorial, our souls are always burning from the fire of trouble surrounding us from all sides. According to nature, we would expect that the Jewish people would succumb and be consumed by our numerous troubles. Yet, we continue to withstand all of our enemies. This is one of the metaphors of the burning bush, which was “Once a heathen asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, ‘Why did your G-d appear to Moshe in such a lowly type of bush?’ The Rabbi answered him, ‘If it had been a carob tree or a sycamore, would you not have asked the same question? But, I will answer you. Why in a thorn bush? To teach us there is no place where the Divine Presence is not to be found, even in a lowly bush” (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 2:5). It was specifically in the midst of the burning bush that Hashem’s presence was found. This teaches us that within the hardships that we go through, that is exactly where we will find Hashem’s comforting presence. “Then the angel of Hashem appeared unto him (Moshe) in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked and, behold, the bush was burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (Shemot 3:2). Whatever, our troubles may be, they exist to help us find and reconnect with that comforting Presence in an even deeper way. Once we learn to turn inwards to the midst of our thorny pain, then it can melt away in the warmth of our renewed connection with the Eternal inner love. At that point, we realize that our happiness is not dependent on removing all the things that cause us pain. These are all external, and what really matters is our internal connection with the Divine.

Which kind of Plant was the Burning Bush?
In the Written Torah there is not much information for identifying the burning bush. However, our rabbis during Talmudic times were acquainted with this kind of bush. The Midrash teaches us that it was commonly used as a garden hedge and grew under different types of conditions. “Just as this bush grew by the water, so does Israel only grow in the merit of the Torah, which is called water. Just as this bush grew both in gardens and at rivers, so does Israel live in both this and the coming world. Just as this bush produces both thorns and roses, so are there both wicked and righteous people among the Jewish people. Just as this bush had thorns that curved inwards in such a way that when a person inserts his hand into it, he is unscathed, but when he withdraws it, it lacerates him. Likewise, when Israel went down to Egypt, they were unknown, but when they emerged out, they became known by the signs and wonders of the plagues. Just as this bush has five petals that emerge from one point so is Israel redeemed in the merit of Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’acov, Moshe and Aharon” (Midrash Shemot Rabah 2:5). The Jerusalem Talmud (Ma’aserot 3a) tells us that the bush produced a berry that was at first red and then turned black. All of this point to the correct identification of the s’neh by the monks of St. Catherine in Sinai as the Rubus Sanctus (Louis I. Rabinowitz, Torah and Flora, Chapter 13). I found further support for this in Rav Shimon of Shantz commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Zeraim 46a. He explains that the berries of the burning bush are hairy when unripe. This concurs with botanical descriptions of Rubus Sanctus, also called Palestinian Blackberry. Additional features described by the Midrash are, likewise, botanically verified: “…Petals usually 5, rarely more, occasionally absent, white, pink, or red, or hairy…” (http://zipcodezoo.com/Plants/R/Rubus_sanctus/).

Healing Israel’s Wound of Exile
The greatest healing in the world is the healing of compassion. Our wounds begin to heal when we feel that a friend shares our pain. G-d is the greatest healer. He precedes the healing to the wound. This is why Yocheved, the mother of Moshe, our redeemer, was born before going down into the wound of Egypt (Ramchal, Bereishit). “I will go down and save them from Egypt” (Shemot 3:8). G-d left every mountain and dwelled inside of the lowly bramble bush as it states, “G-d called him from within the bush” (Ibid. 4). Hashem went down to the troublesome and sharp bush, filled with all kinds of thorns” (Midrash Pirkei Hayeridot 2). This is because, “when Israel went down to Egypt, the Shechina went down with them. Pay attention to the Creator’s compassion. All of Israel’s pain causes Him pain as it states, ‘In all their affliction He was afflicted’” (Yesha’yahu 63:9), Batei Midrashot, 2, Mechilta Parashat Shemot).

The Wound Healing Properties of the Bramble
I’m so excited to discover the connection between the spiritual/emotional healing that took place at the burning bush, and the medicinal properties of Rubus Sanctus. Just as Hashem came to down to the burning bush to heal Israel’s wound of exile, young bramble shoots have been used for healing of wounds and infected insect bites in folk medicine for ages. Scientific research was done to evaluate the wound healing activity of Rubus Sanctus. Rubus Sanctus Schreber aerial parts were collected from Kıbrısköy village, Ankara, Turkey during June to July 2007. Remarkable wound healing activity was observed with the ointment formulation of the methanol extract at 1% concentration. In conclusion, the present study demonstrated that the aerial parts of R. sanctus promote wound healing activity in animal as a preclinical study. The methanolic extract showed remarkable wound healing activity and it may be suggested for treating various types’ wounds in animal and human beings (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3139958/).

Just as there is medicinal healing properties for wounds within the bristly burning bush, so can we find healing for our painful challenges of life, specifically within the heart of our pain. Perhaps this principle is also alluded to by the fact that Rubus Sanctus contain both thorns and delicious berries. When we find Hashem’s compassionate presence within our affliction, then the thorns of our troubles make way for the sweetest berries of faith.