Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Longing for the Land

 Nature in the Parasha - Parashat V’Etchanan
Denied Entry 
In this week’s parasha Moshe is imploring Hashem with all His heart to be able to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe wanted nothing more than to be able to place his foot – just once – on the sacred soil of the Holy Land.
ספר דברים פרק ג (כג) וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל יְהֹוָה בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר: (כה) אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנֹן
“I pleaded with Hashem at that time, saying: …Please let me cross over, and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill-country, and the Levanon” (Devarim 3:23-25).

Moshe prayed so much and so hard to enter the land of Israel that Hashem made him stop praying (Devarim 3:26). This is after Moshe had already prayed 515 prayers to enter the land (the numerical value of the word וָאֶתְחַנַּן/va’etchanan); (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 11:10). In spite of his heartfelt prayers, Moshe was denied to even visit the land of Israel. How fortunate are we today that even without the slightest prayer, every Jew can claim his birthright to cross the threshold of the land of Israel. Growing up in Denmark without a vibrant Jewish community, our connection to the Land of Israel was naturally highlighted. In many similar dwindling European Jewish communities, you have the choice to either assimilate or make aliyah. I’m fortunate to have chosen the latter, thanks to my encouraging parents, may they live and be well. As a child, my parents would take my sisters and me on yearly visits to Israel. The scent of the orange groves in Hertzlia near my grandparents’ OBM residence still lingers in my memory. The beach, the sun and the sand of the land attracted me with incomparable magnetic power.

Eternal Longing
Each of the Avot, (Patriarchs), are associated with a specific quality: Avraham with chesed, kindness; Yitchak with gevurah, self-control; etc. Moshe is associated with netzach – eternity. Everything that Moshe did was forever. Therefore, Moshe prayed, “to see the good land” in order to give it a ‘good eye’ for everlasting blessing for the land to be eternally good for Israel (S’forno, Devarim 3:25). Everything that Moshe did had the touch of eternity. Had Moshe entered the land of Israel, it would have been the eternal redemption. He would have instantly known the place of the Temple mount, which was hidden until the times of King David. This is the meaning of “the good mountain and the Levanon,” which are metaphors for Jerusalem and the Temple (Rashi, Devarim 3:5). Moshe would then immediately build the Eternal Temple, which never would have been destroyed (Malbim, Devarim 3:25). However, due to Israel’s lack of emuna when the report of the spies made them afraid to conquer the land, they caused the decree of the destruction of the Temples and exile. Therefore, Moshe was not permitted to enter the Land of Israel. Otherwise, the Jewish People would have never again been able to leave the Land (Malbim, Bamidbar 20:13). Yet, G-d made Moshe’s non-entry into the Land serve a positive purpose. Hashem wanted to ingrain the longing for the Land of Israel into the collective psyche of the Jewish People. By showing Moshe every blade of grass, by taking him and showing him every corner of the land he was never to enter, Hashem implanted within the heart of Moshe an eternal longing for the Land of Israel (Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair,

Recapturing Moshe’s Longing for the Land
Moshe’s yearning for the land of Israel reverberated throughout all generations and never left the Jewish people. Every Shabbat and holiday we recite “Shir Hama’alot – A song of ascent, when Hashem brings about our return to Zion, we will be like dreamers…” (Tehillim 126:1). Rabbi Yehuda Halevi who lived in Toledo, Spain during the middle ages is famous for his Zionistic outlook. He believed that the land of Israel is unique not only in a metaphysical sense, but also in a natural sense. The air is clearer and charged with ruach hakodesh, the divine spirit. Nature is more beautiful and magnificent in Zion than elsewhere. The rain, the soil, the stones, are all physically different in the land of Israel. When the Torah describes the land of Israel as “flowing with milk and honey” (Devarim 26:9), it implies that there is a unique quality in the nature of the land itself. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi was in love with the land of Israel. While many pilgrims traveled to Israel, none expressed their love for Israel as passionately:

My heart is in the East but I’m furthest West,
how shall I savor my food, how taste?
How shall I honor vows and pledges while
Zion is bound to Edom and I’m in Arab chains?
Spain’s bounty left behind would be a delight
like the sight of the Holy of Holies’ dust.

These moving words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi resound in Rabbi Nachman of Breslau’s proclamation, “My place is only in Eretz Yisrael, and wherever I go I’m going to Eretz Yisrael. It’s just that, in the meanwhile, I’m stopping in Breslau” (Chayei Moharon 156). These sacred words are like a rope of rescue for anyone living in the Diaspora even temporarily.

Yearning for the Land from Afar
I held on to this rope of rescue during the four years when I followed my husband to the Diaspora. After having made Aliyah in 1980 and taken roots in Jerusalem where our first son was born and raised, my husband was called to fulfill his obligation to the United States of America. Way before having been enthralled with the magic of our spiritual homeland, while he attended New Jersey Medical School, my husband obligated himself to pay back his university loans by working in a physician shortage area. He was able to postpone his duty for more than seven years, but the day came when he would have to choose between being a doctor or an inmate in an US. correction center. I felt like I was mercilessly torn away from my beloved homeland, the land of my soul, but I had no choice other than trotting along. I managed in USA and even learned how to drive, but not a day went by without missing the land of Israel. The pain of this yearning was like longing for a missing a part of myself, which is eternally linked with the Holy Land. My longing for the land was possibly an outgrowth of Moshe’s desire for the land. He didn’t desire the Promised Land in order to eat of her fruits, but only because the land of Israel is prepared for the uppermost holiness. In this land we can rise to a greater perfection, this is the meaning of “I will see the good land,” as the land is good for the perfection of the soul, which is the only true good (Malbim, Devarim 3:25).

Chain-Reaction of Longing in the Soul-Pool of Israel
One of the Torah teachings that kept me going during the lows of my personal exile was a teaching by Rav Kook that when we yearn to return to the Land of Israel, it causes a mystical chain-reaction of longing in the soul-pool of klal Yisrael (The general community of Israel). The love and connection to Eretz Yisrael, like the longing of a lover far away from his beloved, awaken other Jews to return to Zion. This is because all Jewish souls are linked together. Therefore, the yearning and passionate desire for the land of Israel paves the way for redemption. As Rav Kook expressed it:

“…The depth of the holy yearning of the love of Zion acts like an overflowing spring to all of the klal, to the myriads of souls which are bound up with him. ...The hope of life for Israel sparkles; the planting of G-d develops and blooms; and the light of salvation and redemption spreads out like the dawn which stretches over the mountains” (Rav Kook, Orot 6).

Now that I have returned once again to the Holy Land, I treasure the memory of my past yearning, knowing that this empowered me to help others to return to the Promised Land. I like to share the following poem that I wrote soon after settling in Bat Ayin, Gush Etzion:

Sunset over the Judean Hills

As I stand on the foot of the rugged mountains, and let my gaze climb the rocky hills,
I think about how much this land means to me.

I have traveled the world, climbed the Alps of Switzerland,
ridden on the Skyline Drive in Virginia, and touched the stalagmites in its caverns.

My love for nature has been fostered since childhood.
I was practically born in a forest.
Two ancient beech trees graced my parent’s garden in Denmark.
We used to climb the fence that separated our backyard and the forest.
At springtime we delighted in the blanket of pure white anemones,
which covered the ground.

When I stand here looking at the Judean hills, I must admit that
others may not notice anything spectacular about the scenery which I face.

Its grass is not as green as the Danish forests.
Its mountains are not as marvelous as the Swiss Alps.

Yet, there is something else about this land that keeps me spellbound.
The blueness of the sky invokes a sincerity that I have never felt before.
The heavenly glow of the light is something that I have never seen in any other place.

As sunset is approaching this light draws me outside – outside of the shell
of my house, and almost outside of myself.

As I gaze at the reflection of the bright light on the golden mountain cliffs,
my whole being becomes one with the radiant atmosphere.

This is the land of our Fathers and Mothers.
Here, Avraham bought the holy soil as an abode for the souls
of those selected to carry on his mission.

Close by, Sarah’s tent was revived with the candlelight lasting from Shabbat to Shabbat, the blessing of the challah, and the cloud of glory
as Rivkah carried on her spiritual genetics.

Not far from my view, Ya’acov had his prophetic dream.
When the last angel had climbed the ladder of heaven he exclaimed:
“Surely the Eternal is in this place; and I knew it not.”
Now we know, because he has taught us how fearful this place is,
it being the house of G-d and the gate of heaven.

Here, Rachel’s soul bitterly weeps for her children in exile. But “there is hope
for your future says Hashem, and your children shall come back again
to their own border.”

Yes, we have come back O Rachel, to the fields where you herded your flock,
to the well where you kissed your beloved. To bring comfort
to the ancient rocks of your tomb, to confide in you – our ageless mother.
We pour out our pain mingled with hope
as we kiss the soft velvet draping of your spirit.

Yes, we have returned to these barren hills who were yearning to yield
their crops to Your children. This is the time to plant and the time to build up.
The vineyards of the Judean Mountains are bursting with ripe juicy grapes
longing to be gobbled up by freckled golden haired children
leisurely dangling their sunburned legs over the rosemary hedge.

These are the mountains that Moshe could see only from afar.
His eyes straining to take in the entire view as he bemoaned,
“I shall not come into that good land which the Eternal thy G-d gives you for an inheritance... but you shall pass over, and possess that good land.”
We are passing over and possessing the good land as we walk its length and breadth.

How the greatest among us throughout our past would have given, and
gave their entire life in order just to kiss this holy soil once.
They have rendered their blood to enable us
to embrace the sacred ground with our eager steps.

As I look at the sun setting over the sea-like ridges of the Judean hills,
I feel so privileged to be born in the era of return.
I feel as if the Bible is opening up to me, and I walk right on its pages.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Lyre Shaped Kineret Sea of Galilee

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Devarim
Drinking from Miriam’s Well Buried in Kineret
Bat Ayin Women's Trip to Kevrei Tzaddikim and the Kineret
We are opening a new book of Torah and entering a new point of time. דְּבָרִים/Devarim means ‘harsh words,’ yet within the harshness of the destruction of the Temple there is the consolation of Hashem’s increased mercy and love. He only allowed this destruction to help us grow. Likewise, Moshe opened the Book of Devarim – his repetition of the Torah – with words of rebuke in order to elevate us. Now, before Moshe’s demise at the verge of entering the Land of Israel he reminisces the Israelite’s 40-year wandering in the desert. In Moshe’s description of the land on the other side of the Jordan River, allotted to the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half the tribe of Menashe, he mentions the Kineret Sea of Galilee.
ספר דברים פרק ג (יז) וְהָעֲרָבָה וְהַיַּרְדֵּן וּגְבֻל מִכִּנֶּרֶת וְעַד יָם הָעֲרָבָה יָם הַמֶּלַח תַּחַת אַשְׁדֹּת הַפִּסְגָּה מִזְרָחָה
“[We also seized] the Aravah, which borders the Jordan, from Kineret down to the sea of the Aravah, the Salt Sea, under the slopes of Pisgah eastward” (Devarim 3:17).

Oh, how I long to once again bask in the sweet waters of the Kineret, talking to Hashem while gazing at the mountain ridges in the horizon and swimming in the clear blue waters enveloping me. Emerging from the lake, I always feel recharged spiritually, internally cleansed and reconnected with my neshama. Perhaps, this is because the well of Miriam is buried in the Kineret (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 5:10), and the strength of her nurturing musical spirit attach itself to those who immerse in her waters. Perhaps, this is why the Kineret is so very enchanting, especially at sunup and sundown. Miriam’s Well, known as Be’er Miriam in Hebrew is like a perforated rock from which water used to trickle, and which “ascended mountains with [the Israelites in the desert] and descended to the valleys with them” (Tosefta Sotah 11:1). After it completed its purpose in the wilderness, Hashem moved it for safekeeping into the Land of Israel. The Midrash tells of a person who “suffered from boils and went down to immerse in the waters of Tiberias, it was an opportune time, and he saw Miriam’s Well and washed in it and was healed...” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 18:22). What is the underlying power of Miriam’s Well? It is the Shechina, from where Kineret receives her dazzling illumination.

Kinor & Kineret
The כִּנֶּרֶת/Kineret actually gets its name from the musical instrument כִּנּוֹר/kinor with which it is etymologically linked. In Modern Hebrew kinor is a violin, in the Torah it refers to a lyre like the one King David would play when shepherding. Why is the Sea of Galilee called Kineret? Because its fruits are sweet like the music of a lyre (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 6a). Kineret gets her name from the Hebrew word kinor, because her fruit are sweet like the sound of the lyre which is sweet to those who hear it” (Rabbi Yosef B’Chorr, Devarim 33:23). Some say that its very name comes from its similarity to the kinor because of either its shape or the musical sound of its waves. “This beautiful lyre-shaped lake is one of the most beautiful sites of the Land, and one of its most important sources of fresh water and fish. Lying 212 meters below the level of the Mediterranean, this lake is 21 km (13 miles) long and 13 km (eight miles) at its greatest width, with a circumference of 53 km (33 miles).

In the Land of Naftali or Zevulun?

When you look at a biblical map outlining the land of each tribe, it is clear that Kineret is in Naftali’s tribe as it states in the Torah (Devarim 33:23), and in the Talmud (Baba Batra 122a). Nevertheless, the Zohar writes that Kineret was in Zevulun’s lot (Zohar 3:150a). Arizal explains that there are two aspects of the Kineret: the masculine aspect is called Kinor while the feminine aspect is called Kineret. It is only the masculine aspect, Kinor that is linked with the tribe of Zevulun, while Kineret is in the land of Naftali who is connected with the feminine. We learn this from the initials of his blessing by Ya’acov: נַפְתָּלִי אַיָּלָה שְׁלֻחָה הַנֹּתֵן/Naftali Ayala Sh’lucha Hanoten (Bereishit 49:21). These initials spell out the Hebrew word אִשָּׁה/Isha – woman (Arizal, Sefer Halikutim, Parashat Ekev 8). I like to view the rounded forms of the Kineret like a mother who nurtures her people Israel with her life-giving waters.

The Song of the Sea of Kineret
The lake of Kineret is also called in גנוסר/Ginosar from גני שרים/ganei sharim – the gardens sing. This is connected to Naftali’s blessing “he gives goodly words…” (Bereishit 49:21), which refers to song. Devorah singled out Naftali and praised him in her song (Shoftim 5:18), (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 98:17). How do the gardens of the seashores of Kineret sing? The kings that had gardens there sang, and everyone who saw the fruits that grew there would bless and praise the Kineret in song. This is the meaning of “he gives goodly words…” (Mizrachi, Bereishit 49:21). The fruits the grows from the waters of the Kineret are considered so special that during Temple times you would not be able to taste them in Jerusalem in order to prevent people from making the required pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the wrong reason of eating the fruits of Tiberas in Jerusalem. Likewise, the hot springs of Tiberias are not found in Jerusalem to ensure that people make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the sake of the mitzvah rather than in order to soak in these hot springs (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 8b).

Kineret and Malchut
The Kineret is both king of all the seas in the world as well as the spiritual gathering place of all waters. When we don’t have enough rain, the Kineret gets dangerously low, yet when we do have a good year of rain, the Kineret rises. The holiness of Eretz Yisrael manifests itself through seven different spiritual illuminations corresponding to the seven Divine spheres from chesed to malchut. Kineret receives her illumination directly from the Shechina. According to Rabbi Yossi, “For He has founded it upon seas” (Tehilim 24:2) refers to the seven pillars of the sefirot, corresponding to the seven seas upon which the earth is supported. The Sea of Kineret, which is malchut, rules over them. Rabbi Yehuda explains that rather than ‘ruling over them,’ malchut receives from the sefirot; thus, the Sea of Kineret is filled from them (Zohar 2:23a). Interestingly, כְּנֶסֶת יִשְׁרָאֵל/Knesset Yisrael, which means the gathering of Israel and כִּנֶּרֶת יָם/Yam Kineret – The Sea of Galilee have the same initials. Just as the job of the king is to unite and gather his people, at the Kineret, all of Israel are connected. Just take a ride around the Kineret during a hot summer day and watch all the family gatherings barbecuing at its shore, children of all ages and dominations splash in her waters. Fishing, boating, rafting, waterskiing and swimming is for everyone whether you are secular, modern orthodox or chareidi, a child, teenager, adult or elderly. We all gather at the Kineret. We can understand why Hashem proclaims, “From among the seven seas that I have created I chose specifically the Kineret (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 19).

King David’s Alarm-Clock
Malchut is a feminine quality as it is the ultimate receiver. This explains why the lake of Kineret receives and gathers all waters within her. The well of Miriam was in the merit of a woman, as the water would be found effortlessly within it. Likewise, King David, a direct descendent of Miriam, ( received the heavenly melodies and lyrics of his Tehillim. Although David was a man, who fought many wars, he was connected with the feminine quality of malchut through his humility, music and repentance. According to the Zohar the royal color of the תְּכֵלֶת/techelet – sky-blue thread, reflecting the Throne of Glory, is produced from a certain fish in the sea of Kineret. It is after this fish that Kineret gets its name. Like the sea of the Kineret, the sky-blue color also corresponds to malchut. Yet, there is another reason for the name כִּנֶּרֶת/Kineret. It is connected to the כִּנּוֹר /kinor – lyre hanging above David’s bed, (in the secret of malchut). This lyre would play on its own to the supernal Holy King. (Zohar 1:175b). The fact that the lyre would play by itself without anyone’s effort imbues it with the quality of malchut – the feminine receiver. It would only play on its own in the middle of the night when the north wind would blow. This would wake David up to learn Torah at midnight in order to connect himself with the congregation of Israel (Zohar 1:206b). The feminine lake of Kineret teaches us to become a vessel for Hashem’s malchut. Just as Kineret receives the waters from the rivers of the Jordan River, which flows through it from north to south, and David’s lyre allowed the north wind to gently strum its strings, we too can become a channel that receives abundance from Above by letting go letting G-d. A great way to practice letting go is by floating on our back in the waters of the Kineret, allowing the wind to gently rock us to secure shores.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Weeping White Broom Bush

Nature in the Torah - Parashat Matot/Masai
Broom Bush
As we move deeper into the heat of summer, the fresh garden greenery is gradually yellowing and drying. The barren parched thorny landscape reminds me that we live in the Middle East not far away from the Judean Desert. Even some of the plants that sprout forth during the lush, greenery of spring really belong to the desert. One such desert scrub that graces the Middle Eastern landscape during mid spring is the graceful White Broom, Retama raetam in Latin from the Hebrew רוֹתֶם/Rotem. רתם/Ratam in Hebrew means to harness, rein in, hold in. The רוֹתֶם/Rotem, sometimes called רוֹתֶם הַמִּדְבָּר/Rotem Hamidbar – The White Broom of the Wilderness, is one of the most effective plants for holding back sand dunes.

I adore the Rotem’s myriad of small white mini flowers with their deep purple circles. After a couple of months, these flowers turn into pea-like pods containing one or two kidney-shaped seeds. The branches hang down like the Weeping Willow no wonder the Rotem is sometimes called, Weeping White Broom. My Rotem bush has reason to weep, as it is sandwiched in between a huge pine and olive tree and has no room to stretch out its branches or get much sunshine. Somehow, it is hanging in there, although it is far from reaching its full potential as a shrub that can grow to become three meters tall with downy young foliage on long slender branches. In any case, White broom is a low maintenance plant. It grows mainly on sandy and gravel hills. It is able to grow in very dry conditions due to its lack of leaves. Its seed may lie dormant in the soil for many years, germinating even after fire, but I haven’t tested that. Neither have I tested the Talmudic statement that fire made from Rotem embers is hotter than regular fires, as my Rotem is not big enough to cut down into firewood. What I find fascinating is that the very same bush under which Hagar threw her son Yismael, and where Eliyahu the prophet took shelter grows right here in my own garden. What is the underlying spiritual message of the White Broom mentioned several times in the Torah, and what can we learn from it specifically at this time?

Weeping over the Immeasurable Destruction Caused by Evil Speech
The White Broom Bush has an important message to teach us, which is especially pertinent as we move into the gloomy Month of Av, preceding the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was doomed for destruction before it was even built, because of the Israelites’ belief in the evil report of the spies during that fatal Ninth of Av in the desert. Today, we work on rectifying the lack of emunah that led the spies to slander the Land of Israel and the rest of the people to believe in their evil speech. The Weeping White Broom bush teaches us to weep over the immeasurable destruction caused by lashon hara (evil speech). Its repercussions are so powerful that they could render the magnificent Temple into shambles a thousand years before it was even built.

Continuing to Burn Within like White Broom’s Embers
ספר תהילים פרק קכ (ג) מַה יִּתֵּן לְךָ וּמַה יֹּסִיף לָךְ לָשׁוֹן רְמִיָּה: (ד) חִצֵּי גִבּוֹר שְׁנוּנִים עִם גַּחֲלֵי רְתָמִים
“What shall be given to you or what shall be done to you, you false tongue? Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of the broom tree” (Tehillim 120:3-4).

King David compares the power of evil speech with the resilient Rotem scrub, whose coals do not easily extinguish. A person who speaks lashon hara is similar to the coals of the Rotem shrub: although they seem extinguished from outside, they nevertheless keep burning within. Likewise, a person may pretend to be friendly on the outside, while secretly speaking lashon hara about others (Metzudat David, Tehillim 120:4). The Jerusalem Talmud explains why evil speech is compared specifically to the embers of Rotem coals. “…All other embers once they are turned off on the outside, are also extinguished on the inside, while the Rotem embers, even when they are extinguished on the outside, continue to burn inside. In evidence, take the case of one who left burning Rotem embers on Sukkot and returned on Pesach” (Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 5a). Other sources credit the Rotem embers with the power to continually burn for twelve months or even eighteen full months: “Rav Ashi said: Huna bar Natan told me: ‘Once we were walking in the wilderness and we had a leg of meat with us. We dressed the meat, cleaned it, and placed it on some plants. While we were fetching wood, the leg regained its original skin texture and we roasted it. When we returned after twelve months, we saw those coals still glowing. When I came before Amimar, he said to me, the plants were samtari (yarrow). Those glowing coals were Rotem embers’” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 74b). The Midrash tells a tale of a fire made from Rotem embers that after being extinguished continued to burn for 18 months through the seasons of winter, summer and winter. This same Midrash elaborates on the power of evil speech compared to both the arrow and the Rotem, “Sharp arrows of the mighty” (Tehillim 120:4) – Why select the arrow from all weapons? All other weapons strike close up, while this one strikes from afar. That is the way of evil speech, “What is said in Rome, kills in Syria.” Furthermore, someone who accepted a slander, although you have appeased him and he has seemingly been appeased, his anger may still burn within him, just as the embers of White Broom keeps burning (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 98:19). The well-known endurance of the Rotem even had Halachic repercussions. In the discussion about what may be kept on a fire on Shabbat, the Talmud mentions, “A completely cooked dish even if it is upon white broom embers” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 37b). Rashi explains that white broom embers are hotter than other embers and are not easily extinguished (Rashi, ibid.).

Throwing Her Son Under a White Broom Bush
Although the White Broom fire’s power is compared to the in-extinguishable effects of evil speech, the power of the Rotem also has redeeming qualities. In the Rosh Hashana Torah reading, Hashem tells Avraham to listen to the voice of Sarah and expel Hagar and Yishmael (Bereishit 21:12), because of the way Yismael was behaving towards Yitzchak. According to Rashi, Yishmael was trying to kill him (Rashi, Bereishit 21:9). Hagar and Yishmael get lost in the wilderness. Their water runs out and Yishmael is almost dying of thirst. Contrary to what a good Yiddishe Mamma (Jewish mom) would do, Hagar throws her son under one of the bushes in despair, because she can’t bear watching the death of her son (Bereishit 21:15-16). Rabbi Meir identifies the bush under which Hagar threw her son, as being the Rotem – White Broom bush, because the Rotem bush grows in the wilderness (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 53:13). How does Rabbi Meir know under which bush Hagar threw Yishmael, and why is this even important to know? Hagar and Yishmael got lost in the desert of Be’er Sheva (Bereishit 21:14). The wilderness of Be’er Sheva borders to the wilderness of Paran, where Yismael settled down after recovering. It is possible that Rabbi Meir identified “one of the bushes” with the Rotem because of the name Ritmah in the wilderness of Paran where Yismael dwelt after he was sent away with Hagar, “He dwelled in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother took him a wife from the land of Egypt” (Bereishit 21:21). Furthermore, the Rotem is the only bush that grows in the desert of Paran.

A Plant of the Wild Wilderness
The main reason for Rabbi Meir’s discovery that Hagar threw Yishmael under a Rotem bush is that there is an inconsistency in the recount of the wandering of the Israelites in the desert, which links the Wilderness of Paran with the White Broom bush. In one place, the Wilderness of Paran is mentioned as the stop following Chatzerot:
ספר במדבר פרק יב (טז) וְאַחַר נָסְעוּ הָעָם מֵחֲצֵרוֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּמִדְבַּר פָּארָן
“Afterwards the people traveled from Chatzerot and encamped in the wilderness of Paran” (Bamidbar 12:15).

Yet in this week’s parasha, the stop following Chatzerot is called Ritmah from the language of the Rotem – White Broom. It was a place so called because of the Rotem plants that grew there.
ספר במדבר פרק לג (יח) וַיִּסְעוּ מֵחֲצֵרֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּרִתְמָה
They traveled from Chatzerot and encamped in Ritmah (Bamidbar 33:18).

We can resolve the inconsistencies between the two Torah verses (Bamidbar 12:16 and 33:18) by explaining that Ritmah is part of the wilderness of Paran. This clarifies the two different names given for the stop following Chatzerot, (Midbar Paran and Ritmah). רִתְמָה/Ritmah and מִדְבַּר פָּארָן/Midbar Paran describe the same location, yet this week’s parasha, which repeats the Israelites’ stops in wilderness, is more specific by mentioning the particular part of the Wilderness of Paran, which is Ritmah.

Keeping the Spark of Steadfast Emunah Alive Within
What difference does it make which bush Hagar threw her dying son? What was the spiritual message she needed to learn from the Rotem bush? Hagar was at the brink of despair, she behaved like a typical Egyptian daughter who lacks emunah in Hashem’s miraculous delivery. With her superficial vision of reality, she was convinced that her son was going to die. She had not yet integrated the understanding of Hashem’s miraculous way of running the world. Possibly, she also lacked the depth of care to save the life of her ailing son. A Jewish mother would never leave her sick child because she had no strength to see him suffering. This is cruel egoism (Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch). The Jewish view is never to give up, even when according to logic, science and the doctors, all hope is lost. “Even if a sharp sword is pressing on a person’s neck he should never despair of pleading for G-d’s mercy… (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 10a). Hashem chose this tenacious White Broom bush to teach humanity never to give up hope, even when all seems lost. The spiritual power of the Ritmah plant has the ability to revive a person even after complete despair. The Rotem plant taught Hagar to keep hanging in there in spite of her plight. We all need to be reminded that even when all hope is lost on the surface, the spark of our internal emunah never extinguishes. Just as the Rotem bush holds on to the sand-dunes and harnesses them from eroding, so can we learn from the White Broom rather than crumbling down and collapsing, to hold on to steadfast emunah.

Eliyahu’s Shelter Under a Rotem Bush
Generations after Hagar, Eliyahu the Prophet reached the same Be’er Sheva desert, fleeing from the wrath of Izevel after he had killed the priests of Ba’al. The Rotem’s steadfast power and tenacity of continual burning also taught Eliyahu not to lose hope. From the Rotem, he learned perseverance against all the obstacles of being pursued by the evil queen.

“Frightened he fled for his life. When he reached Be’er Sheva… he left his servant there; he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a White Broom bush, sat down under it, and prayed for death. ‘Enough!’ he cried. ‘Now, O Hashem take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’ He lay down and fell asleep under the White Broom bush. Suddenly an angel touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat.’ He looked about, and there, besides his head, was a cake baked on embers, and a pitcher of water. He ate and he drank, and lay down again. The angel of Hashem came a second time and touched him, saying, ‘Arise and eat; or the journey will be too much for you.’ He arose and ate and drank; and with the strength from that meal, he walked forty days and forty nights as far as the mountain of G-d at Chorev” (I Melachim 19:3-8).

Infusing Eliyahu with 40-day Continual Spiritual Nourishment
Just as the Rotem can go on burning for months without being relit so was Eliyahu able to continue to go on, without any other sustenance after having been imbued with the energy of the Rotem through sitting in its shade and ingesting a cake burned on its embers. Sleeping under the shade of the Rotem permeated him with endurance that comes with trust, and eating the cakes burned on its embers, strengthened his internal willpower to continue to burn with zeal for Hashem. This is similar to Yonah, whom Hashem fed Manna when he was suffering inside of the big fish. This was in order to teach Yonah the lesson of trusting in Hashem, which the daily gift of the heavenly Manna imparted (Rashi, Yonah 2:1, Old version). There are several parallels between Yonah and Eliyahu and a direct link between them, as Yonah was the boy Eliyahu revived (Torah Temima, Bereishit 49:13). Like Eliyahu, Yonah also was sheltered under the shade of a tree. In Yona’s case, it was a Castor oil tree, as its oil has the ability to purify and cleanse. Hashem possibly selected this tree in order to cleanse him of his desire to die. Likewise, the Rotem tree cured Eliyahu from his lack of life energy, despair and depression, by infusing him with its fiery resilient power.

Recharging Eliyahu with the Rotem’s Fiery Power
Eliyahu’s power was in fire. When he fought the prophets of the Ba’al he brought down fire from heaven (II Melachim 1:12). In the end, he himself ascended alive to heaven in the chariot of fire and horses of fire (II Melachim 2:11). Then everyone clearly saw that the fire from heaven permeated his soul and all of his limbs and organs. He was completely fire, and his zealotry was of fire. How did Eliyahu get his fiery power? When he escaped Achav and Izevel to the wilderness, he was devoid of any fire and passion in life. In fact, he was so depressed he wanted to die. Then Hashem designated the White Broom Bush for Eliyahu to lean on and recharge him with its fire. “He sat under a White Broom, slept under it, and ate a cake baked on [Rotem] embers.” Through this encounter with the Rotem, Eliyahu was not only cured from his despair and depression, the White Broom furthermore transferred its great inner fire of tenacity to Eliyahu and empowered him with so much vital energy that he proceeded for forty days and night on his mission to reach the mountain of G-d. The Weeping White Broom silently wishers to anyone who comes near it, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” (Joseph P. Kennedy).

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Cryptic Caper Bush

Nature in the Parasha - Parashat Pinchas
Delicate Fleeting Flower Flash with Steadfast Perseverance
Caper Flowers in Rebbetzin's Garden
Every summer I am dazzled by the exquisite elegant caper flowers with their stunning purple pistils enveloping them like daunting protective power plants. These exotic delicate flowers open their petals at the dusk of the cooling sundown summer evenings, for a tantalizing fleeting flash until the blazing late morning sun wilt away their elusive petals at the heart of day. During the growing peak of the year from fall to summer, when the Middle Eastern landscape bursts with flowery herbage, the latent caper plant stands silently dormant. A few dry sticks is all that remains of its former glory. Yet, during the scorching month of Tamuz (July) with the wilting sun-beaten yellowish scenery, the raw beauty of the striking caper flowers surprise us with their splendor. Not only are the caper flowers a delight for the eyes, the capers can be cured into a piquant delicacy served at the Shabbat table. For centuries, capers have been one of the most desired ingredients in the kitchens all around the Mediterranean basin. They are very high in powerful anti-oxidants, and contain a good amount of vitamin K, which promotes bone health and prevents excessive bleeding. Vitamin K also aids in cell growth, development of cartilage and the nervous system. Caper parts are used to relieve rheumatic pain in traditional medicine. In addition, the spicy caper pickles help relieve stomachache and flatulence. I always look forward to Parashat Pinchas, which mentions the capers by way of allusion. What serendipity that the peak of their growth here in Israel is synchronized with the parasha mentioning the daughters of Tzelafchad – meaning ‘sharp caper.’ The caper is indeed a plant with sharp thorns. This is why its Latin name is, ‘Capparis Spinosa’ – the latter meaning ‘thorn.’ I never planted any caper plants in my garden. They seem to have always been their smack in the middle of a large relatively leveled area, which we wanted to make into a nice grassy area to host large groups and celebrations. The thorny capers did not fit into our landscaping plan. With great effort, we uprooted the caper plants and moved them to the edge of our plot, where they never did very well, in the shade of our neighbor’s growing fig tree and our strangling crack grass. Yet, new caper plants keep popping up on undesired locations such as on the walkway from our studio apartment, scratching the legs of our poor tenant, who, awed by the magnificent sight of the caper flowers, didn’t dare to complain. The Torah is replete with interesting teachings and anecdotes about the caper plants. I am happy to share some of these with you.

The Hidden Sin of Tzelafchad
The beginning of our parasha mentions the five righteous daughters of Tzlafchad, who plead that the land of their father should be passed on to them, since he died without siring any sons.
ספר במדבר פרק כז (א) וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד בֶּן חֵפֶר בֶּן גִּלְעָד בֶּן מָכִיר בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹת מְנַשֶּׁה בֶן יוֹסֵף וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֹתָיו מַחְלָה נֹעָה וְחָגְלָה וּמִלְכָּה וְתִרְצָה…לֵאמֹר: (ג) אָבִינוּ מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר וְהוּא לֹא הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל הָשֵֹם בַּעֲדַת קֹרַח כִּי בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת וּבָנִים לֹא הָיוּ לוֹ
“The daughters of Tzelafchad son of Chefer, son of Gilad, son of Machir, son of Menashe, of the families of Menashe son of Yosef approached. The names of his daughters were Machla, Noah, Chagla, Milka and Tirtza… saying, ‘our father died in the wilderness, he was not among the congregation of those congregating against Hashem, in the congregation of Korach. Rather he died in his own sin without having any sons…’” (Bamidbar 27:1-3).

The Torah does not mention which sin brought about the death of Tzelafchad, yet according to the Talmud, Tzelafchad is the man who broke Shabbat during the wandering in the desert. There is an analogy between Tzelafchad and the man gathering sticks on Shabbat in the wilderness, since both of these men are associated with the same phrase: בַּמִּדְבָּר/bamidbar – “In the wilderness.” “Our Rabbis have taught, the one who gathered wood is Tzelafchad, as it states, ‘while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Shabbat day’ (Bamidbar 15:32). Afterwards it states, “Our father died in the wilderness.” (Bamidbar 27:3). Just as over there it refers to Tzelafchad, also here it is Tzelafchad. These are the words of Rabbi Akiva (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 96b).

Dry Caper Wood for Kindling in the Winter
Nogah Hareuveni explains that familiarity with the caper helps us unravel the chain of associations that brought Rabbi Akiva to say, “the one who gathered kindling is Tzelafchad.” Rabbi Akiva knew as a shepherd himself, that in the rainy winter season, it is tough finding dry firewood. Most of the trees and bushes available are green and growing. The caper bush, which thrives in the summer, is dormant, dry and leafless during the rainy season, thus an excellent choice for kindling wood when there is little else to burn in Israel. Rabbi Akiva linked two separate biblical chapters, and concluded that the nameless kindling gatherer who died for the sin of braking the Shabbat was in fact Tzelaphchad, “who died for his sin in the wilderness” (Bamidbar 27:3), but whose specific sin is not mentioned. The dry caper was a logical plant for the gatherer of kindling to have collected. Tzelafchad was out collecting dry caper bushes for fire in the winter on Shabbat. He was caught, paid the price, and left his daughters to plead for his share in the Land. His name hints to the deed Tzelaf-chad – sharp Tzalaf (See Three and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, pp. 42-53). A further support for linking the Shabbat stick gatherer with Tzelafchad is that עֵצִים /eitzim – wood with the ּבְּ/bet of בְּיוֹם /b’yom in the following phrase, בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת/b’yom hashabbat has the same gematria as צְלָפְחָד /Tzelafchad (212) (Da’at Zekeinim, m’baalei Tosfot, Bamidbar 15:32).

The Shabbat Breaker and the Righteous Man
Many generations later, the Talmud tells a story of a righteous man who found a break in his fence and was about to go out to repair it when he remembered that it was the Shabbat. The righteous man overcame his very strong urge to fix the break in his fence and refrained from violating the Shabbat. A miracle occurred: A caper bush grew (closing off the break in the fence), and he and his family lived off (the income) from that caper for the rest of their lives (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 150b). Noga Reuveni points out that one important aspect of the caper is its extreme thorniness. Each leaf has two companion thorns shaped as hooks bent inward towards the center of the plant. There is no problem thrusting a hand downward into the center of the caper. The pain is only felt when trying to withdraw the hand. Then these barbed hooks jam into flesh and cloth! The caper is not a plant to approach carelessly, for it has ample protection against the unwary. Therefore, the caper that grew in the gap in the righteous man’s fence was well suited to mend the fence and keep out unwanted intruders. Arizal explains that the story of this pious man who found a break in his fence was Rabbi Yehuda son of Rabbi Elai. This Chassid rectified in his piety the sin of gathering sticks on Shabbat in his prior incarnation as Tzelafchad. This is the meaning of the words of the sages, that a sharp caper grew for him, and he and his family sustained themselves from it. For the sharp caper is Tzlafchad, and he sustained himself from rectifying that which he messed up previously, and his sins became merits in his higher Tshuva (Arizal, Likutei Hashas, Mesechet Shabbat).

Underlying Spiritual Connection between Tzelafchad and Rabbi Yehuda
The soul of the Shabbat breaker, Tzelafchad, who gathered kindling, became reincarnated into the righteous man who refrained from breaking the Shabbat. The original Tzelafchad died for his sin of breaking the Shabbat, but the righteous man was able to earn his living from the selfsame caper that he had sinned with in his previous reincarnation. The daughters of Tzelafchad began rectifying their father. Therefore, it is possible that the caper provided their livelihood as well. Archeological data reveal places all concentrated in the northern regions of the mountains of Efraim in Shomron called in the names of three of the daughters of Tzelafchad (Noah, Choglah and Tirzah). Many slopes in this area are composed of poor limestone on which even the sturdiest of fruit-trees cannot produce good crops. The caper, on the other hand, grows extremely well in this soil and to this day can be seen there as a wild plant. It is logical to assume that the Israelites utilized such areas to cultivate capers. The link that ties Tzelafchad to the righteous man and his livelihood seems, therefore, to have roots in the reality of the ancient settlement of Israel.

Cultivation and Usage
From the discussions of the Sages in the Talmud, we learn that the caper was cultivated as a full-fledged agricultural crop. “Rabbi Eliezer says, the caper shall be tithed on its timorot (the young leaves at the tip of the branches), its aviyonot (the fruit), and its cafrisin (the young flower buds). Rabbi Akiva says, only the aviyonot shall be tithed because only they are fruit (Mishna Ma’asrot 4:6). The caper ‘fruit’ we find today in small jars on supermarket shelves are actually the cafrisin – the unopened caper flower buds. It is not fruit in the botanical sense, although it is a crop harvested from the caper bush for food. In Israel it is possible to also find the marinated caper fruit (that develops from the pistil after the flower has been pollinated), called aviyonot in the Talmud. A condiment was moreover made from the most tender young leaves at the tips of the branches (timorot). The caper grows in the entire Mediterranean area, and near the banks of the Jordan River, in the wilderness of Yehuda, in the Negev and in the Arava. It grows along walls, fences, piles of rock and poor soil. According to Rambam, preparing capers with vinegar, salt and oil and eating them as appetizers before the main meal cleanses and open blocks of the spleen and liver. Capers are also very accepted in Arab folk medicine as a remedy for defective hearing, female infertility, infected open wounds, diabetes, toothache and chest ailments. Whether the desired crop was the flower bud, the leaf tip, or the fruit there is no question that the Israelites planted the caper as an income producer, which bears three different types of crops.

Persevering among Trees
In spite of the lack of water, the caper bush seems to flourish in every nook and cranny, literally coming out of the rocks and cracks in the walls. “Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, said, ‘three are persevering: Israel among the nations, a dog among the animals, a rooster among the birds, and some say the goat among cattle, and some say even the caper among the trees’” (Babylonian Talmud, Beitza 25b). Very few trees persevere in so many different growing regions: in the hills and plains, in the valleys and along the coast, in rocky crags, in wilderness and desert areas, and even on stone house walls and fences. There are capers that crow in stonewalls of houses and are repeatedly cut down year after year, yet continue to grow new branches that flourish and produce flowers and fruit. The caper can even revitalize itself after fire. There is nothing comparable to the speed with which its below ground stock can produce fresh green branches from the charred remnants. The caper has certainly earned its place among the persevering as the “persevering among trees,” together with the Jewish people whose similar feats of survival make it the “persevering among nations.”

Like a Tree of the World to Come
Rabbi Gamliel expounded, “in the future, the trees will produce fruits every day as it states, ‘Lift up a branch and yield fruit’” (Yechezkiel 17:23)… A certain student mocked him and said, “doesn’t it state, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’” (Kohelet 1:9). He answered him, “come, I will show you an example of this principle in this world,” and he showed him a caper... (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30b). Why did Rabbi Gamliel select the caper as an example of the fruits of the future messianic time when all fruit trees will produce fruits daily? The answer is apparent to anyone familiar with the caper plant. During its lengthy flowering season, the caper produces new flowers daily. Toward evening, the bud opens into a flower. By late morning, the following day as the heat increases, the flower wilts, leaving the embryonic fruit to protrude on top of the pistil. The caper actually does give new fruit each day of its extraordinarily long flowering season. Noga Reuveni notices that Rabban Gamliel took his students out and showed them the caper bush. He taught them to look at one branch of the caper, from the tip down to the base, seeing in progression the young caper buds, flower buds waiting to blossom. Further down on the branch he showed them the open flowers, wilted flowers with embryonic fruits peeping out from among the drooping petals, and a row of fruit, the youngest closest to the wilted flower and the oldest nearest the base of the branch.

Thus, the caper is a perfect example of a tree in the world to come. Look closely, and you’ll see that every day new flowers open along the branch. The flower last but one day, only to wilt and bring forth a caper berry. Every day a new flower, every day a new berry. To get a prime yield, the harvesters must go out to the caper bush every day, otherwise the yield of a missed day will be lost. The crop will be too large and bitter. This necessity of harvesting the caper every day is what gave rise to the impression that it gives fruit every day. Green shrubs of caper plants grow from between the ancient cracks of the Kotel – the western wall of our ancient Temple. The fact that the ancient Temple rocks are still alive with renewed growth, signifies how Judaism lives, thrives and flourishes as a vibrant lifestyle reviving the ancient stones of our heritage. Furthermore, perhaps Hashem made the caper plants grow from the stones of the Kotel – our last vestige of the connection between this world and the world to come, because the caper likewise is a plant bridging between the worlds.