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Sermon: Parshat Beshallach, 2/7/20

02/12/2020 08:41:59 AM


Rabbi Charlie

Shabbat Shalom! I want to begin with an apology. It’s Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, and I am sorry to say that I wasn’t able to write a song to honor this week’s parsha. My song writing time has been spent helping with our Purim Shpiel – the theme is Dirty Dancing – and it should be pretty awesome. And this way, we leave the singing to Hallie.

Instead of a song, I wanted to bring in a little bit of Tu Bishevat – the new year for the trees, which begins on Sunday night. I’ll offering a nice teaching on Judaism and the environment that evening. Tonight, I want to focus on a bit of wood.

In this week’s Torah portion, it’s easy to focus on the escape from Egypt, the parting of the sea, and the incredible song of freedom. What we don’t always remember is that at the end of the parsha, the Israelites find themselves in an area with bitter or undrinkable water. In the Torah, it says that when Moses cried out to God because the people need water, God showed Moses a piece of wood. Moses takes the wood, throws it in the water, and then the water becomes sweet – they can now drink it.

I’ve read this passage lots of times, but it’s the kind of passage that I never looked at in depth. Ok, another minor miracle. And then I went to SWARR Kallah this past week. One of the best things about spending a few days with a group of rabbis is that I’m always learning something new. Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, who I’ve known for years even though he just moved into our region, led a service on Wednesday morning and offered a teaching about this piece of wood.

It turns out that our rabbis ask about the wood… What kind of wood was it? What makes this wood so special? Chizkuni explained that God could have made the water sweet in lots of ways. Instead, “God wanted to teach Moses some common chemistry… using natural products to… make [the water] drinkable” (commentary on 15:25). I love that we have rabbis hundreds of years ago imagining God as Bill Nye the Science Guy. It helps to bridge the gap between science and religion, stressing that in order to solve some of our problems, it is very appropriate to put our faith in science.

That’s only one idea. There’s are many different interpretations about what this wood is. Some say it’s a willow, some say it’s from the Garden of Eden. Another one of my favorites was from Rabbi Elazar, who said that the wood was from an olive tree (Mekhilta DeRabbi Shimon Bar Yochai 15:25). The notion here is that an olive is bitter (Anyone ever tried to eat a raw olive?). The bitterness of the olive wood combined with the bitterness of the water, transformed the water into something drinkable.

I see this as a metaphor for one way of dealing with the bitterness of life. Sometimes we have to deal with difficult times. And sometimes, by sharing that difficulty with others – through therapy, group therapy, or just commiserating with friends – it can make the bitter experience palatable. It doesn’t fix the problem – the Israelites were still going to be wandering through a desert – but it helps us cope and make the situation more tolerable. That’s why being vulnerable and sharing our pain and our brokenness can help us move forward in a positive way.

One of the most Rabbinic ideas about this piece of wood, and that is Rabbinic with a capital “R,” is that naturally, the wood is the Torah. How can it be Torah? “It is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it…” (Proverbs 3:18). Yes, the Torah is a tree. What’s the meaning here? It speaks to another way that we can cope with difficulty.

Once again, when we experience the bitterness of life, where can we turn for a source of comfort or strength or patience or understanding? We turn to our tradition. Our tradition and our community and our Torah have helped to sustain Jewish communities through the most unimaginable of tragedies – both personal and communal. We are no stranger to difficulty and bitterness and our ability to take comfort in our tradition to make it through the low points is a real positive in our lives and for our People.

How beautiful and important and relevant are these teachings! Just as a tree continues to bear fruit year after year, so too, words of Torah. I’m grateful for my colleagues who continue to teach me. I’m grateful for my Judaism, which implores me to keep learning. And I’m so grateful for this community where we can experience the wisdom of our tradition together.

Shabbat Shalom!

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781