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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beshalach: The exodus, the pauper & Tu Bishvat
Could G'd not just perform one more miracle to avoid a war with the inhabitants of the land of Philistine? "'And G'd took the people round', from this our sages learn that even the poorest Jew shall not eat [at the Seder table] until he is inclined." Comes Tu Bishvat with its message of hope of renewal and rejuvenation. G'd is directing the first tiny seed of the final redemption in the middle of darkness and despair. Although I sit in darkness, G'd is my light. If we would live with the awareness that G'd's Hand is guiding us on every step along the way, we would save ourselves a lot of agitation. Whenever you see strange situations such as a wicked person who has success or a righteous person who is suffering, don't get angry and don't question the wisdom of your Creator. For He is righteous and His judgment is right. This was a test to see if the Jewish people would accept G'd's leadership. Real freedom is not dependent on affluence and assets, but the freedom of spirit to serve G'd and do what is right.
One more miracle?
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, it says: (Shemos 13:17-18) "And it was when Pharaoh sent the people and G'd did not lead them through the land of Philistine because it was near, for G'd said, 'Lest that the people will regret when they see war and will return to Egypt'. And G'd took the people round through the desert of the Sea of Reeds." G'd's concern about a war against the Philistines seems odd. G'd performed so many miracles for the Jewish nation during the ten plagues and at the time of the exodus. Why could G'd not perform just one more miracle to avoid a war with the inhabitants of the land of Philistine? It actually says in the song that Moses and the Jews sang at the splitting of the sea (ibid 15:14) "Nations heard and trembled, terror gripped the dwellers of Philistia …" So we see that later, the inhabitants of Philistine did fear the Jews, so could not G'd have brought this about at an earlier stage?
Took the people round
Even more strange is the following commentary made by the Midrash Rabba (Shemos 20:18) "'And G'd took the people round', from this our sages learned that even the poorest Jew shall not eat [at the Seder table] until he is inclined." There is an obvious linguistic connection between the Hebrew word for taking them round, "vayasaiv", which has the same root as the Hebrew word "hasaivah" which our sages use for "reclining". However, this does not explain at all what the connection is between these two situations.
This Monday, Jews around the world celebrate Tu Bishvat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shvat which is the Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the New Year, for the trees. As the Talmud explains (Rosh Hashanah 14a), this date has halachic ramifications regarding the tithes that change from one year to another. The start of the New Year regarding these tithes takes place on this date.
Tiny new shoots
Imagine someone who has been living all his life in a tropical climate and has never experienced a winter in a cold climate. He would likely despair when he sees all the leaves dropping in the fall, and how everything seems so desolate. The Midrash relates that Adam was scared the world had come to its end when he experienced the first sunset after his sin with the darkness that followed. This person, who has never experienced a winter, if he was without anyone to ask what is going on, would no doubt feel much the same. Comes Tu Bishvat with its message of hope of renewal and rejuvenation. Although we are deep in the winter, if we go out to our backyards and gardens, we may see tiny new shoots starting to sprout underneath the snow-covered branches. The cycle of nature has not come to an end. Just the opposite, when everything looks bleak, and hopeless to the untrained eye, at that same moment the first signs of spring are there already.
Seed of redemption
At the time when Joseph was sold by his brothers and sent down as a slave to Egypt, the Midrash gives us a picture how the family of Jacob looked. The Midrash says, (Bereishis Rabba 85:1) "The brothers are busy selling Joseph. Joseph is mourning his situation. Reuben is mourning [his inability to bring Joseph back to his father]. Jacob is mourning [the loss of Joseph]. Judah is taking himself a wife. And G'd is creating the light of the King Mashiach [who is a descendant of Judah and Tamar] … Before the first oppressor has appeared, the final saviour has already been prepared." At that time, everybody was depressed and upset wondering what is going to be. Seemingly out of context, Judah goes off and takes himself a wife. But without Judah or anyone else knowing it, G'd is directing the first tiny seed of the final redemption in the middle of this time of darkness and despair.
G'd will light for me
The Prophet Michah says (Michah 7:8) "Don't rejoice my enemy that I have fallen for I will rise again. Although I sit in darkness, G'd will light for me." The Midrash Tehillim (5:1) comments on this: "If I had not sat in darkness, there would not have been any light for me." Just like the winter is not a time when everything is lost, but rather when the earth is resting and rejuvenating itself, so is the exile of the Jewish people a time when it restores what needs to be fixed and gets ready for a new start with fresh vigour. As the Prophet Isaiah says (Isaiah 12:1) "And you will say on that day 'I thank you G'd that You got angry at me' Your anger turned around and You comforted me'". Rashi explains that there will come a day when the Jewish nation will thank G'd for the exile which was an atonement for our sins, and only through that we will be able to fully restore our relationship with G'd. At the time of G'd's anger, it may hurt but the final restoration of the relationship will make it worthwhile.
G'd's Hand is guiding us
The Yalkut (ibid) compares this to two merchants who were travelling together. While abroad one of them was in an accident that rendered him unable to travel home as scheduled. He started cursing and speaking words of blasphemy due to his bad situation. Only later when he heard that the boat returning to his home had sunk, did he realize his salvation and thanked and praised G'd for sparing his life. How many times have we not heard of people who missed their travel connections, and did not reach their planned destination? The initial reaction of these people is irritation and blaming this or that for their misfortune. Only later when they hear about the calamities that occurred do they realize how it was the Divine Hand of G'd that saved them. If we would live with the awareness that G'd's Hand is guiding us on every step along the way, we would save ourselves a lot of aggravation and it would prevent us from blaming others around us for what is not their fault at all.
Eliyahu and Rabbi Joshua
Our sages relate (as quoted in Seder Hadorot) how Rabbi Joshua ben Levi fasted for many days and prayed that he should merit a revelation from the Prophet Eliyahu. Finally, his prayers were answered and Eliyahu revealed himself. He requested permission to accompany the prophet on his travels so that he could learn from his activities. The prophet warned that he would not be able to understand what he would see and only agreed to take him along on condition that he would not ask any questions, and that if he asked for explanations they would have to part ways. (It seems that in order to merit such closeness to the Prophet Eliyahu, one must have complete trust and faith in his Divinely guided actions.) The first visit was at the house of an extremely poor couple who only had one cow to support themselves. When the pauper and his wife saw the visitors, they ran to greet them and looked after them to the best of their ability in their humble abode. They honoured them with food and drinks, and made them as comfortable as they could. After staying there overnight, the visitors arose and Eliyahu prayed for the cow to die. Rabbi Joshua fainted in shock. After he was revived he said, "Was that the reward for honouring us in such a beautiful way?" Eliyahu answered him, "Remember our condition. If I answer your question then we must part ways." Rabbi Joshua accepted and kept quiet.
The affluent person
They traveled together all day and towards evening arrived at the house of an extremely affluent person who would not look at them or honour them in any way. They were not even offered any food or drinks during their stay. As they arose in the morning to prepare to leave, they noticed that there was a wall in the mansion where they had slept that needed to be rebuilt. Before leaving the house, Eliyahu prayed and the wall was restored. Rabbi Joshua was very upset and disturbed but he restrained himself from asking any questions.
The rich community
That night they arrived at the Shul of a well-to-do community where every member sat on a chair made entirely of gold or silver. When one of the members asked around who would take care of these strangers, someone said that it would be sufficient to provide them with a bit of bread, water and some salt. Before leaving next morning, Eliyahu prayed and wished that they should all become leaders, which, of course, only caused additional misery to his companion.
The generous community
At their next destination, they were met by the townspeople who came out to greet them with great honour and happiness. They looked after them in a most generous way and provided them with all their needs. The next morning, Eliyahu prayed and said to them, "May G'd provide you only with one leader." When Rabbi Joshua heard this, he could not contain himself any longer. He begged Eliyahu to explain what had been going on in the places they had visited, even if it meant that he had to leave him. Eliyahu explained that by the couple whose cow was killed, there had been a Heavenly decree that the wife was to die, and he had prayed that the cow should die instead. He rebuilt the wall of the affluent person because he knew that there was a great treasure hidden under the foundation of the wall which the owner would have found had he rebuilt it himself. He had wished for the well-to-do community to all be leaders, since this was not for their benefit. It would cause a lot of disputes and quarrels and eventually destroy the community. On the other hand, he prayed for the people of the generous community to only have one leader as this was for their benefit. He would be a just and righteous leader that they all would be happy to follow and there would be no quarrels amongst them. As people say, too many captains make the boat sink. Eliyahu concluded and said, "I am leaving you now but I am advising you that whenever you see strange situations such as a wicked person who has success or a righteous person who is suffering, don't get angry and don't question the wisdom of your Creator. For He is righteous and His judgment is right."
Says Rabbi Moshe Schwab, at the time of the exodus the Jews were wondering and somewhat perplexed: Why did G'd take them in a round about way? Would it not be much simpler to take them straight through the land of Philistine to the land of Israel? However, this was a test to see if they would accept G'd's leadership. If G'd would have caused the Philistines to fear the Jews by taking them straight through, they would not have had this opportunity to grow in their trust in G'd. The Midrash teaches us that this was not just a test for the Jews at the time, but a lesson for all generations to come. Not only should we trust G'd's judgment and righteousness when He deals with us as a community, even as individuals we must learn to accept that whatever tests we are taken through in life, they are all for our benefit.
When it comes to the celebration on Seder night, when every Jew celebrates the freedom that was granted us at the exodus from Egypt, even the poorest of the poor cannot say or even think "what reason do I have to celebrate?" Real freedom is not dependent on affluence and assets, but the freedom of spirit to serve G'd and do what is right. This is the lesson that the Torah teaches us. We find people who in their affluence are slaves to their wealth. On the other hand, there are people with no means who are free and upright. These people are happy with their lot and accept that everyone has their tests in life to overcome. Tu Bishvat reminds us that even in the darkest of times we are not lost. We may have difficulties but if we look hard enough we will eventually see light at the end of the tunnel and the little shoots sprouting out from the barren trees. May the Almighty in His great mercy, grants us, both as individuals and as a nation, the fulfillment of the prophetic words we say every morning in our prayers: "A new light shall shine on Zion and may we all speedily merit its light."
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network