Beshalach 5777 - 2017 - Get Your Eco On

Post date: Feb 9, 2017 3:47:17 PM

Parshat Beshalach - Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

Tu B’Shvat 5777

In this week’s parsha, Beshalach, the Israelites culminate “Yetziat Mitzrayim” - the getting out of Egypt. Initially, they walk out with their heads high, exuberant and awed. When Pharaoh realizes the enormity of his loss, he says, "Yikes! What the heck have we done!" and musters his chariots to bring back the slaves.

Exuberance fades quickly as the Hebrews hear the thunder of Pharaoh’s army, and in an obvious foreshadowing of their next 40 years of complaining, they cry to Moses: "Vus? There weren't enough graves in Egypt?".

This parsha also includes the famous Shir Hayam – the Song of the Sea, lyrical verses in Exodus chapter 15 that describe the awesomeness of God’s power. Additionally, this week we celebrate Tu B’shvat – the “birthday of the trees.” In ancient Judea, this was a tax collection marker, indicating the year-end for tithing tree produce. The 10% tax was counted from one T’u B’shvat to the next. This is the Jewish predecessor to the secular observance of Arbor Day, raising awareness of environmental issues and conservation. T’u B’shvat has become a rallying holiday for Jewish ecology.

A rabbi I once heard, described a triangular relationship between human beings, God, and the earth. This relationship is at the core of Judaism, as our roots are steeped in the agricultural communities of the ancient Near East. Celebrations of planting, first fruits, and harvest permeate the Jewish calendar, and stewardship over the earth and its animal inhabitants is central to our scripture. The charge to care for our natural world is echoed by the mission of the National Park Service: to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.

The earth has a central role in the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim – the exodus from Egypt. From the Nile River that brings Moshe to the Pharaoh’s daughter to the burning bush that is not consumed to the plagues of blood, frogs, and crop-destroying locusts, the power of the natural world is clear and present in the book of Shemot. Following the plagues, and part of this week’s parsha, clouds and fire lead the Israelites away from Egypt and toward the sea.

And then comes the heart of the story of Shemot – the crossing of the sea. Art, literature, and music depict this as God’s most majestic act – the act of dividing an ocean to lead the Israelites to safety and freedom. The sea in this story has been used as a metaphor in hundreds of situations – crossing our own personal seas away from our demons, to a place where we are free. However, on the surface, this story is one of humans, the earth, and God. Humans are in danger, the earth presents its own insurmountable obstacles, and God steps in to make the impossible a reality.

Certainly, we all have times in our lives when we wish God could metaphorically split the sea – tear down the obstacles before us – and lead us to a place of joy and freedom. However, I have also stood before a literal body of water, wishing God could make the rushing river calm ever so briefly, so that I could walk across. In both cases, it is not God that we rely on. In fact, while standing between the sea and the onslaught of chariots, Moses tries to reassure the Israelites by shouting, "Behold what God will do for you today!" But upon making this claim, God replies to Moses saying, "Why are you talking to me!!" In the words of that great Black spiritual, God tell us to “Wade in the water."

God cannot take away the difficulties that stand before us – real, metaphorical, or otherwise. It is always up to us to take the first steps in, the next steps through, and the final steps on the other side of each river that rises up before us.

We have, in our times, many proverbial rivers to cross. This week, however, we can take time to celebrate the actual rivers, mountains, lakes, forests, deserts, and natural wonders that make up our incredible world. National parks provide us a place to contact an undisturbed ecosystem, complete and self-sustaining. These systems are the embodiment of the creation story in B’reishit – God creates the heavens, the earth, the land, the seas, and all the plants and animals. We can easily appreciate the story of the Exodus for what it teaches us about our humanity and our ability to escape our foes and create a better life for ourselves. We must also understand the Exodus for its literal narrative – the oceans’ unparalleled force, strength, and power.

Our earth is the source of our existence – life-sustaining crops, shielding atmosphere, and oxygen-producing flora. To see conservation as the charge of a small, fringe group is one of the most devastating mistakes we can make. Protecting the world that God created for us is our greatest responsibility as Jews, and as human beings who inhabit this beautiful planet.

Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher