Friday, February 17, 2017
The Answer To Rising Waters Is Right In Front Of Us
B’Shalach/Tu Bish'vat 5777/2017
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
A couple of years ago, during Parashat Noach, I gave a sermon that dealt with the issue of climate change and the role that we as humans have played in our changing environment. What was interesting was who was listening. In the congregation, there were a number of Canadian Jews. I’ll never forget the feedback I received from them in particular. “Rabbi, a good sermon, really, BUT…let me ask you something - you had a multi-national Jewish audience here listening to your sermon - why didn’t you speak about something that affects us all?!?
I looked at him in a sort of disbelief. At first, I could not understand what he was talking about - isn’t a message about climate change davka something that affects us all?!? But then I realized what he was talking about - he didn’t think it was a particularly Jewish message.
I am not for myself, who will be for me?
As Jews, we look at ourselves as a particularistic people, but here is something interesting: in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, we read about four new years - Rosh Hashanah, the new year of years, which marks the anniversary of the creation of the world, the 1st of Nissan, marking when Bnai Israel was taken out of Egypt, the 1st of Elul, the new year of the tithing of animals, and the 1st or 15th of Shevat, the new year of the trees. Out of that list, the only particularistic new year is the 1st of Nissan.
When we speak to the things in this world that touch us all - we are speaking in an authentically Jewish way - if I am only for myself, what am I?
This Shabbat is a rare occurrence, the combination of Shabbat Be’Shalach on Tu Bish’vat, the new year of the trees. Today, I wanted to look at how trees play a role in our parashah and what it says about our role as Jews and our relationship to the physical environment.
Of course, when we think about trees, we think about water, and water plays a large role in this week’s parashah. It is today that we mark the miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, Kriyat Yam Suf, a divine intervention into nature. As if the miracles of the plagues were not enough, God shows God’s immense power and might to the entire world in this action. But, there is another reference to water immediately after this great miracle.
22 Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” - Exodus 15:22-24
The people have just experienced the splitting of a massive sea - they saw the walls of water surrounding them, and they come out on the other end, and are grumbling about water. They come to a place called Marah - which contains the word bitter in it. Think about it like this: they have just experienced more water than they can literally handle, and then, for three days, they have no water. After three days, they find water, but it is too bitter to drink.
And here we read about the second miracle regarding water in this week’s parashah.
וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל־יי וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ יי עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל־הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם שָׁ֣ם שָׂ֥ם ל֛וֹ חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּ֖ט וְשָׁ֥ם נִסָּֽהוּ׃
“25 So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood, eytz; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”
God shows Moses a tree, he throws the tree or wood into the water, and the water magically turns from bitter to sweet.
In our first miracle, God saves the people from death by separating them from water – putting them on dry land. We look at this as the great miracle of the parashah. But what we learn from here is that without water, the people will share the same fate – they will die. It's a slower death – but they would have died just as they would had the sea not split.
The Midrash and the Commentators attempt to explain this strange incident. Some commentators say that the wood was bitter as well, but adding it to the bitter waters made it sweet, thus making this miracle even greater. But others look at it differently – especially, Ramban, Nachmonides (Spain - 1194-1270). He looks at the words, God showed him a tree, and says, we should read the word as taught. God taught Moses that this particular kind of wood has the natural ability to sweeten water. In other words, the miracle was that Moses listened to God and learned that salvation was there in front of him the whole time.
So here we see two miracles – one in which God saves the people with God's power, literally intervening in nature, and the second, teaches us that the miracles are there for us to use to save ourselves.
It's from this second teaching we get the story of the most faithful, but also the most foolish, rabbi in history who happened to live in America. The story goes as follows: It is teeming rain in the flood plain of the Mississippi Valley, and the rising river begins to threaten every home in the area, including that of the local Rabbi. With water coming into the ground floor, a rowboat with police comes by, and the officer shouts, "Rabbi, let us evacuate you! The water level is getting dangerous." The Rabbi replies, "No thank you, I am a righteous man, who trusts in God, and I am confident Hashem will deliver me." Three hours go by, and the rains intensify, at which point the Rabbi has been forced up to the second floor of his house. A second police rowboat comes by, and the officer shouts, "Rabbi, let us evacuate you! The water level is getting dangerous." The Rabbi replies, "No thank you, I am confident God will deliver me." The rain does not stop, and the Rabbi is forced up onto the roof of his house. A helicopter flies over, and the officer shouts down, "Rabbi, grab the rope and we'll pull you up! You're in terrible danger!" The Rabbi replies, "No thank you, I'm waiting for God." The deluge continues, and the Rabbi is swept off the roof, carried away in the current and drowns. He goes up to heaven, and comes before the Divine Presence. The Rabbi asks, "Creator of the World, I don't understand. I've been a righteous observant person my whole life, and depended on you to save me in my hour of need. Where were you?"
And the Lord answered, "Shmendrink, I sent two boats and a helicopter, what more do you want!”
While all of us were focused on various issues, a changing presidency in the United States, confirmation debates, immigration and refugee bans, terrorist attacks or threats in Israel and around the world, something significant occurred that will affect us all, and many of you probably did not even here about it:
A huge fissure in an Antarctic ice shelf, known as Larsen C, extended 17 miles over the past two months. The New York Times reported: “A rapidly advancing crack in Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf has scientists concerned that it is getting close to a full break. The rift has accelerated this year in an area already vulnerable to warming temperatures… Of greater concern to scientists is how the collapse of ice shelves can affect the glaciers that flow behind them, because the melting of those glaciers can cause much higher levels of ocean rise.” This fissure is a result of climate change brought on by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels, mainly, coal and oil. Eventually, this massive ice burg the size of the state of Delaware will break off and lead to a further raising of ocean levels. The journal Nature reported that based on research in Antarctica, scientists now estimate a six-foot rise in sea level by the Year 2100 which would prove devastating for global coastal communities. Yes, that means us living in Florida. If things continue as is, West Boca will be beach front property in less than 100 years.
Humanity is standing at Yam Suf – an ocean that is going to envelop us, and we are also in a situation where billions of people do not have water that they can drink. We can continue on living as we do and wait for a miracle, or we can look around at what we have around us, God's wisdom and God's creations, and act in the world to prevent our deaths. There is a famous midrash which talks about our responsibility to earth:
“When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13)
For years, we have been talking about solutions to these problems. God gave us wisdom, discernment, and understanding – we know how to solve the problems, but will we is the question? As the midrash says, there is no one else to repair it – If we are not for ourselves, for humanity, who will be for us? And if not now...when?