B'shallah: Consulting with trees.

This week we read the Torah portion B’shallah, in which, most famously, G-d splits the sea and the Israelites are saved from destruction.  We celebrate the “holiday of trees” -- Tu B’shevat (the 15th day of the month of Shevat) and, here in Israel, we voted in national elections.

Coincidentally, this week I also learned, in Ulpan (Hebrew language school), that the word for “consult” is: להתייעץ  (“l’heet-ya-etz”).  Because the last two letters – etz -- are the word for “tree,” our teacher suggested that we remember the word for “consult” with the sentence:  “I consult with a tree.” 

Grammatically, the word להתייעץ (to consult) is a reflexive verb.  That is, it is something we do to or by ourselves.  Another form (פיעל) of the verb, which likewise contains the word for “tree,” means to give advice.  Moreover, adding the letter “hay” to the word for “tree” produces the Hebrew noun “advice” or “counsel.”  

Hmm; might there be something deeper to “I consult with a tree” than a helpful mnemonic?

According to a famous midrash in the Talmud (Sotah 37a), when the Israelites at the shore of the Reed (Red) Sea cried out to G-d for salvation from the Egyptian army, G-d took no action until one Israelite, Nachshon son of Amminadab, entered the sea up to his neck.  The rabbis interpreted his action as demonstrating faith in G-d.   Perhaps so, but I also interpret it as G-d requiring us to “consult” with ourselves and others – that is, to take all possible other action – before appealing to G-d.  I am also reminded of the midrash that if one is holding a sapling and hears “Come quickly, the Messiah has come,” one should first finish planting the sapling and only then greet the Messiah.  (Avot of Natan, 31b).   Could trees be somehow more important than the Messiah?!

In the Israeli elections, the State consulted its citizens to select its leaders and national policies.  The people made their choices.   Jews also invoke the concept of choice immediately before “consulting” Torah, the source of our “national policy.” We grasp the Etz Hayim – the “tree of life” (the spindles holding the Torah scroll) and chant “Blessed are You, King of the Universe, Who chose us from among all the peoples, and gave us the Torah…”  Then, as we return the Torah to the ark, we describe it as the tree of life for those who [choose to] hold fast to it.   

And so, with the confluence of this week’s events, I see connections among the themes of salvation (the Torah portion), trees (Tu B’shevat), and choice (the election).   Drawing this connection suggests a particular opportunity to reflect upon the “consulting” we do in our lives to seek salvation and liberation from what afflicts or limits us.  

·      To whom and to what “trees” (symbolically and metaphorically) have we chosen to “hold fast?” 

·      Are our choices both conscious and conscientious? 

·      Do our “trees” reflect our true values and priorities?  Likewise our advise and counsel to others? 

·      Are we “watering” our “trees” sufficiently and planting “seeds” for our future and for generations to follow?

·      Do we consult with ourselves too much (too self-centered or arrogant) or not enough (insufficient self-confidence?)  

·      Have we lost touch with the wonders of the natural world … or even with gratitude for the food that sustains us?  

These are just a few of the questions that might occupy our thoughts this Shabbat as we rest from the toil and routine of this busy week.  

Even G-d was helped to make good choices when Abraham (Will not the Judge of the world act justly?) and Moses (What will the Egyptians say if you destroy your people?) consulted with Him.   May our consultations with others, with ourselves, and with G-d lead all of us to good choices!

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem. 

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  • B'shallah: Consulting with trees.

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