Finding the Oasis -- and the Tree of Life -- in the Wilderness!

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Beshallach, is a stand-out. The Israelites cross the sea out of Egypt (arguably the most dramatic miracle of the Bible!) and rejoice with the Song of the Sea as they arrive on the other shore. But, with Tu Bishvat tomorrow/Wednesday night and Thursday, trees and nature have been on my mind, and as I re-read the Torah portion, I was drawn to a verse that I had never paid much attention to before.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Beshallach, is a stand-out. The Israelites cross the sea out of Egypt (arguably the most dramatic miracle of the Bible!) and rejoice with the Song of the Sea as they arrive on the other shore. But, with Tu Bishvat tomorrow/Wednesday night and Thursday, trees and nature have been on my mind, and as I re-read the Torah portion, I was drawn to a verse that I had never paid much attention to before.

In the very first episode after the conclusion of Miriam's song, the text of Exodus describes how the people, just a few days into their wilderness journey, are thirsty and fearful that they won't have the water they need. They grumble and complain, and Moses helps to sweeten bitter waters, proclaiming in God's name that "I, the Lord, am your healer." Then, the verse that jumped out at me (Exodus 15:27):

"And they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they encamped there by the water."

This verse is tucked away between a crisis and a journey. In the middle of the wilderness, there is the place in plain sight: a wooded, freshwater oasis containing everything the Israelites could possibly need.

Fortunately, the traditional commentators have a sharper eye than I do, and they have plenty to say about this verse. Drawing on the Targum (the Torah's Aramaic translation), Rashi explains that the twelve springs of water correspond to the twelve tribes and the seventy date palms to the seventy elders. In other words, this oasis is like a mirror for the people of Israel, and is there for their use.

Another understanding can be found in the Pri Etz Hadar, the earliest known Tu Bishvat Seder. (The work's authorship is uncertain, but it seems to have emerged from the kabbalistic school of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria in 16th century Tzfat, and it was first published as a pamphlet in Venice in 1728. If you've ever participated in a Tu Bishvat seder that features four cups of wine and a variety of fruits and nuts, then you've encountered a derivative of this text!) The Pri Etz Hadar loves our Exodus verse about Elim, explaining that the number twelve refers to twelve permutations of God's name: “twelve [supernal, engraved] regions ascended [in the scale], in the great and powerful holy Tree.” Thus, the oasis of Exodus is reimagined as none other than the Tree of Life itself, which is synonymous with God.

While the Israelites were still in Egypt, the central "problem" they faced was Pharaoh, an external, tyrannical opponent. Now that they are in the wilderness, the Israelites will repeatedly face a different challenge, one that is more internal in nature. Throughout the remainder of the Torah, we will see them cycling through thirst and hunger, fear and anger, complaining and grumbling. It's hard for them to get out of their own way enough to realize that nature and God can provide for their needs.

As we arrive at Tu Bishvat this week, we celebrate the "birthday of the trees." I'm appreciating the explanation of this verse from the Pri Etz Hadar: that in fact, what we are looking at in front of us is never a collection of trees, but the Tree of Life itself. When we encamp at the oasis, its springs and trees -- and really, nature as a whole -- can sustain us. But when we move too far away from it or get stuck in our own destructive cycles, we, like our Israelite predecessors, become our own worst enemy.

This is a powerful message to recount in this week of Tu Bishvat, a holiday which has ancient roots but has continually evolved in how its meaning and relevance is interpreted. In this year of 5781/2021, we are experiencing a climate crisis, exacerbated by years of our own faltering and insufficient action to protect the natural world. Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has awakened us even more deeply to the reality that in our global society, all of humanity is interconnected and our fates are inextricably linked. Addressing the climate crisis is arguably the most pressing moral issue of our time; it is at once environmental, social, and theological.

This week, our Torah portion invites us to the oasis, where we might pause along our way to (re)encounter the Tree of Life. Together, may we be refreshed, and inspired to action so that we might address the climate crisis creatively and collaboratively. Future generations -- and the Tree of Life itself -- are all counting on us.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum