In memory of Martin Luther King Jr., who taught us how to go forward.
Our rabbis teach us in a midrash that when God created trees, they were full of pride because of their towering stature. Then God created iron, and those trees that could foresee the axe trembled with fear. “Why do you tremble?” God asked. “No axe can be formed to cut you down unless you yourselves contribute the wood for the axe handle.”
This Sabbath is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees. We celebrate the confluence of reading in the Torah of our liberation from Egypt and the miracles wrought with wood and water, with the very day in the Jewish year that the rabbis imagined God judging the world to determine how wood and water, how nature herself, will fare.
Wood takes different shapes and forms in Moses’ life. At a lowly thorn bush, Moses first encounters God and is called to leadership. In the wilderness, any wood can be culled for kindling, even bushes. Yet Moses’ burning bush was the greatest of all firewood, for it burned, yet was not consumed.
Moses took a wooden staff as a sign of his calling as the shepherd of Israel. It was with this stick that Moses performed God’s miracles. First, he watched as God turned that piece of wood into a snake. Later, Moses descended into Egypt with “the staff of God in his hand.” There, a whittled tree again turned serpentine. (But was it the staff of Moses? Was it his brother Aaron’s stick? Did they share the same miraculous rod?) The staff-turned-snake swallowed up the serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians.
That same stick touched the River Nile and turned its waters to blood. The stick of God brought frogs up from the earth to cover the land of Egypt. God’s rod smote the earth, bringing forth vermin and lice. When Moses held the staff heavenward, hail rained down from the skies, fire flashing in its midst. That staff, held once more aloft, brought locusts to devour the remnant of Egypt’s crops.
One final time, Moses’ held out the miraculous staff over the waters of the Sea of Reeds; and the sea was turned to dry ground so the Israelites could pass. This is the miracle we “Israelites” recall when we chant the Song of the Sea in this week’s Torah reading.
As we read again and again of divine intervention in history, we are reminded of the tenuous relationship humans have to trees, to water, to nature herself. God makes Moses’ staff an instrument to perform miracles. Never for a moment do we think that Moses, or any human, can perform miracles. Never does the Bible let us think that God’s creatures might dry up the sea or smite the earth and bring forth plagues. Only God can create or destroy a universe.
What will this coming new year bring? Will we plant, or will we uproot? Will we reforest or will we recklessly log? Will we stand by as our globe continues to warm, or will we join with other nations to control global warming? Will we act to rein in population growth, or will we link our nation’s foreign policies to a political agenda designed to foster higher birthrates? Will we truly commit ourselves to stop the plague of AIDS? Will we restore clean air policies so that we all might breathe easier? Will we act to preserve and increase the availability of drinking water for the world’s ever-growing population? Will we develop alternative energy resources? Will we battle for peace?
Will we tremble in fear, as the Midrash tells us the trees did at the creation of iron? Will we stand by helplessly, as the Israelites did at the shore of the Sea of Reeds? Or will we take to heart God’s words to Moses as he prayed for one more miracle (Exodus 14:15), “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!”
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary.