January 25, 2013: Parashat Beshallach Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
By: Rabbi Heather Ellen Miller
As we noted earlier, tonight begins Tu B’Shvat– birthday of the trees– in our BCC monthly board meeting earlier this week, naturally– pun intended– I asked what do trees have to do with board meetings?
Various people answered: in board meetings we put things in motion, watch them grow…
I referenced an old kabbalistic idea– that making policy is like planting the seeds of the fruits that you wish to bear in the future.
As with planting trees that take years to bear fruit, the board may create policy, the fruits of which we may not see in our lifetime, but they will will come.
There is a story about a Rabbi who was walking down a road when he saw a man planting a tree. The rabbi asked him how many years it would take for the tree to bear
fruit. The man answered that it would take seventy years. The rabbi asked, ‘Are you so fit and strong that you expect to live that long and eat of its fruit?
The man answered, ‘I found a fruitful world because my forefathers planted for me. So I will do the same for my children’
This story is a powerful metaphor relating the blessings we encounter in our lives to delicious fruits, and the critical role each of us has in bringing the world to a better place
even if we don’t anticipate seeing the change in our lifetimes. Judaism itself is in love with metaphor– our tradition takes Jewish spirituality and theology– that which is is intangible, very tangible relatable and present.
What do I mean?
A few weeks ago, we had a very fruitful discussion at the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis Conference. A sincere question was asked by an Israeli colleague: We say- Eloheynu Melech HaOlam– Our God King of the Universe– we use the metaphor for King almost every blessing– every chatimah–
But what do we know about kings nowadays in America? Does this metaphor still ring true for us today?
There is an understanding within the question that sometimes metaphors don’t work because they are restricting and dependent upon context– and that if a metaphor
doesn’t work, we should not use it.
So, what relevance does it have to us today, as American Jews in 2013, to use the metaphor of King? Didn’t we, as Americans, revolt against King George III of England
during the American Revolution? Some of my colleagues related that:
when we recite blessings with the word Melech– King, today in 2013, they are reminded to feel, as Heschel said, that we are all princes and princesses of spiritual royalty
Others related that the word King reminds them to feel majesty for creation– to conjure up the feeling of being before the grandeur of nature
One rabbi mentioned the use of the term Melech because we can relate to God as a King like the kings in Shakespeare plays– where all the kings were all the sources of all
the problems, the tzurus. =) These reactions might have frustrated Kabbalistic rabbis of medieval times who expressed consternation to the limits of metaphors– they resolved to only describe God as Eyn Sof– one without end. (eyn sof) But, I’d like to suggest that that’s limiting too… how do we talk about God, or appreciate any part of God, or give gratitude to any part of God without metaphorically describing the ineffible?
One of the things I love about BCC is that we, as a community, are open to various notions of God/ not only as king by: The Author of life, the Creator/the force of good in
the world, the Shechinah, an artist, positivity, light, etc. The metaphors are meant to enrich our experience of the intangible, not limit it. And, this doesn’t only relate to God. Judaism, seen through the lens of metaphor, is a rich and textured tradition of beauty and feeling. Take this week’s Torah portion for instance– known as Beshallach, it describes the sea parting, and the song that the Israelites sang once they were through. That song is called the song of the sea.
Some might relate that the parting of the waters is actually metaphor for the birth of the Jewish people through a birth canal.
Before– we were individual Israelite slaves, then we went through the metaphorical parted waters together, and afterwards, we emerged as a unified Israelite nation of
people. The parted waters represent a powerful metaphor for the transformation that occurs when many peoples come together in unity. Plus, the Torah portion this week even conveys that we had our own national anthem. No, not this national anthem.
but this national anthem, the song of the sea that text relates Moses sang and Miriam led the women singing and dancing.
You can see here that whenever written in the Torah, the Song of the Sea which we celebrate during Shabbat Shirah, this very Shabbat tonight, that occurs once a year, the
text is split as if to remind us of that awesome metaphor of the sea splitting. REALLY COOL part– the last line– on each side see HaYam and Hayam, and in the middle, we see the words “Bnei Yisrael” — the Children of Israel– as if we are emerging through this miraculous sight.
Did the sea really part? scientists disagree on whether this is possible… but whether or not you think it is literally true, metaphorically, it is absolutely true– that
each time we come out of a trying time, the narrow ways of a treacherous and dangerous challenge, and we make our way out, we relive and recapture the truth of
Tonight, we celebrate metaphor, and ponder how we are like trees, how God is a gardener, a king, what it means to us when we see those parted waters on the stained
glass over there and think about the metaphor of the waters parting, and we celebrate our peoplehood. Look for the metaphors in our tradition, and celebrate their beauty. Or, discard them if they don’t work. But, always, searching for the truth of what you know about the ineffable, and thank the one with no end for the natural world and each other.