“Who is like you, O Lord, among the celestials; who is like You,
majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders.” (Exodus 15:11)
Parashat B’shalach is one of the better known episodes in the Bible, thanks in part to Cecille B. DeMille and Disney Studios. Freed from slavery, the Israelites reach the Reed Sea, only to discover Pharoah’s army in pursuit. God splits the sea, destroys the Egyptians and redeems the people. The Israelites celebrate by singing Shirat Hayam, The Song of the Sea. That is why this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song.
Three days later, when the Israelites complain about the water, Moses throws a log or tree branch into the water, sweetening it enough to drink. The Mekhilta(commentaries on Exodus collected and edited by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, a colleague of Rabbi Akiba) connects this episode to the verse comparing the Torah to, “…a tree of life those who grasp her.” (Proverbs 3:18) Water, which is life-sustaining, represents the Torah. Therefore, going more than three days without Torah is life-threatening. This is the basis for the practice of reading the Torah publicly on Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat. The Hebrew word va-yoreihu (He showed him (the tree)) strengthens the association, because it comes from the same grammatical root, y-r-h, as Torah. Finally, the use of the word etz, tree, completes the image (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, B’shalach, Va-Yissa 1).
Metaphors free words from their literal meanings. Metaphors also free us to create a wide variety of personal images of sanctity from those very same words. The Torah as a tree of life is a robust idea; it doesn’t really matter what kind of tree you imagine. What matters is that it means something to you.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom