Parashat Beshalah and Tu Bish’vat

By Rabbi Len Levin

David Ben Gurion said that whoever does not believe in miracles is not a realist. He may have had in mind the day in 1948 that the fate of Jerusalem depended on negotiation of a cease-fire before the supply of food and water would run out, or a thousand other improbable events on which the life of modern Israel depended.

“God enacted a condition with the Sea, at the time of creation, that it should split upon the arrival of the Israelites.” (Genesis Rabbah, 5:5) The author of this rabbinic saying was cognizant of the Stoic doctrine of natural law-a precursor of our modern scientific view of the orderliness of the physical world-and asserted that if miracles occur, they are part of the fabric of natural causality, not a deviation from it. God works through nature.

In the daily prayer Modim, we thank God for the miracles and wonders that are with us every day, morning, noon and night. There is even a prayer-Asher Yatzar-to be recited on the regular performance of our menial bodily functions, thanking God for the gift of a body with interlocking vessels and orifices, such that the proper functioning of all of them is necessary for our very existence. The more we learn about the workings of our physiology through the insights of modern science, down to our DNA, hormones, and neurotransmitters, the more marvelous it all seems. “I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made; Your work is wonderful; I know it very well.” (Psalm 139.14)

On Tu Bish’vat we thank God for the gift of trees. The more we learn about the interdependence of all life-forms, the more amazed we are that not only the food we eat but the very air we breathe is dependent on the replenishment of the atmosphere by creatures whose use of the life-gases oxygen and carbon dioxide is inverse and complementary to our own. That we depend on them for the habitability of our planet, but can also provide them with services if we treat them with respect and gratitude, is also a miracle.

Whether to regard such phenomena as miracles, or as mere facts, explainable by our scientific and everyday modes of explanation, is an interpretative choice. My teacher Neil Gillman is fond of pointing out the two instance of the verb “see” in Chapter 14 of our parashah: “The Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And the Israelites saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians.” The first “seeing” refers to the perception of a scientifically indisputable fact that any observer would register. There were Egyptians who perished in the resurgence of the sea, when their chariots got stuck in the mud. The second “seeing” refers to the subjective response of the Israelites. They experienced their narrow escape from danger as the manifestation of divine purpose, working in history, enabling them to live another day and move forward to achieve their destiny as a people.

We have a choice how to view our daily experiences and the larger trajectory of our lives. Do things just happen randomly? Did the world just come into being randomly, from a quantum fluctuation? Or is there a purpose pervading all, one that gives meaning to our lives and raises them from accident to destiny?

We are creatures of purpose. It is our nature to conceive purposes and carry them out. We embark on careers, which we call our vocations or callings.   The words “vocation” and “calling” are rooted in the Biblical narrative, in which God calls on various people to perform parts of the divine plan. God called Moses at the burning bush to redeem Israel. In next week’s portion, God will call Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation-a national vocation, a national calling.

The sense of vocation and the sense of miracle combine to help us see ourselves within a frame of purposes larger than ourselves. Living our lives within that frame gives us hope, meaning, and transcendence.

To recover that sense of transcendence, go out into the world and hug a tree. Listen to the song of a bird. Feel the sun on your face. Feel the air in your lungs. Experience the miracles that are a part of our everyday experience. And next time you visit the sea, thank it for the providential role it played thousands of years ago in enabling us to become a people dedicated to God.



Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.