Parashat B'shalah

Where the Wood Meets Water

We can return on a path of responsible and sustainable stewardship.

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On the other hand, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai explains the phrase "Vayorehu Hashem etz" as "God taught Moses Torah." According to this interpretation, the "etz" in the verse refers to "etz hayim hee," meaning "it (the Torah) is a tree of life." In a similar vein, the Toras Menachem brings a beautiful literal reading from the Zohar suggesting that it was a piece of wood from the Etz Hayim--the original Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.

The Contemporary Crisis

Our contemporary journey through post-industrial history parallels in many ways the journeys of our forefathers. Water has become increasingly scarce with a concomitant diminution in both quantity and quality. Despite its seeming ubiquity, less than 3% of the world's water supply is potable. Similarly, manufacturing has left its heavy imprint on the water supply--an integral part and thus an unwitting victim of the manufacturing process.

As the worldwide demand for raw materials increases at breakneck speeds, aggressive logging and development at an unprecedented rate have taken their toll on our forests, wreaking havoc both on wildlife habitat and threatening the vast watershed and subterranean aquifers which depend on the dense forest cover.

Numerous species of herbs and plant life whose healing powers have been known to indigenous peoples for centuries and which might have provided us with the answer to numerous medical and related issues--"bitters to sweeten the bitter"--are disappearing at an alarming rate from pristine rainforests, which are being clearcut both for the valuable old growth timber and to make room for increased cattle grazing.

How to Heal

"Ma'asei avot siman labanim"--the actions of our ancestors come to instruct us. So what lessons can we take away from this story to illuminate our own paths?

The Toras Menachem sees the various opinions in the Midrash as metaphors for differing ways of combating the bitterness or evil within ourselves. The first approach is to dilute the bitter waters with fresh water, which, according to all opinions, was not done here. The second way is to transform the bitter into sweet by adding a strong agent which will "overpower" the bitterness and cause the transformation. This approach is represented by the Zohar's notion of wood from the Tree of Life.

Finally there is "self-realization" or making the waters realize how bad it is to be bitter, thus convincing them to become sweet of their own accord. This result is typified by the Tanhuma and the various opinions who held that the wood was bitter. 

According to the Toras Menachem, combating bitter with bitter is the spiritual service of ba'alei teshuvah--those who realize they are distant from God, and change course to return. The energy and creativity that they had put into their previous pursuits can now be invested in passion for God, Torah, and the Jewish people.

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Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz is Executive Director of Project Ya'aleh V'Yavo, Inc.