Earlier this week, I was looking through some of the materials Hazel bequeathed to the Hebrew School, I found these handouts [present handouts]. One is on this week’s parasha, Beshalach, and one is for the first of the 9 plagues, which we saw in the last two weeks’ parshiyot [pass around handouts]. In them, modern Biblical scholars explain some scientifically possible explanations for the extraordinary events we read in the narrative of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. Personally, I love this idea. That there is some scientific reasoning that supports the possibility that something happened, which looked to the Egyptians and Israelites like plagues and a deliberate parting of the Red Sea. If they could have really happened as much by the laws of nature as by the hand of G-d, how much more miraculous would that be! How amazing that we live in a world where nature is so complex and interesting and interconnected, that an over-abundance of algae could make the water look red like blood, and set off a whole chain reaction that leads to the frogs, flies or wild animals, locusts, illness in the people and cattle, and create the narrative we have today. The scientific explanations for how the universe, and specifically Earth as the only planet known to be able to sustain life, came to be is as much proof of Divine intention as our story in B’reshit. To me, G-d is in nature.
It can be easy to forget about that, though, when you live in a city without a lot of greenery, with too many artificial lights to see the stars, when you’re busy, when it’s too cold to go for a walk just to appreciate the outdoors. I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched a sunrise, sunset, or really looked at the moon. I don’t think I’ve done any of those things since I moved to New York, almost two years ago. And when we forget about how lovely nature is, when we don’t get to see it, and appreciate it, it’s easy to forget how important it is. We breathe just fine in this city, even if we find ourselves on a block with no trees! How easy to forget that trees provide our oxygen. We have plenty of fruits and nuts in front on us today, and I’ve never seen a carob tree in person before! How easy to forget where our foods come from. And in lands far away, where people wage war, it is easy for them to forget that the space between them and their enemies is natural land, neutral ground that everyone could find use of.
Our Jewish laws teach us, then, that when we are fighting a war, we should not harm the trees in our way. The trees cannot run away, or choose sides, or ask for mercy. They are completely innocent casualties. Every Shabbat we pray for peace, we pray for the healing not only of people close to us, but any in the world injured in disasters, we say a Mourner’s Kaddish not only for those our own community has lost, but for all those in world who have died in war with no one to say Kaddish for them. This Shabbat, as we are celebrating the birthday of the trees, Tu B’Shevat, let us also say a prayer for peace for all the trees hurt by war, a prayer for healing all the soil on other continents rendered unhealthy and unusable for plant by the land mines put in it from wars past, and a Mourner’s prayer for all the pieces of the natural world lost forever by humanity’s ignorance of how important nature is. Now that we know how important nature is, now that we have organizations like the JNF learning to plant the right kinds of trees in Israel for us, now that we have modern Biblical and scientific scholars working together to hypothesize how the miracles of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea could have really happened, may we always remember to appreciate the nature around us. Children of the Hebrew School, you are the future! May you be the first generation to have everyone reduce, reuse, and recycle, to plant sustainably, and to appreciate the trees every day! Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Ha-Ilanot Sameach! Happy Festival of the Trees!