Seeing the forest for the trees

The Atlantic was founded in 1857 for two things: one, abolish slavery and two, maintain the unity of the United States” editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg recently said. “Abraham Lincoln was quoted once saying that a favorable article in The Atlantic could save him seven or eight battles.”

Words are consequential.  Not only in their lethal dimension, but in a profoundly moving dimension.  Words can be emotionally nourishing.  When we read an article which expresses our view with originality and power we feel well fed.  Enjoying an exceptionally moving lecture can feel like a delicious meal.  Listening to an impressive interview or call in to a talk-radio show satisfies our appetite by ratifying our beliefs. 

The opposite is also true.  A reprehensible position tastes like a foul egg.  Moses and God experience this phenomenon vividly in this week’s portion of Torah when six of the ten murmurings against them recorded in the Torah occur.  Three days appears to be a telling duration.  A mere three days after the miraculous parting of the Red Sea the people become unglued, “The children of Israel went three days without water” (Ex. 15: 22).  Perhaps Moses’ initial demand from Pharaoh for three days to worship God in the wilderness (Ex. 8:23) held deeper insight about deficits in the people’s attention span.   The sages equate water with Torah.  Thus to this very day – reading publicly from the Torah on Monday, Thursday and Shabbat – we never go more than three days without replenishing our spirits with Torah.

Adjacent to the restorative waters are trees.  Moses sweetens the water’s bitterness with a tree (Ex. 15:25) and the passage concludes with the Children of Israel encamping around twelve springs and seventy palms (Ex. 15:27).  Today’s observance of Tu B’shvat – the New Year for trees – seeds hope for our People. 

Kehillath Israel begins to celebrate it’s 100th birthday this weekend – founded the same year in which the Balfour Declaration signaled international recognition of the worthiness of our People’s return to our ancestral homeland – our Congregation planted 10,000 trees in Palestine to cultivate the Jewish future back in 1946.  Educational Director Maurice Lieberman then proclaimed, “the indivisible bond between Kehillath Israel and Israel.”  Ever since, the State of Israel has planted more than 250 million trees making it one of only two countries to end the twentieth century with more trees growing there than 100 years earlier. 

Seeing the forest for the trees isn’t always easy but it is always important.  Trees and water nourish life.  Words – whether typed or talked – are life-nourishing too.  May our words be as generative and reinvigorating as bubbling streams and verdant pastures.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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