“It shall not be seen, and: It shall not be found.” When I started this Tractate, I could not imagine what could be said about celebrating the holiday of Passover for four months. I should have known better from the prior three Tractates – the Rabbis can turn over a topic so many times that your head is left spinning. And there are digressions on top of digressions. Today, the Rabbis return to the topic of the last few days – deriving benefit from prohibited items. And they rehash old territory including the use of wood from the prohibited asheira tree.
Little by little, by returning to a previously discussed topic and digressing a bit through seemingly unrelated analogies, and then returning to the topic, but in a slightly different way, the argument is extended ever so slightly and often, only noticed if one is taking careful notes. Today, Rabbi Eliezer returns to the discussion of an oven that is lit with wood from the asheira tree. We learned yesterday that the oven would become contaminated and must be broken if it is new. The argument is extended to include an old oven, which may simply be cooled. There is no explanation offered for why an old oven can be salvaged while the new one must be smashed.
Today’s text revisits the prior treatment of the humble loaf of bread. If the loaf is baked in an oven that is fueled with asheira wood, it could not be consumed, and no benefit could be derived from it. This also holds true if the loaf was mixed with other loaves; in that case they would all be prohibited. Rabbi Eliezer says that the benefit – not the bread itself which is how I originally read the text – should be cast into the Dead Sea. I imagine standing at the edge of the Dead Sea, which is very slippery, and symbolically casting away every benefit that I inadvertently gained from that was prohibited into its murky waters.
The asheira tree receives s great deal of space on the page from the Rabbis, who seem obsessed with how its bark and wood are used. The tree was believed to be so beautiful that it was the object of reverence and what the Rabbis feared most – idolatry. The Rabbis condemned the tree for the magical powers that people attributed to it, but they also granted it power by their obsession with discussing how to negate receiving any benefit from it– either directly by using its wood to light an oven, or less directly through the ash that is left after coals derived from its wood have cooled.
The asheira tree represents something so compelling that it pulls people in its direction, even if it is a mirage. I was shocked when I read that travel over the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States was down only 5% over last year, despite CDC warnings that travel would lead to a surge of the coronavirus and end very badly for the country. It was as if there was an asheira tree calling to people to get on planes and trains and visit their families regardless of the consequences. There was magical thinking involved – people thought they were safe if they took a COVID-19 test before they embarked on their journeys.
I have no other explanation for such behavior which three weeks later is resulting in more death and suffering and destruction to our economy. The guidance was quite clear – if you travel over the holiday you will be contributing to the spread of the disease and the shut-down of your localities. I get it. There is an asheira tree within all of us that makes us feel immune from the bad things that happen to others. That is, until they touch our own lives.
People now have a choice with another holiday looming. Will they resist the call of the asheira tree and travel again and derive benefit from the pull to be with their loved ones? Or will they stay home and be safe and do their part to tamp down the spread of the virus? The asheira tree is calling, but so is the virus.