A Pause of Appreciation: Linda's Reflections on Parashat Beshalach

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A former camper and staff member, Linda joined the year-round Ramah staff in 1997.  In her role as Director of Institutional Advancement she works with the development team to coordinate annual, capital, and legacy campaigns, strategic planning, communications and public relations. 

Parashat Beshalach
by Linda Hoffenberg, Director of Institutional Advancement

I was at camp when I heard B’rachah Acharonah for the first time.  This blessing, recited after eating a meal without bread, is heard in the chadrei ochel (dining halls) on Shabbat morning when we have a light breakfast before tefillot.  There is another variation of this blessing that is recited after eating any of the five special fruits of the land of Israel – grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives or dates. 

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהנו מלך העולם, על העץ ועל פרי העץ, ועל תנובת השדה ועל ארץ חמדה טובה ורחבה שרצית והנחלת לאבותינו לאכול מפריה ולשבוע מטובה

Blessed are You, Ruler of the universe, for the tree and the fruit of the tree, for the produce of the field, and for the precious, good, and spacious land which You have graciously given as a heritage to our ancestors, to eat of its fruit and to be satiated with its goodness.

Many will recite this blessing on Monday when we celebrate Tu BiShvat, the 15th of the month of Shevat and the birthday of the fruit trees.  With the simple act of eating a delicious piece of fruit we will stop to appreciate God’s greatness and the small things we usually take for granted. 

A pause for appreciation is always a good thing.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, the Israelites experience extreme appreciation for God’s greatness - and then seem to completely disconnect from their sense of gratitude.

In Exodus chapter 14, the Israelites are fleeing Egypt with Pharaoh’s officers chasing them in their chariots.  Overcome with fear, the Israelites cry out to God and tell Moses they’d rather be slaves than die in the wilderness.  When they reach the sea, it seems that the Egyptians will kill them all, but God tells Moses to raise his staff.  You know what happens next – the waters part and the Israelites safely pass through to the other side.  When God tells Moses to lower his hand, the waters crash down on the Egyptians. 

The Israelites are overwhelmed with gratitude:

אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל את השירה הזאת לה' ויאמרו לאמר
אשירה לה' כי גאה גאה סוס ורוכבו רמה בים.

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to God.  They said: I will sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously, horse and driver God has hurled into the sea. (Exodus 15:1)

You might think that after experiencing such a fantastic miracle, the people would be so filled with awe and faith in God that it would be smooth sailing for them from then on.  But that was not the case.

Just three days after the Israelites leave the sea, the people are tired and thirsty and start complaining. 

ויבאו מרתה ולא יכלו לשתות מים ממרה כי מרים הם על כן קרא שמה מרה.

And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah, because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah.  (Exodus 15:23). 

I always thought this verse meant that the water tasted bitter, so the people could not drink.  But Rabbi Levi, who lived in the 4th century, tells us that the water was fine.  This happened because the Israelites were bitter – that’s why they couldn’t drink the water.  They were so wrapped up in their own fears and discomforts that even their sense of taste was affected.

Obviously the Israelites had forgotten the miracles God performed for them in Egypt and at the sea.  They didn’t trust that God would provide food and water; they thought only of themselves and felt empty and bitter. 

In fact, throughout the Bible we learn that God’s miracles don’t make much of an impression on our ancestors.  Think about how Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and how the Israelites ignored the Ten Commandments, and how the people paid no attention to God’s prophets. 

So… what can we learn from this indifference to miracles and how does it connect to Tu BiShvat?

Rabbi Brad Artson teaches that “the shift from biblical to rabbinic Judaism reflects the growing, divine insight that the way to mold a sacred people lies not in external miracles, but in inner transformation. That transformation is accomplished through small, prosaic progress. By gradually incorporating mitzvot into our lives – by moving a step at a time toward making Shabbat, tzedakah, social justice, prayer and study a regular part of our being – we can, with time, remake ourselves in the Divine image.”

Tu BiShvat is unique in that it is a holiday that asks us to make a big deal out of the little things in life.   We stop to admire a flowering tree, we enjoy a piece of fruit and say the appropriate blessings of praise.

Tu BiShvat is not about the drama of a big-ticket miracle. It’s about performing mitzvot to celebrate a few of the countless small things with which God has blessed us like beautiful trees, delicious fruit and the sense of sight, taste, smell and touch to appreciate them.  This Tu BiShvat, let’s continue our efforts to remake ourselves in the Divine image and pause to appreciate the daily miracles all around us.