The following is a write-up of remarks originally delivered at Cong. Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, New Jersey.
I know it’s a little premature for this, but before we do anything else this morning, I just want to take this opportunity to wish you an early “Happy New Year.”
Some of you look confused, so let me explain. I know it’s almost February. And I know it’s been over five months since we dipped our apples in the honey. But that’s OK, because I’m not referring to the New Year we celebrate on the first of Tishrei, or even the new year marked on the first of January. I’m talking about “Tu B’Shvat,” the holiday we’ll be celebrating this Wednesday, and which the Mishnah in Masechet Rosh HaShanah refers to as “ראש השנה לאילנות:” “the New Year for the trees.”
And maybe this holiday can’t come fast enough this year. Because the truth is, it’s not a great time to be a tree right now. From natural disasters like Harvey and Irma and Maria, to political debates over the proper way forward with the Paris Climate Accords, environmental issues have made headlines for all the wrong reasons over the past twelve months. Less noticeably, though equally pernicious, is the growing water crisis affecting both plant and animal life all across the world.
But perhaps there’s reason for hope. And, if there is, it seems to be coming largely out of Israel. For as Seth Siegel writes in his recent best-seller, Let There Be Water, Israelis are at the forefront of finding the “solution[s] for [our] water-starved world.” They’re inventing more efficient ways to irrigate. They’re developing cheaper ways to desalinate. They’ve even found a way to make water out of thin-air. That’s right—an Israeli start-up called Water-Gen has actually built a device capable of trapping and condensing the humidity naturally found in the air we breathe, to produce water which we can drink. It’s a remarkable innovation.
Yet it’s not quite as innovative as you might think. After all, we Jews have a celebrated history of drawing water from unlikely sources. In fact, the earliest one to do it was none other than Moshe Rabbenu, in this week’s parshah. Facing a water-crisis of his own, Moshe turns to Hashem in panic and asks Him were he’s supposed to find water for millions of thirsting people. And what does Hashem tell Moshe to do? That’s right—he tells Moshe to take his staff, and to strike a rock. And so Moshe does. And the water comes gushing forth.
It’s a dazzling miracle. But it’s also a puzzling one, if you think about it. Because those of us who live in the generation of Water-Gen have got to wonder: Of all the possible ways Hashem could have come up with to produce water, why’d He do it by having Moshe strike a rock? Why not simply rain the water down from the heavens on behalf of His people? Or why not have Moshe pull it out of thin air, like the Israelis one day would?
I think the decision to have Moshe draw water from a rock, specifically, was quite purposeful. There’s something very deliberate it’s intended to communicate. But we’ll only appreciate the message of this miracle if we return to the original scene, and read it together very carefully:
וַיִּצְמָ֨א שָׁ֤ם הָעָם֙ לַמַּ֔יִם – Bnei Yisrael thirsted for water,
וַיָּ֥לֶן הָעָ֖ם עַל־משֶׁ֑ה – so the people grumbled against Moshe.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לָ֤מָּה זֶּה֙ הֶֽעֱלִיתָ֣נוּ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם —“Why did you bring us out of Egypt,” they complained,
לְהָמִ֥ית אֹתִ֛י וְאֶת־בָּנַ֥י וְאֶת־מִקְנַ֖י בַּצָּמָֽא— “to have us die out of thirst in this wilderness?”
וַיִּצְעַ֤ק משֶׁה֙ אֶל ה’ לֵאמֹ֔ר—So Moshe cried out to Hashem, and he said:
מָ֥ה אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה—“What am I to do for these people?
ע֥וֹד מְעַ֖ט וּסְקָלֻֽנִי—just a little longer, and they will stone me!”
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה…—So Hashem said to Moshe:
הִנְנִ֣י עֹמֵד֩ לְפָנֶ֨יךָ שָּׁ֥ם | עַל־הַצּוּר֘ בְּחֹרֵב֒—“Behold, I shall stand before you at the rock in Chorev
וְהִכִּ֣יתָ בַצּ֗וּר—and you shall strike the rock,
וְיָֽצְא֥וּ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ מַ֖יִם –and water shall come out of it,
וְשָׁתָ֣ה הָעָ֑ם—and the people shall drink.”
Did anyone catch the irony in that sequence we just read? Moshe runs to Hashem and cries, “I’ve got to get these people water quickly, or else they’re going to stone me. They’re going to strike me with rocks.” And how does Hashem respond? “Well, then, Moshe—why don’t you take a rock? And why don’t you strike that rock before their eyes? And that’s where the water will come from.”
To realize this is to discover that the meaning of this miracle cuts much deeper than we generally assume. When Hashem instructs Moshe to strike the rock, He’s not just giving him the solution to this particular crisis at this particular point in history. Symbolically, He’s teaching bnei Yisrael a fundamental lesson about how to approach any crisis that might confront them. When life gets challenging; when situations seem bleak; when we find ourselves trapped between “a rock and a hard place”—we might be tempted to “throw stones,” as the idiom goes: to cast criticism and hurl blame upon others. But while that might be comforting or convenient, it’s not constructive. It doesn’t solve anything.
So instead of throwing rocks, Moshe insists, let’s strike the rocks. Instead of attacking people, let’s attack the problems. The very force you were planning to use destructively can hold within it the solution to all of your problems, Moshe shows bnei Yisrael—if only you approach it constructively, and cooperatively.
And if you think about it, that’s precisely what bnei Yisrael go on to do. Because immediately after the water crisis is resolved, another crisis ensues—Amalek launches a surprise attack. So the troops head out to battle while Moshe ascends the mountain to pray to Hashem. But after standing up there for a while, Moshe grows tired. So what do bnei Yisrael do? Let’s read:
וִידֵ֤י משֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים—Now Moshe’s hands grew heavy,
וַיִּקְחוּ־אֶ֛בֶן—so they took a rock,
וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ תַחְתָּ֖יו—and they placed it under him, and he sat upon it,
וְאַֽהֲרֹ֨ן וְח֜וּר תָּֽמְכ֣וּ בְיָדָ֗יו…—and Aharon and Chur supported his hands…
וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ—…and so his hands remained faithfully upheld until sunset.
What a remarkable storyline—what a remarkable progression we’ve got in these few pesukim—if we just zoom out to notice the imagery. One chapter. Two crises: a water crisis, and a war crisis. At the first crisis, bnei Yisrael threaten to throw rocks at Moshe, and the saga almost ends in disaster. But by the second, they’re bringing rocks to Moshe—not to strike him, but to support him; not to blame, but to buttress; not to criticize, but to collaborate. And thus they confront their common enemy with greater success than ever seemed possible.
This, then, is the lesson of שמות פרק יז—and it’s one that’s particularly important for us to review today, as a growing chorus of educational experts and psychologists question whether we’re doing enough to teach our children how to face setback and failure with resolve and resilience: When life throws you lemons, you make lemonade. And when life throws you stones, you build a castle.
Some are doing this in our day and age, quite literally. You may have heard, for example, of Rockets into Roses, a group of Israeli sculptors who collect shrapnel from rockets fired into Israel, and create beautiful pieces of artwork out of them. On the other side of the Green Line—someone just sent me the story this week, actually—are people like Palestinian real estate entrepreneur Bashar Masri, who during the last intifada used to literally throw stones at Israelis, and was sentenced to jail for doing so, but today works in cooperation with the Israeli government to build quality housing for Palestinians and encourage construction over violence. As Time Magazine put it, Masri “went from throwing stones to building a town with them.”
And then, of course, we have the folks at Water-Gen, and all those like them: Israelis who recognized their country’s severe water shortage, a shortage which should have crippled their national economy, but viewed it instead as an opportunity—an imperative to innovate. And because they took that attitude, Israel today—a country that is over 60% desert—is a world leader in hydrology, and is forging economic ties with nations all around the world by virtue of this hard-earned expertise.
Thus we return to Tu B’Shvat. כי האדם עץ השדה, our Torah asks us, rhetorically—Are humans anything like trees? In one way, at least, we must strive to be: just as the seed which we plant in the ground manages to generate growth from decay and decomposition, so must we find a way to turn every setback into a stepping stone, and every obstacle into an opportunity.
That is what our ancestors meant when they sang, upon their return from exile—and we repeat these words each Shabbos during Shir Ha’maalos of bentsching: הזורעים בדמעה, ברנה יקצרו: we must use the tears of today’s trials to nurture the seeds of tomorrow’s growth.
That is what David HaMelech meant when he wrote in the Tehillim we recite during Hallel: אבן מאסו הבונים היתה לראש פנה: the rock which builders never thought they’d have a use for can become the foundation stone for the entire enterprise.
And it is with this attitude that, ultimately, we will hasten the final redemption, as prophesized by Yeshayahu: וכתתו חרבותם לאתים, וחניתותיהם למזמרות: “And they shall beat our swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”—for in setback, and in failure, we shall recognize an invitation to plant and to build.