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“Wind, Earth, Water, Fire,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

February 3, 2023 | 12 Shvat 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

This Shabbat and the beginning of next week mark two great events that occur which create a synergy of possibility. A new year combined with a new beginning brings new hope.

This coming week marks the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the new year for trees and a summons for awareness of the earth and the care it needs. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah) speaks of four new years. In Jewish tradition, their purposes vary with an eye toward repurposing ourselves.

It is curious we would have a holiday which celebrates fruit which comes from trees. Our first encounter with fruit did not go so well.

Back in the Garden of Eden, we had it all as we moved to the rhythms of the earth, tied to its growth and decay, rebirth and renewal. We wandered and wondered freely through a world animated by the Divine Presence. And then came that fateful (but delicious) bite and the seamless connection to the divine ruptured, sending humanity out into the world.

This was not a punishment rather it was a tikkun, an opportunity to repair. Just as human beings have the power to destroy, so too do we have the ability to heal. While the ground is blanketed with the whiteness of snow, the earth is making it possible for Spring: for rebirth and possibility. So we mark this moment in time in the Jewish cycle of the year.

And in the yearly cycle of the Torah reading, in a moment of great historical significance, redemption becomes possible.

As a people bound by servitude, the chains of slavery unlock as we make our way toward freedom. We pay close attention to how the elements of nature assist us.

Wind, earth, fire, and water come to our rescue in this sacred story.

ruah, a wind pushes the water to make a path for the Israelites:

“Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and Adonai drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night…” (Exodus 14:21)

Between those parted waters, the dry ground lay beneath the Israelites as the passageway to freedom.

Betoch hayam bayabashah-within the water was the dry land, the earth. (Exodus 14:29)

The water is everywhere and forms a wall to their right and to their left, but the Egyptians are in hot pursuit. (14:29)

Fire forms another kind of wall between the frightened Israelites and their previous masters.

“At the morning watch, God looked down upon the Egyptian army

From a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.” (Exodus 14:24)

And the waters again separate the Israelites from their enemies, drowning them as part of the drama of the story. ( Exodus 14:28)

The Israelites arrive to the other side, singing of their freedom in praise of God who has delivered them; in praise of the One who has created the power of nature to rescue them.

To sing, to express the song of the soul, is a true mark of freedom. Whenever Israel utters this song, we learn, throughout the generations, it is as if it is offered for the first time, new and renewed.

This week we have a new year for trees, for the blessings which come from the earth and a moment relived delivering us yet again toward redemption.

May each of these moments provide us strength as we embark on our own journey to a time of great promise freed from illness and despair.

Shabbat Shalom!

Originally shared January 29, 2021

Rabbi Elaine Zecher