Shabbat Message: It’s A Tree of Life

Posted on August 12, 2022 by Jim Lavranchuk

“Eitz Chayim hi, lamachazikim bah” we sing when we place a Torah scroll in the ark after reading it – “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it…”

The imagery of trees was in my head as I began writing these words. When I was younger, I did a fair amount of climbing in trees, sometimes it changed my perspective and other times it changed my life. I invite you to come out on a limb with me as we briefly look at Parashat vaEtchanan.

We are headed down the home stretch in the cycle of Torah readings – second reading of the book of Deuteronomy, with only eight remaining. Moses has pleaded with Adonai to allow him to go into the good land across the river Jordan, but despite early successful negotiations with the Almighty, this time Moses is summarily and forcefully denied: “Go up on the summit of Pisgah […] look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.”

Surely this decree shattered Moses’ world, he has come so close only to be denied that next step…

Now he tells the Children of Israel how it is going to be: “You will go, but I will not be with you.”

We can see reflections of this in our own lives. We care for our children and keep them safe in our homes and at some point, they venture out on their own. Having been children ourselves we have seen some of what they will face – and we hope that we have given them sufficient tools and instincts and self-confidence to enjoy and celebrate the good and endure (and learn from) the bad.

To this end, Moses reminds the Children of Israel of the commandments and laws and precepts that make them a cherished people and a light unto the nations. He also reminds them of the consequences that they have already experienced after straying from the path.

Who among us has not strayed from the path that our parents set for us thinking “these rules are too harsh,” or have wandered a little too far down the path of self-indulgence chasing something dangerous or forbidden?

Moses reminds us that even if we have strayed so far from the path that God would “scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations to which Adonai has driven you.” Even then, if you turn back to the path and seek with all your heart and soul you will find God.”

Stage by stage we watch our children cross the river Jordan from the summit of Pisgah…

When we put them in the care of another responsible adult
When we first send them off to kindergarten
When they learn to drive and take the car on their own
When they live on their own in college or take a job in another city
When they meet that someone whom they grow to love
When they become the parent and we get promoted to grandparent
When our time on this earth is finished

… we cannot go with them, but our memory will.

Each cycle of Torah that we learn from adds a ring to the trunk of that Tree of Life, strengthening it and supporting its branches as those buds grow into twigs and then strong branches. Teaching it faithfully to our children gives them the same opportunity. Each building upon the last and extending upward – each time a little closer to heaven.

Let us pray silently…

It is remarkable that last Shabbat fell on the ninth day of the month of Av – Tisha b’Av, the day on which both the first and second Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed. It is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. Indeed, almost every tragic event that happened to the Jewish people is ascribed to Tisha b’Av

The report of the twelve spies
The revolt of Bar Kochba
The First Crusade
The Expulsion of Jews from England
The Spanish Inquisition expelling Jews from Spain and Portugal
The Pogroms of World War I
The deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka

And on and on…

And since this week during which we commemorate Tisha b’Av is coincident with the tragedy of God’s decree – that Moses shall not cross the Jordan into the land of Israel, looking down from my perch on this branch, I want to comfort Moses in his pain. During these seven weeks leading to the High Holy Day season the tone of the haftarot readings changes from Prophetic fire to words of consolation. This week Isaiah tells us “Nachamu, nachamu yomar Eloheichem – ‘Comfort O Comfort My people’ says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Eternal double for all her sins.”