We are surrounded by gifts. Every day is a gift of life. We see the gift of a clear blue sky and sunshine. We feel the gift of a kiss on the cheek from a child or a hug from a friend. We bask in the gift of a smile. We enjoy the gift of a homecooked meal that makes the house smell good and allows us to gather as a family around a table. We listen to the gift of a Chopin prelude or a great show tune. We eat the tart apples from a tree that has grown in our backyard for decades.
This week in our Parshah, we are given the gift of freedom. It is a gift from God. We have taken a lot of action along the way to get to where we are now….at the bank of the Red Sea with the Pharaoh and Egyptians in pursuit. But what happens next is a clear gift from God. Moses raises his staff and the sea parts. Our ancestors cross to safety on the other side and when the Egyptians follow, the sea flows over the army and we are free. Free from hundreds of years of slavery. Free from generations of not being in a situation where we could use our own gifts to contribute to the world. But now we can. Our escape is complete, but our journey is just beginning. And that journey brings many gifts and many challenges….and sometimes those are the same things. In this Parshah alone we complain that we have bitter water to drink and not enough food. God provides sweeter water and bread in the morning and meat at night in the form of manna and quail. There is a cycle that is established in the beginning of this journey. The Israelites complain, God reminds them that they are to follow his commandments and then God provides. How does this apply to our lives now. We are not living on honey flavored wafers that are provided each morning or eating quail each night. We are not traveling across the desert following a pillar of clouds. But we are on a journey, and it is a journey to the promised land. And we do have commandments to follow. Commandments to treat others as we treat ourselves, to treat the planet with respect so it is here to provide for future generations, to act with justice and to never stop working to repair the world until all are free as we were freed in biblical days. We have a lot to do on this journey, and often our biggest challenges are our biggest gifts. Because our challenges lead us to action and action leads us to God. When we reach out to another who is in pain or just simply needs assistance, we are led to God. When we rally with others to protect strangers, we are led to God. When we help our children to learn the skills they need to contribute to repairing this world, we are led to God. And when we are faced with health issues, a job loss, the loss of a loved one, uncertainty about our future, we take action. We not only work to recover and repair ourselves, we invariably end up helping others. And thus we are led to God. I participated this week in a benefit concert for Randy Travis’ Foundation, an iconic country singer I have worked with over the years. Randy suffered from a stroke 3 years ago which left him with limited ability to speak and walk. He is improving every day but is now on a mission to let people know the early symptoms of a stroke and what can be done to alleviate the damage. The city of Nashville declared Wednesday Randy Travis Day and he spoke that day before the state legislature about dollars for stroke research. He was misdiagnosed as having pneumonia when his stroke began and now is helping others based on this very serious challenge. Is this challenge a gift? It is hard to see it as such from his perspective as he struggles to talk and walk and sing, but he has rallied people around the country and is potentially saving lives due to the actions he is taking in response to his challenge. This is a gift to others and if we have the ability to see this from a long view or look at it through a filter of gratitude, it is a gift to Randy also.
This evening, we are also celebrating the gift of trees. It is Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees. The holiday was created in order to know what year of life a tree is in in order to comply with biblical agricultural commandments stating what years from each tree we eat the fruit in Jerusalem and what years from each tree we give fruit to the poor. Tu B’Shevat, which translates to mean the date, the 15th of Shevat, also represents our use of trees as powerful symbolism in our tradition. We celebrate trees when we describe Torah as a Tree of Life. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. We celebrate trees when we as people are compared to a tree in the field in Deuteronomy. We have roots that represent our physical expression. We reach down into the dirt for sustenance. But we have branches that reach for the sky. We are always reaching with faith towards our ultimate spirituality.
There is a great Talmudic story about an old man who plants a young shade tree. This is the ultimate gift. He will not be here for that shade but has planted it for future generations.
And that is the beauty of gifts. If we look for gifts, we find them. My mother used to love to look for shells. I enjoyed the hunt, but at the time, did not fully understand her passion. But as I take my kids to the beach, I realize that looking for shells is like looking for a gift, one that we typically would miss if we were not paying attention, and when we realize it’s there, we keep it and treasure it. Those gifts are all around us, in the people we love, the trees we climb and the feel of the waves on our toes. Let’s collect them and treasure them. They are gifts from God.