The nature of faith in the midst of challenging times

By Rabbi Shira Wallach
Parashat Terumah

In the middle of winter, when trees are barren and sunlight is scarce, we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. Not when we gather bushels of fruit from heavy branches or inhale the heady scent of magnolia blossoms — when their blessings are right in front of us — but rather, when their blessings are hidden. Just a hint of their fertile possibility peeks through; we rejoice at the appearance of the very first buds of the almond tree, the earliest to indicate signs of rebirth. And we know, despite the frigid winds and limp, dead leaves, that hope is right around the corner. We have faith in the eternal cycle of the seasons, because God set the days and weeks and seasons in motion at the beginning of time, and it has continued each and every moment since.

On Tu Bishvat we often share the story of Honi HaMe-agel, who happened upon someone who was planting a carob tree. A man of great faith, Honi nonetheless was stunned as to why this person would invest in something that wouldn’t bear fruit in his lifetime. The man replied: “My forefathers planted carob trees for me so I would have them; these I plant for all those who will come after me” (BT Taanit 23a). In other words, inspired by the faith of those who came before him, this man knew that he could have faith in the future, even if he couldn’t see it.

Around the same time that we celebrate the rebirth of trees, we read Parashat Beshallach, the miraculous story of our liberation from Egypt. Our ancestors are so overwhelmed at the sight of the Red Sea closing behind them that they sing, their voices carrying up to God in heaven. And then, the encore: Miriam leads the women in their own musical dance, lifting their voices and timbrels in jubilation. How did they know to bring their instruments with them from Egypt? the rabbis ask. Surely they were preoccupied with packing matzos, animals, toys to entertain the children on the long journey. But Rashi teaches us, based on Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael: The women were confident that God would perform miracles; it was only logical to bring instruments of joy. They knew that God would deliver signs and wonders, and they knew that they needed to be ready to celebrate.

In this week’s parasha, Terumah, God instructs our ancestors to “make a mishkan, a Tabernacle, so that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8), revealing chapters of construction details, including materials, designs, colors, shapes, you name it. And of course: an Ark of the Covenant, to hold the sacred tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed by the finger of God, made of gold-plated acacia wood. The rabbis ask the same question: From where did the Israelites procure acacia wood? And again, Rashi answers, quoting from several Midrashim: When our forefather Jacob journeyed to Egypt, he had a vision that, one day, his descendants would leave and would need to build a Tabernacle in the wilderness. So he brought atzei shittim and planted them in Egypt, and reminded his children to take them with when they departed. 

We’re enduring another long winter of COVID-19. Many of us have fallen ill, or watched those close to us struggle with enduring symptoms. We’ve retreated into our homes, hibernating until the peak passes, and lost the regular encounters and connections that enable us to thrive. Though we can’t necessarily see when it will be safe once again to gather and rejoice, I pray that we still hold on to our tools of celebration, that we still plant the seeds of joy. Because when the time is right, we’ll be so thankful that we never lost faith in what is possible. 

Rabbi Shira Wallach serves Congregation Shearith Israel.She is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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