Tu b’shevat, the 15th of Shevat, is a day designated as the New Year for trees. Our Land has always been a fruitful and blessed, fertile Land, while at the same time having the potential to be incredibly dry and arid, a living picture to the narrow balance we have in Israel between being blessed of the Lord, relying on His faithfulness to provide (as we see today in the portion, manna) and the arid consequences of His removing that blessing if we fail to walk in righteousness and faith as a nation.
To plant a tree is to act in faith for the future and in so many ways helps the desert to bloom. And trees have a prophetic place in the Jewish scriptures, drawing a visual metaphor for true righteousness for all who draw close to the Lord: Ps 1:1-3 and Jeremiah 17:7-8. We are called to be like trees that draw the sap from the Lord alone, good sweet water that will cause good fruit to grow, fruit that others can and should eat – not just as individuals but also as our national prophetic call.
The Temple in Jerusalem will have an interesting role in this regard; read Ezekiel 47:1-2, 7-12. This tree(s) is talked about in Shemot Rabbah where it tells us about the darkness of winter giving way to the light of spring; so it is with the coming of Mashiach and says ‘in future trees will bear fruit every month and men shall eat thereof and be healed’. You will recognise the passage of course as it is further developed in Revelation 22:1-2. This river that flows out from the Temple has as its spiritual source the very presence of God, which is of course why the Shekinah filled the Mishkan to make such a point. It is this life giving water that feeds those connected to it, ultimately all Israel, and allows us as His people to fulfil our calling.
And what is that calling? On one level I can hear you all saying ‘to be a light to the nations’. Yes, true, but the passages also tell us what this is: the leaves are as medicine, or as Revelation puts it, for the healing of the nations. The fruit and leaves that we produce as Israel should be something that brings healing to the nations, the non-Jewish people… the fruit is not for us.
The portion this week narrates an interesting cause and effect as we left Egypt. Read Exodus 14:31. God acts in miraculous supernatural power which produces in us FEAR. Fear then, once channelled, took us to a place of belief, both in God and His servant Moshe through whom He spoke. You’d think that that would be enough; we feared God and believed in Him. Well, so do the unclean and demonic spirits… As challenging as it is, we have to conclude that if Israel, our people, us, are to be a part in bringing healing to the nations from our spiritual fruit, then fear of and belief in God is not going to be enough.
The highest commandment is to LOVE God. As we left Egypt we were aware for the first time in 400 years of God’s reality – that He was. We hadn’t yet begun to know Him; that would come later as He fed us, watered us and shepherded us through the wilderness. And it is this bit that is vital to understand because without it, the ‘knowing God’ bit, the ‘having a relationship with the living God of Israel and our Fathers’ bit, we will not be able to fulfil our calling. We as Israel MUST love God and love our neighbours if we are to have any impact at all; after all this is the highest Torah command. The same theme is picked up by Yochanan in his first letter 1 John 4:7-12, 16-19. Notice also how it is love that drives out fear… Now it IS healthy to fear God, to be in awe of Him, but it is not the basis of a healthy relationship with God. And this relational base is even, I think, hidden from view right from the start as we walked out into the desert. We were commanded to go out and… serve Him, or worship Him (the same). You cannot serve or worship God truly without knowing Him. Genuine worship and service to God is relational, not fear-driven. Without the element of volition, service becomes slavery.
So, by our love all men will know… This is a challenge indeed. As Messianic Jews, the remnant of Israel, we have a particular role to play. We have created and established a firm basis and foundation for this renewed Judaism that is based on faith in Yeshua, His sacrificial death. We have been theologising and building our communities. All of this is good but is not what will have an impact. It’s not our services, nor our Hebrew ability or fluency, nor our knowledge of tradition, Talmud or even Torah that will convince, it is whether we are demonstrating the one thing we CAN offer: the love of God and love for our fellow man. This is the highest commandment. God gave a sacrifice for sin, His Son, bearing the shame and pain that that entailed, because He loved us first. Love is shown, demonstrated, not just felt. Feelings come and go, love remains.
Love like this WILL cost you, in terms of time, finances or talents. But we have no choice. Our model has been set by Mashiach for all time. Love gives all and is fundamentally willing to stand in the gap for those around as much as Yeshua Himself intercedes for us forever. It’s why in leaders like Moshe you see a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the people: love in action.
Remember the trees? They were able to bring forth fruit and leaves because they drew from the river, the presence of God. In many ways our critics in other forms of Judaism are right; we’ll probably never be able to compete with them at what they do, but neither should we be disheartened by that; what we have to offer we do. We bring the love of God to others and worship Him in spirit and in truth. We exist to show that God is alive and His salvation offer still valid for all and any that would call on His name. We have the testimony of lives healed and changed because of forgiven sin, not just hoped for forgiveness but real forgiveness, with all the release and removal of guilt, failure and condemnation that otherwise would be ours.
We have a record here of an ancient theme in Judaism linking the healing of the nations with the original trees in Gan Eden. This is a powerful reminder of our calling as Jews and as Israel, to be a light to the nations and bring the message of salvation and love to all who need that healing.
Parashat B’shalach (and he sent)