“He Taught Him a Tree” (?!)

Robbie Harris
Beshallah By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Jan 23, 2013 / 5773 | Torah Commentary

This week’s parashah contains some of the most memorable narratives in the entire Torah: the splitting of the Reed Sea, the miracle of the manna, the battle with Amalek. In the midst of all these narratives comes a pithily told “little tale”:

Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25 So he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test. 26 He said, “If you will heed the LORD your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the LORD am your healer.” Exod.15:22–26

This translation is according to the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS). Although this is the “industry standard,” as we shall see, the translation is problematic.

In a sense, this story should evoke serious consternation among its readers: here the Israelites have only just experienced what is possibly the greatest of God’s miracles—cleaving the sea and enabling the Israelites to finally and completely escape the clutches of Pharaoh—and immediately they begin to complain. Moreover, they have just been saved from water, and now they are grumbling about water.

But this, alas, is nothing new. “Tell us what You’ve done for us lately,” the Israelites seem to be saying to God. “Splitting the Sea of Reeds?! That was so yesterday!” In fact, readers of the Torah know that the Israelites will continue to grumble for the next 40 years. And that old saw about the 40 years of wandering, that “the old generation needs to go, and a new generation needs to arise that did not know the Egyptian slavery,” does not really fit the context of Scripture. (If you don’t believe me, just read the narratives from the 40th year of wandering, the book of Numbers, chapters 20 to 36; these include such sins as the Israelites’ complaints about water [Num. 20] and food [21] and, worst of all, the apostasy at Baal Peor [25]. The “generation born in the wilderness” complains and rebels as much as the first generation had.)

Let’s return to our parashah. What is remarkable is not the behavior of the Israelites; rather, God’s response is what ought to capture our attention. Let us look again, a bit more closely than we did before: “the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ 25 So he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.” First, we must dispense with the word piece—it is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew text (though the translators justified including it in their 1969 publication Notes on the New Translation of the Torah, 171). However, the verb in “God showed” is much more problematic: the translation resolves a difficulty found in the Hebrew text, without (in my humble opinion) being quite loyal enough to the original.

The underlined word va-yorehu actually means “The LORD taught him a tree” (or “taught him wood,” if you prefer). It is easy to understand why the NJPS translators preferred to render “he showed him” for “he taught him”: their reading is more “reasonable,” and they accomplished this change deftly by emending a single vowel in the Masoretic text. However, in resolving a difficult Hebrew text through these means, the translators have unfortunately prevented their readers from the challenge of interpretation. What might the Torah have meant through the strange locution of God “teaching a tree” to the Israelites at this particular juncture?

The great 13th century Spanish commentator R. Moshe ben Nahman (Ramban, or Nahmanides) addresses our particular question on several levels. In one of his interpretations, he also faces the problematic verb va-yorehu (head on), and claims that the peshat (plain meaning) interpretation is that God taught Moses “about the tree” to help the Israelites get along in the wilderness, where finding potable water is often problematic. The particular tree that God “showed” or “taught” Moses contained properties that would sweeten the water, analogous to the way Elisha sweetened water with salt (see 2 Kings 2:19–22).

But we may prefer a sweeter interpretation found originally in a midrash, the Mekhilta:

R. Eliezer taught . . . What does the Torah mean by they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water? . . . The “expounders of traces” [an elusive rabbinic term for “expositors”] say: they did not find words of Torah, which are metaphorized as water, as in: Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water (Isaiah 55:1). It was because they were without words of Torah for three days that they rebelled. Therefore, the Elders and the Prophets decreed that Israel should read from the Torah on Shabbat, Monday and Thursday.

Thus, the midrash accounts for our continued liturgical practice of publicly conducting a Torah service frequently enough so that we should never go three days without words of Torah.

So much for the water; what about teaching the tree? Note the troublesome verb yet again: va-yorehu. As you pronounce this word, hear the connection between va-yorehu and Torah: the two words share the same triliteral Hebrew root. So how does God teach Moses a tree? Again, the Mekhilta employs the same figurative approach it had used with regard to the water:

The Torah doesn’t say that God “showed him a tree”; rather it states, “God taught him a tree.” The “expounders of traces” say . . . words of Torah are metaphorized as a tree, as it says, She is a tree of life to those who hold her. (Prov. 3:18)

Now, that should strike a familiar chord. We have long come to associate trees and Torah, and, in fact, we employ this verse to close every Torah service: etz hayyim hee la-mahaziqim bah. One may sense through this connection that the Mekhilta’s midrash is not as outlandish as it might have seemed at first. Reread the narrative with which we began this commentary: just after Moses “sweetened the waters” by throwing in the tree, the Torah relates, “There [God] made for them a fixed rule” (v. 25). Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) explains this to mean that at this point in the narrative, Moses begins teaching Torah to the Israelites and, correspondingly, God begins to “heal” the people by giving them sweet water in the desert. Thus, the Israelites begin to associate the process of learning Torah with the healing power of God’s words and deeds. And so may it be with us: may we merit that our Torah study become for us a sign of God’s loving care, and may we be both joyful and grateful for this study as thirsty people in the desert are when they quench their thirst with sweet water. Amen ve-amen!

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.