Yonatan SredniYonatan Sredni lives in Israel and has an MA in Creative Writing from Bar Ilan University. He works at Blonde 2.0..
What does this week's Torah portion, B'shalach, have to do with Tu B’Shvat (other than falling on the same date this year)?
And what does this year’s Super Bowl matchup (head coach Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers vs. his brother, head coach John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens) have to do with B'shalach?
On the surface, none of these events are related. But if one looks deeper, one can make some interesting connections.
Tu B’Shvat is the New Year for the Trees. We do find one mention of a tree in our portion. Right after the splitting of the sea, we read the following section:
“And they came to Marah, they could not drink of the water from Marah, for they were bitter; therefore the name of it was called Marah (bitter). So the people murmured against Moshe, saying, ‘What shall we drink’? And he (Moshe) cried unto Hashem; and Hashem showed him an etz (tree) which when he cast into the water, the waters were made sweet.”
What is going on here? How are we to understand this strange episode? In his book, ‘Living Each Week’, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski explains how The Baal Shem Tov interprets the first verse with the pronoun "they" referring to the Israelites rather than the waters. The verse now reads, "They could not drink the waters of Marah because they, the Israelites, were bitter." Rabbi Dr. Twerski explains that in his psychiatric practice this is frequently encountered. A person who is depressed may complain that everything he eats has a bitter taste. In these instances the bitterness is not in the food, but in one's taste perception.
This is even more common in one's attitude and interpretation of happenings in life than with taste. There are indeed some unfortunate occurrences in life that are objectively bitter. But there are many times when we judge things to be bitter when they are not so in reality, and it is only because of a distorted perception that we consider them bitter. Such misperceptions may often be corrected if we perceive our experiences through the perspective of Torah philosophy rather than through that of prevailing cultural attitudes and values.
The Torah is an eitz chayim (a tree of life), of which it is said that those who support Torah will achieve happiness (Proverbs 3:18). Many things in life may be unpleasant, but our reaction and adjustment to them can vary, and we may be able to accept adversity with serenity. With the guidance of Torah, much bitterness can be averted. G-d showed Moshe the tree, the eitz chayim of Torah, through whose perspective the bitter waters can be sweetened.
Ok, we now see the Tu B’Shvat-B'shalach ‘tree’ connection, but what does this have to do with the Ravens and 49ers in this year’s Super Bowl?
Before every game San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh shouts to his players, "Who's got it better than us?" and in unison they shout back, "Nobody!"
This is one particular lesson that Jim Harbaugh imparts to his players before every game.
SF Gate reported that when he was a little kid, the family's motto was "Who's got it better than us?" His dad, Jack, would ask the question and Jim and his brother John (now head coach of the Baltimore Ravens) would shout in unison, "Nobody!"
At the time they lived in a tiny two bedroom-house in Iowa City, where Jack was an assistant coach at University of Iowa. Sometimes they had a car. If not, they were walking -- what a terrific opportunity to work on basketball dribbling skills! Jack convinced the boys how great it was that they could bunk together in a tiny bedroom and talk philosophy and share each other's dreams.
"Who could possibly have it better than you two guys?" Jack would ask.
"Then as you get older you realize that people do have it better than you," said Jim Harbaugh, who went back to look at the tiny house on a scouting trip. "That was the smallest house I'd ever seen."
But the message was received, processed and believed.
"The message there was not having things handed to you, that things that don't come easy are really a blessing," Harbaugh said. "If it's harder it makes you better in the long run. That's what my dad was selling."
Fast forward some 40 years to the modern state of Israel. Many of us American football fans will be watching the 49ers and the Ravens (and the Harbaugh brothers) battle it out on Super Bowl night, long after our Israeli neighbors have gone to sleep.
As the Harbaugh brothers do battle on the gridiron on American sport’s biggest stage, The Super Bowl, maybe we should think about ‘Who’s got it better than us?”. We should think about being thankful for what we have. As Ben-Zoma said in Ethics of our Fathers, "Who is rich? One who is satisfied with what he has." Sure, things may not be perfect in Israel, but we live in a Jewish state, with a Jewish government (elected in democratic elections that we just now voted in), protected by an army of Jewish soldiers who defend our right to live as Jews in our own Jewish homeland.
Yes, Israel has its problems. Yes, many things need to be improved, nothing comes easy in Israel (by the way, the Super Bowl is being played in New Orleans this year, also known as ‘The Big Easy’, would that make Israel ‘The Big Difficult’?).
But we shouldn’t be bitter. The water is not bitter, and if we think it is, it’s only because our perception of it is. If we look at things in the right light, via the ‘tree’ of Torah, then things indeed look very good.
And as I sit in front of my TV (I am a lifelong 49ers fan) on a still Super Bowl night in the modern state of Israel and crack open a can of Maccabee beer at kickoff, I think to myself: Who's got it better than us?