Imagine you have been on a long journey; each experience of the journey unique to us. You are seeking safety and repose. Perhaps you left Egypt with a sense of excitement and confidence, hopeful for what the future brings. Or perhaps you left Egypt with understandable trepidation about the great unknown. You and your fellow travelers huddle together, this newly minted community of Israelites – a new people forged out of an ancient covenant, in the crucible of slavery.
Parashat Beshallach is also known as Shabbat Shirah (Sabbath of Song) for the reading of the Song of the Sea in the weekly portion; the epic poetry that describes the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the Israelite triumph over Pharaoh. In a sense, this Torah portion marks the true beginning of our Jewish wanderings, not just as a individuals—like the family of Abraham—
but as a people. We are bound together through common bonds and a shared destiny.
The narrative of this week’s portion is, well, meandering. It is an emotional roller coaster ride as a new people tries to chart a new course. And yet, there is one curious verse in the parashah, that marks the arrival of the Israelites at an oasis, or wadi, for much-needed repose after their nocturnal flight and the splitting of the sea.
‘Vayavo’u Eilimah v’sham shtaim esreh einot mayim v’shiv’im temarim vayachanu sham al hamayim’- ‘And they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they encamped there beside the water.’ Ex. 15:17
Why is this detail of twelve springs and seventy trees relevant? These are numbers heavy with symbolism. Rashi indicates that twelve symbolizes the tribes, and 70 the elders among them. Ibn Ezra pushes this out even further, indicating that each tree was a unique species of palm tree, corresponding to the uniqueness of each individual.
We find our rest and our strength in each other; in those who were always part of the Jewish people and those who joined us recently. We find our strength in the ‘pillars’ and ‘palm trees’ of our congregation who have sustained us for decades and the saplings who are sprouting full of promise. We are beautiful and unique, precious and beloved, and all of us nourished by twelve common springs of water—unity in diversity. It is a lovely and important image, as we wrestle with the tensions of our world, to know that we have a Jewish home here in Iowa City for all of us.
Members of Agudas Achim, longstanding and recent—we are honored to have you among us, and this congregation looks forward to nourishing you with living waters for many years to come.