Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The well of Miriam, miraculously growing acacia trees

Summary: An interpretation from Baal HaTurim, of trees growing wherever they went, conflicts with a midrash that Yaakov needed to plant acacia (or rather, cedar) trees for the mishkan. Can we resolve the contradiction?

Post: In the complaint of the Israelites in parashat Chukat, we read:

5. Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink.ה. וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן וּמַיִם אַיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת:

Pashut peshat is that they are comparing their present place to Egypt (see parshat Korach for comparison) or to the eventual destination, Canaan. But Baal HaTurim, playing on that the spark here was the termination of the flow of Miriam's well at her death, makes a comparison instead to the Israelites' other encampments. Thus, he writes, in his long commentary:


לא מקום זרע. מלמד  שהבאר  היתה מגדלת
 להם מיני  זרע ומיני  אילנות לפי שעה  בכל
 מקום שחנו, שהרי לא התרעמו  שלא היו  במקום
 זרע אלא עתה שפסק הבאר


Since this complaint only comes now, at the termination of the well's flow, it must be that until then they had it. So lefi shaa, fairly quickly, in each place they encamped, it caused edible plants as well as trees to grow.

The basis for this Baal HaTurim is a midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabba. The pasuk in Shir HaShirim, perek 4, reads:

יג  שְׁלָחַיִךְ פַּרְדֵּס רִמּוֹנִים, עִם פְּרִי מְגָדִים:  כְּפָרִים, עִם-נְרָדִים.13 Thy shoots are a park of pomegranates, with precious fruits; henna with spikenard plants,

And the Midrash reads:
דבר אחר: שלחיך פרדס רמונים
שלחיך 
עתיד הקב"ה לעשותך כפרדס רמונים לעתיד לבא.
ואיזה זה?
זה הבאר.

מאן היו ישראל מנטרים כל מ' שנה שעשו במדבר? 
רבי יוחנן אמר:
מן הבאר, וממנו היו רוב הנייתן.

דאמר רבי יוחנן:

הבאר הייתה מעלה להם מיני דשאים, מיני זרעונים, מיני אילנות, תדע לך שהוא כן, שכיון שמתה מרים ופסקה הבאר מהן, היו אומרים: (במדבר כ') לא מקום זרע ותאנה וגפן.

רבי לוי אמר:
מן האשכול, על שם: (שם י"ג) ויכרתו משם זמורה ואשכול ענבים אחד.
אפשר כן?

אמר רבי אבא בר כהנא:
פירות היו גסין באותה שעה.

ורבנן אמרין:
ממה שהיו תגרי עובדי כוכבים מוכרין להם לישראל.

תני ר' ישמעאל:
עדיין לא נאסר יינם של עובדי כוכבים לישראל: 
Thus, Rabbi Yochanan, an early Palestinian Amora, says this. The connection is between the pasuk in Shir Hashirim and in Bemidbar 20, but not just zera mentioned, but also לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן. Thus, all sorts of edible plants and trees. And also the immediate juxtaposition (and preceding of all these) to the phrase  וּמַיִם אַיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת.

In Matamei Yaakov,a by R' Yaakov Yechizkiyah Fish, we read the following contrast in midrashim:

Thus, after citing the Tur, though not the source midrash upon which the Tur is based, he writes:
"And there is to point out that according to that which is explained, that Yaakov saw with ruach hakodesh that Israel would build the Mishkan in the future and they would need cedar wood, and therefore he brought them with him to Egypt and they took them, for in this Midbar is [not] a place of planting, it is implied from there not like the Tur. For if the Well caused the sprouting of trees, they would not need to prepare it from before, for also this would have grown. And perhaps he did this because we do not rely on a miracle."
We see this Rashi in sefer Shmos, in parshas Terumah, in Shemot 25 -- my own translation:
5. ram skins dyed red, tachash skins, and acacia wood;ה. וְעֹרֹת אֵילִם מְאָדָּמִים וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים וַעֲצֵי שִׁטִּים:

 And acacia wood: From where did they have this in the wilderness? Rabbi Tanchuma explains that Yaakov Avinu saw with ruach hakoshesh that Israel would in the future build a Mishkan in the wilderness, and he brought cedars to Egypt and planted them, and commanded his sons to take them with them when they left Egypt.ועצי שטים: מאין היו להם במדבר, פירש רבי תנחומא יעקב אבינו צפה ברוח הקודש, שעתידין ישראל לבנות משכן במדבר, והביא ארזים למצרים ונטעם, וצוה לבניו ליטלם עמהם, כשיצאו ממצרים:
We can read that Midrash Tanchuma here:
ומהיכן היו הקרשים?
יעקב אבינו נטע אותם בשעה שירד למצרים. אמר לבניו: בני, עתידים אתם להיגאל מכאן, והקדוש ברוך הוא עתיד לומר לכם משאתם נגאלין, שתעשו לו את המשכן, אלא עמדו ונטעו ארזים מעכשיו, שבשעה שיאמר לכם לעשות לו את המשכן, יהיו הארזים מתוקנים לכם.
מיד עמדו ונטעו ועשו כן. 
"And from where were the boards {kerashim}? Yaakov Avinu planted them at the time he went down to Egypt. He said to his sons, 'my children, you will eventually be redeemed from here, and Hashem will then tell you, when you are redeemed, that you should make the Mishkan for Him. But stand and plant them from now, so that at the time that He tells you to make the Mishkan for him, the cedars will be planted for you. Immediately, the stood and planted and did so."
To explain the divergence between cedars and acacias, see here at Yeshiva Har Etzyon's Virtual Bet Midrash, from Rabbi David Silverberg, that the Midrash Tanchuma understand shittim to be a type of cedar rather than acacia.

I find the resolution from Matamei Yaakov a bit forced. I would simply say that these are, perhaps, conflicting midrashim that should not be harmonized. After all, even within Midrash Tanchuma, there are those who argue with Rabbi Yochanan, with Rabbi Levi saying they got sustenance of this sort from the Eshkol, from the land of Canaan, and the Rabanan saying the god it from gentile merchants! And who says that Rabbi Yochanan would maintain that it is cedar rather than acacia? Barring that, I am not sure ain somchin al hanes is the best answer. The same way that Yaakov could see in the future that they would need acacia / cedar wood, he could see in the future that they would have miraculous well that would provide them with such plants.

I would suggest a different resolution. As we see, the specific plants that are growing quickly are ones which provide sustenance and pleasure (hanaah) to the Bnei Yisrael. We are speaking of grape vines, fig trees, pomegranate trees, and seeds of foods. The purpose of the Be'er was to give them sustenance, not to give them building materials. Therefore, the cedar or acacia trees would not grow due to the Be'er, and so it was necessary for Yaakov to plant.

I would also point out that Rabbi Yochanan's midrash carried an important homiletic message about preparing for the best, well in advance, such that geulah is your known eventual goal. This whether or not it was intended literally.

Finally, I will note that acacia wood does grow in the wilderness of Sinai; cedars, I think, do not, but rather in Lebanon:
Acacia albidaAcacia tortilis and Acacia iraqensis can be found growing wild in the Sinai desert and the Jordan valley. 
So it works out well according to Midrash Tanchuma, that shittim is something that does not grow naturally in the Sinai desert.

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