Narrowly escaping Pharaoh’s army, our ancestors reached the safe shore on the far side of the Red Sea, and then they broke out into song. Having been a people bound by slavery for as long as anyone could remember, our people’s first act of freedom was singing. The Torah tells us that Moses and all of the Israelites chanted these words together, joining in a communal experience before they journeyed into the wilderness.
Thus, whenever we read parshat Beshalach, the Shabbat upon which we read it is called Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of song. This ancient song, known as “the Song of the Sea,” is chanted today with special trope, marking the extraordinary nature of the biblical passage. The song’s main message is one of praise of God for saving us from Egyptian bondage. At the very outset of the song, we hear these words, “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vay’hi li lishua” – “My strength and the song of the eternal will be my salvation” (Exodus 15:2). Through this verse, our Torah teaches that song itself is a route to God’s saving power.
This year, Shabbat Shirah falls on Tu b’Shvat (the 15th day of the month of Sh’vat). Tu b’Shvat is also known as Rosh Hashanah l’Ilanot (the new year of the trees). This minor holiday is mentioned in the mishnah and its original purpose was to determine tithes related to fruit-bearing trees. The Tu b’Shvat seders that many of us will attend at this time of year were developed by the 17th century kabbalists of Tzfat. The Tu b’Shvat seder is based upon the Passover seder, and like its model, contains four glasses of wine. It also allows us the opportunity to taste fruits that are native to Israel, giving us a sensory connection to the land. As many of us have gained awareness about our impact upon the environment, Tu b’Shvat seders have gained popularity in recent years. In Israel, it’s springtime, the almond trees are in bloom and schoolchildren plant trees.
Many of us find transformative experiences through prayer and synagogue attendance, where we can hear the words of Torah, listen to the story of our ancestors, participate as members of a community, and connect to God through prayer. For those of us who are searching for a connection to our Judaism and have not found it through traditional avenues, parshat Beshalach and Tu b’Shvat may offer an alternative.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote, “Know that every single shepherd has a unique tune according to the grass growing in the place where he pastures his sheep. For every single animal has a special grass that it needs to eat … and according to the grasses and the place where he pastures, so too he has a tune. For every blade of grass has a song that it sings, which is like a passage of poetry. And from the song of the blades of grass, the tune of the shepherd is composed.”
The melodies that Nachman of Bratslav writes of, which are unique to the blades of grass, the land, and the shepherds, can all be viewed as examples of “zimrat Yah” (songs of the eternal). Here in Bergen County, it may be difficult to hear the song of the grass, as it is currently covered in a layer of snow, and it is often hidden by the sounds of civilization. During this Sabbath of Song and New Year for the Trees, may we open our hearts to those songs of the eternal that exist in our natural world, that they may be our salvation, bringing us nearer to God and strengthening our commitment to care for the earth upon which we live.