This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, because in this week’s Torah portion, we sing the first song in the Torah: Shirat HaYam, the Song at the Sea. After the Israelites leave Egypt with their unleavened bread, the Egyptian army pursues them to the Sea of Reeds. Moses holds out his arm, the sea splits, the Israelites walk through on dry ground and the waters close in on the Egyptians. This miracle becomes Judaism’s paradigmatic expression of God’s redemptive power.
To celebrate this power, the Israelites burst into song, “I will sing to God who has triumphed gloriously. Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea … ” The text of the Torah, which is usually written in blocks of prose, displays the song in poetic verses. First, Moses leads the men in song. The way Rashi describes it, Moses would sing a line, and the men would repeat it after him. In this same call-and-response fashion Miriam would lead the women. The Torah also adds that the women not only sang, but they danced and played timbrels, some kind of portable percussion instruments.
We might wonder how slave women, who didn’t even have time to let their dough rise when fleeing Egypt, might happen to have tambourines with them! In their hurry to leave Egypt and to escape Pharaoh’s army, why would they carry timbrels into the wilderness?
The Midrash anticipates this question and offers an answer: the righteous women of that generation brought tambourines with them because they were so certain the Holy One would perform a miracle for them that they knew there would be cause to celebrate. So each year on Shabbat Shirah, we celebrate this faith in God’s redemptive power through song.
This year, as sometimes is the case, Shabbat Shirah is also Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for trees. The 15th of the month of Shevat, Tu B’Shevat was originally the rabbinic date chosen to regulate tithing and agricultural obligations regarding fruit trees, but over the centuries, it has become a holiday for celebrating trees and fruit, for kabbalistic Tu B’Shevat seders, for planting trees, and, most recently, for emphasizing Judaism’s ecological messages.
Although Tu B’Shevat and Shabbat Shirah might seem unrelated, they share a spiritual message about hope in dark times. Even though it’s still winter, and the trees seem lifeless and bare, Tu B’Shevat is when the sap begins to rise in the trees. Even though it’s cold and wintry, there is new life beginning to stir within.
As the Chassidic Rabbi Yisrael of Chortkov said, citing the verse “a person is like a tree of the field” (Deut. 20:19): “A person should learn from a tree not to despair, but to take hope and have courage. During the cold days of winter, trees wither and shed their leaves. Yet, then they gather strength and their sap begins to flow within them, so they can grow and sprout with new life … So too, the People of Israel need to encourage ourselves and strengthen our faith; even when we are in great distress, we should believe that our redemption is near. Our nature is like that of a tree, which in the days of winter receives new life; we rise from constraints to expansiveness, from darkness to light” (quoted in Yitzhak Buxbaum’s “A Person is Like a Tree: A Sourcebook for Tu BeShvat”).
Like the women who had their tambourines packed in Egypt, trusting that there would be a reason to dance and sing, rejoice and play music, Tu B’Shevat celebrates that glimmer of hope — that even if we’re still in a dark, cold time, we trust that the sap is rising and that spring is on its way.
It’s this same hope that is expressed by the placement of the Song at the Sea in our daily liturgy. Singing this song every day reminds us that leaving Egypt was not a one-time event, but is rather an ongoing process of moving from enslavement to freedom, from a narrow place to an expansive place, from darkness to light, from winter to spring. Even when it’s winter, we trust that the sap is rising, and even when we’re in Egypt, we trust that we’ll soon be playing our tambourines.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.