Shabbat BeShalakh: Birds, Trees, and Song

Shabbat BeShalakh describes a moment in Jewish religious history that still reverberates throughout our study and practice. This is the parashah which retells our exodus out of Egypt. We tell the story over and over again:

* in the Shabbat Kiddush over wine: ki hu yom mikra’ey kodesh, zekher l’tziyat Mitzrayim – “this is a day of holy gathering, a reminder of going out of Egypt”

* in the Shema section of the daily prayers: miMitzrayim ga’altanu HaShem Elokeynu, umibeit avadim piditanu – “From Egypt HaShem our G-d redeemed us, from a house of slavery we were brought out”

* in the Haggadah of Pesakh….

There are many lessons we are meant to draw from the retelling of the Exodus, and even more good questions. For example:  just how would one commemorate a redemption like this? What is the proper response? For our people, it was song – and the special name for this Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of the Song [of the Sea], led by Moshe and Miriam. (Her version includes tambourines, leading to the surmise that perhaps she has a better sense of rhythm.)

We celebrate this Shabbat of Song with a special ritual during the chanting of the Song itself from the Torah, and there is also a sweet custom to give thanks for all the kinds of song in Creation by putting out food for birds on this Shabbat, in honor of their songs. 

The proximity of Tu B’Shevat to Shabbat Shirah this year allows us to embrace even more of the world around us in appreciation and in respect. Many birds, after all, depend upon trees, and Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of Trees. The most Portland-ish of all Jewish holy days!

Singing is an expression of the soul that reaches deeper in, and farther out, than words can. On this Shabbat, give yourself over to the hope of small, fundamental things: the fragile beauty of a finch, the grand glory of a sequoia, the sweetness of a shared song. And let that song give you the courage to head back out there, as our people has always done, armed with the kiddush, the mi kamokha, the Haggadah, reminding us that we belong to a millennial journey whose most beautiful moments are still to be known.

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Shabbat BeShalakh: What Do You See in the Sea?

This week, the Shabbat of the parashah BeShalakh, is also called Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of the Song”, in honor of the fact that on this week we read the Song of the Sea in the scroll. The Israelites have crossed over through the Sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians who pursued them have drowned in those same waters.

As our ancestors gather on the far shore, astonished by what they’ve experienced, one might imagine that they were speechless. Perhaps there was no sound at all for a few moments, from that whole motley group. Imagine them: self-identified Israelites (those who held a family memory of descent from the sons of Jacob), and with them, others – those who were attracted to the strong family culture of the people of Israel even under the stress of slavery in Egypt. Finally, there were those who saw a good thing when the Hebrew slaves made their miraculous jailbreak, and went with them through the suddenly-opened gate to freedom.

There were a lot of them. They did not all know each other. And now, with a moment to breathe, they looked back at the way they had come, at the Sea, and then at each other. Now what?

They sang. We call it Shirat haYam, the “Song of the Sea”.

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider G-d has thrown into the sea.” (Ex.15.20-21)

The first expression of the refugees is joy, and gratitude. And within this rejoicing, one finds a very personal expression of religious awakening. First, one becomes aware of one’s own joy; then, upon reflection, one begins to feel gratitude for the happiness. This is the first step toward a personal sense of religious awareness: the dawning knowledge that one is grateful.

Moses and the people of Israel sang: I will sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has G-d thrown into the sea. G-d is my strength and song, G-d is become my salvation. This is my G-d, and I will praise, my parents’ G-d, and I will exalt (Ex.15.1-2)

This song then expresses the next steps in religious awareness: beyond gratitude for my good fortune, and onward to the recognition that I could never have escaped the Egyptians alone. A strength greater than my own, something beyond my own small intellectual capacity, brought me to this moment. I could not have planned this and carried it out alone; circumstances were also aligned just exactly right. I become aware of something beyond me, which is a part of me, and carries me, too.

This is my G-d – I reach my own sense of  awe, of that which I respect as greater than me, but also mine.

my parents’ G-d – only now can I begin to understand what my parents have revered; only now can I start to see the ethics of their lives, that which they care about most.

Now what? what happens after we cross the Sea and realized that now, we are on our own? When this door opens, it shows the Israelites – and us – the way forward into the future. And that future is much wandering, bumbling our way toward a distant vision, with lots of false starts, lots of dead ends, and some days when we’ll wonder if we truly are on the right path. The religiously aware path is a long one, but it does offer us certain steps toward the Promise of wholeness within ourselves, with our families, our tribes, our people, and the world. It begins with G-d and ends with G-d, and every day is one more opportunity to become aware.

This is not esoteric knowledge: all of us cross our own Seas, and all of us have eyes and hearts to see. In a wonderfully subversive ancient teaching, it is written that “a servant girl saw at the Sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all other prophets did not behold”. (Mekhilta)

This Song of the Sea united the refugees on the shores of the sea, and it unites us still. The Song is incorporated into our daily prayers; we sing it whenever we recite the mi kamokha. Wherever you are on this Shabbat, may you find yourself with the Jewish people in spirit as we offer up, once again this year, our chorus of joy for awareness of our reasons for gratitude for that which is beyond us, and blesses our existence.