On celebrating partial victories

Rabbi Garth Silberstein serves Bais Abraham Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. It is so named because the Torah reading this week includes Shirat HaYam, the “Song of the Sea,” the earliest example of shirah in the Bible. 

More than just a song, shirah is a genre of song in praise of G-d, composed to commemorate the defeat of an enemy. In the case of Shirat HaYam, the song commemorates not only the miracle of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, but a decisive victory over the Egyptian army, marking the end of our enslavement in Egypt once and for all.

However, when we look at this victory in the context of the full sweep of the Torah’s narrative, it is in truth only a partial victory. We had not yet received the Torah, and 40 years of wandering, strife, suffering and battles awaited our ancestors on their journey to the Promised Land. If the goal of the exodus was ultimately to bring the Israelites to Sinai to receive the Torah, and from there to the land of Israel where they could build a society based on the precepts of the Torah, then the journey had only just begun. And yet, our ancestors stopped at the sea to give thanks and celebrate the victory they had achieved.

It’s possible they didn’t understand just how far they still had to go and thought that the triumph over the Egyptians and the attainment of freedom were the final goal. However, this song was led by the prophets Moshe and Miriam themselves, who must have understood that the goal was far grander than just getting out of Egypt. Nonetheless, knowing that their journey was far from complete, Moshe and Miriam led the people in a victory song.

Often, we hesitate to celebrate incomplete accomplishments, for fear that we will lose our momentum. We fear that if we make too much of each milestone, we might mistake the milestones for the ultimate destination. But Moshe and Miriam understood the power of celebrating partial victories. Far from sapping our momentum, stopping to acknowledge and give thanks for a partial victory renews our commitment and strengthens our faith to continue the journey.

It is no accident that Shabbat Shirah usually falls right around Tu Bishvat, a holiday when we mark the New Year of Trees. We might think it would be more appropriate to have a holiday dedicated to celebrating trees later in the spring, when trees are in bloom, or in the late summer, when the fruit of the trees is ripe. Instead, Tu Bishvat coincides with the time when sap begins to run after winter dormancy. If ripe fruit is the goal, Tu Bishvat is a celebration of the beginning of the journey toward that goal.

Tu Bishvat, like the “Song of the Sea,” is an acknowledgement of the first steps on the way to achieving a goal, which often is as invisible to an outside observer as sap running down the trunk of a tree. We celebrate the beginning of the sap running because without that invisible, easily overlooked first step, there would be no leaves, no blossoms, no fruit. We celebrate the crossing of the sea because without that triumph, we could not have received the Torah, or entered the land, though these accomplishments would only come later. 

In the same way, although we are a long way from defeating the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth celebrating and giving thanks for the miraculous accomplishment of developing a vaccine for COVID-19. Even as we wait for the vaccine to become universally available and for the development of effective treatments that will put an end to the death toll, we would do well to stop and give thanks for this first miraculous victory, even if it is a partial one.

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We must acknowledge this victory with the understanding that the journey is not over and that the war has not been won. 

Far from prompting us to relax our vigilance, the celebration of this miracle ought to renew our commitment to wearing masks and practicing social distancing for as long as it takes to finally defeat this virus.