This Shabbat: A song for the trees?

Rabbi Lane Steinger

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

The Exodus story is the biblical account of the birth of the people Israel. Our Torah Portion this week, B’shalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16, relates the latter part of the Exodus saga. Chapter 15 of the Book of Exodus is the heart of this week’s parashah. Exodus 15 begins with paeans of praise to God, the songs of survival and celebration voiced by Moses and the people and by Miriam who led the women in dance after safely crossing Yam Suf/the Reed Sea.

The Talmud records that Shirat Ha’yam/the Song at the Sea, Exodus 15:1-15, was sung by the Levites in the Jerusalem Temple on Sabbath afternoons (Rosh Hashanah 31a). Since the time of the G’onim, the “Excellencies” who headed the Babylonian Academies from the late sixth through the mid-11th centuries, the Song at the Sea has been included in P’sukey D’zimra/the Musical Verses of the traditional Morning Service (Seder Rav Amram 3a). Shirat Ha’yam is so special a section of the Torah that it is written (see Megillah 16b and Menahot 31b) and chanted (see Sotah 5:4 and 30b) differently than any other part of the Sacred Scroll. Thus the Sabbath on which Shirat Ha’yam is read from the Torah — the Shabbat which will bring this week to a close — is designated “Shabbat Shirah/the Sabbath of the Song.” (The Song at the Sea also is contained in the Torah Reading for the Seventh Day of Passover.)

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This year Shabbat Shirah coincides with Tu B’shevat/the Fifteenth [Day of the Month] of Sh’vat, also known as Rosh Hashanah L’ilanot/the New Year for Trees. At the very end of chapter 15 of the Book of Exodus, we learn, “They [the children of Israel] came to Elim where there were 12 springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water” (Exodus 15:27). Between surviving the Sea and Pharaoh’s army, and arriving at the oasis of Elim, the children of Israel stopped at a place named Marah. The Torah tells us:

Moses caused Israel to set out from the Reed Sea. They went on into the wilderness of Shur, traveled three days, but did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter, which is why it was called Marah/Bitterness. The people grumbled against Moses, “What will we drink?” So he cried out to the Eternal, and the Eternal taught him [about] a tree: he threw [a piece of] it into the water and the water became sweet…(15:22-25).

To be sure, the major focus of chapter 15 of Exodus is the Song at the Sea, but it is not the only aspect of the chapter or of the Exodus tales. At Marah and at Elim trees play key roles in the drama as well.

At Shir Hadash Reconstruc-tionist Community we will acknowledge this fact by celebrating both Shabbat Shirah and Tu B’shevat this Saturday. We will recite Shirat Ha’yam in special fashion during our service, after which we will share in a Tu Bish’vat seder. We will be reminded that without the story of the Exodus and what it represents there would be no people Israel and that without trees and the natural world they symbolize there wouldn’t be any peoples at all. These are fitting lessons for us on the day when Shabbat Shirah and the New Year for Trees both fall—or on any (or every) other day of the year.