This is not a great time of year to be in a choral group. In addition to omnipresent respiratory infections, a group’s carefully planned rehearsal schedule can be instantly derailed by the weather. Yet I’m usually in two groups at once this time of year. In fact, a few years ago, I was in three, so that, for several weeks, I had rehearsals Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday (idiotic, but great fun!). Then again, this can be a dark, depressing time of year, and I find singing to be a natural antidepressant, so I guess it balances out.
And what does this have to do with this week’s Torah portion? You’ll get see.
When we left the Israelites, they had escaped from Egypt and were digesting their first divine commandments. Now Pharaoh decides to bring them back by force. The Israelites find themselves trapped between the Egyptian chariots and the Sea of Reeds (probably not the Red Sea). One would expect, in the telling of a people’s foundational story, to learn how heroically everyone acted, their steadfast faith in the face of terrible odds, and so on. But one thing I enjoy about these stories is that the people are human, with human reactions and needs. The Israelites panic and turn on Moses, saying, “There weren’t enough graves in Egypt, you had to bring us to die in the desert?” Moses doesn’t know what to do and cries out to the Lord, who responds, “What are you doing, wasting time asking me? Tell them to go forward! Use your staff!” Yes, there is heroism, at least in the Midrash, when a tribal leader, Nachshon ben Amminadav, walks into the water up to his neck to show his faith that it would be parted. But Exodus depicts a scene of utter chaos, until the water splits, the Israelites hurry through, and the Egyptians are drowned. Then, the stunned people “feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” (14:31). At least for now.
Moses and the Israelites then burst into song, Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, also known simply as the Shir (song). It is part of the liturgy and, when chanted as part of the Torah reading, includes melodic variations from the regular trope. Miriam and the women not only sing, but play instruments and dance. And that is how my initial comments are related to the Torah portion and why this Sabbath is called Shabbat Shirah, Sabbath of Song. The haftarah, Judges 4.4-5.31 (Sephardim wimp out and start at 5:1), also contains a significant song, the Song of Deborah, celebrating Barak’s (not that Barack) triumph over Sisera (with the assistance of Yael and her tent peg).
I gave a talk on “kol isha,” a woman’s voice, a year ago, and I include some relevant info from it here: The halachic foundations for limits on a man’s hearing a woman’s voice are neither from the Torah nor obvious. It has even been debated as to whether Miriam actually sang. One might be tempted to say Miriam and Deborah are singular cases, rather than models for promoting public singing by women more generally. But there are several other explicit references to women singers in the Bible: 1 Chronicles 35:25, Nehemiah 7:67, and Ezra 2:65. And the public singing of women evokes no concerns. It just is. Then there are a few items in the Talmud that are kind of narrow (like a man listening to a women’s voice while reciting the Shema) and some medieval sources, more in subsequent centuries. But the whole kol isha business nowadays seems to me to be far more a question of tzniut (modest behavior), which is based on community standards, than halacha (law).
The rest of the portion reads like a synopsis of the rest of the Torah: The people complain, Moses contacts the Lord, and the people’s complaint is addressed with a miracle or a plague. Sometimes the complaints are legitimate, e.g., for food and water. Moses strikes a rock for water, as commanded, and the people are introduced to manna for food. This is also an opportunity to teach them to listen: yes, if you take 2 measures on Friday, but no other day, it will last through the Sabbath, but if you try this on another day, it will only last one. And the portion concludes with the victory against Amalek, which will come up again near Purim. The Israelites cannot win on their own, but only as long as Moses can hold up his rod, with help from Aaron and Hur.
It’s getting late, so this description is taken from a previous year, except for the date, which is correct for this year: Next week (Feb, 4), we celebrate Tu Bishvat, literally the 15th of Shevat, which is the New Year of the Trees, or Jewish Arbor Day, on which it is customary to plant trees in Israel and eat species of tree fruits and nuts that are grown there (especially, the “seven species”: date, pomegranate, olive, wheat, barley, fig). Lately, it has morphed into a sort of Jewish Earth Day, with increased environmental emphasis. A recently revived custom is the Tu Bishvat seder, introduced by Kabbalists in the 17th century in Safed (http://www.hillel.org/jewish/holidays/tubshevat/default.htm ).
Q. How did Moses part the Red Sea?
A. With a sea saw.
http://blog.alphalim.me/?tag=humor [dead link]
From Biblical events as reported by today’s media (2011)
On Red Sea crossing:
WETLANDS TRAMPLED IN LABOR STRIKE
Enforcement Officials Killed While Pursuing Unruly Mob
Q: Did you hear about the female opera singer who had quite a range at the lower end of the scale?
A: She was known as the deep C diva.
Ever hear the one about the tenor who was so off-key that even the other tenors could tell?
Operas that never made it
Britten: A Midsummer Nightmare.
Mozart: The Magic Tuba.
Puccini: La Bamba.
Rossini: The Plumber of Seville.
Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.
Old musicians never die, they just de-compose.
What is the definition of a mezzo soprano?
Just an alto with a soprano’s attitude. [heh, heh]
What’s the definition of an alto?
A soprano who can sightread. [heh, heh, heh]
This recipe can be cooked or uncooked.
It is designed to be made at room temperature.
½ cup white flour
1 small pinch of salt (optional)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon honey
- Clean your hands.
- For cooked manna — preheat a toaster oven to 450 (degrees Fahrenheit)
or a conventional oven to 425.
- Combine the flour with salt (if using it) in a mixing bowl.
- Add the water, olive oil and honey.
- Mix the ingredients well and form into a pliable dough ball. Using your hands may work best. Carefully add a bit more flour or a few drops of water if needed to form a ball.
- For uncooked manna — roll small pieces of dough between your hands to form little round balls. Put on paper plates to serve.
- For cooked manna — flatten the dough into a thin layer onto the tray of the toaster oven or onto a cookie sheet. (Two batches should fit together on the toaster oven tray; several batches will fit on a cookie sheet.) Put in the preheated oven for 10-12 minutes. When done, let cool for a few minutes and then take off the tray and cut into small squares. These can be served with small cups of honey to dip the wafers into.
Tu B’Shvat Drinking Game [abridged. If unspecified, “shot” is of the potent potable of your choice]
by Ilan and Ilana Posted: 01-29-2007 (Viewed 3542 times by 2011, 4966 times by 2015)
While most of us Jews don’t know what Tu B’Shvat really is about or why it reminds us of sticky bags of dried fruit, like Pesach or Purim, any Jewish holiday becomes a lot more fun when there is drinking going down. So in order to celebrate the New Year’s Tree-eve right, below are the rules to the bangitout Tu B’Shvat drinking game to use at your hippie seder:
- Upon receiving a JNF[Jewish National Fund] email to plant a tree take a shot for every email you get (2 for every email you delete)
- Upon the first vegetarian entering and proclaiming his/her vegetarianism, do a shot (2 if the person is a vegan)
- For every dried fruit you encounter, develop a martini for it (dried apricot, aprictoini, dried apple, appeltini, buksar[carob], buksartini)
- The second someone chant’s “HaShekadiah Porachat”[kid’s song, “The almond tree is blooming”] do a shot of almond liquor
- If someone starts talking about Tu B’Shevat as a political movement for peace = do a shot
- If you can name any other of the new years (there are 4 according to the Gemarah) take 4 shots
- In order to fulfill the Sheva Minim[7 species]:
- Date: upon seeing someone you have dated, or want to date, do a shot
- Pomegranate: drink a Pom Juice N’ Vodka (the new Red Bull)
- Olives: must accompany all martinis with a toothpick
- Barley: Do a mug of a microbrewery beer to taste the barley hops
- Grapes: Get high on a glass of Golan Heights
- Wheat: Wheat beer must be on tap (hefferveizsen or hoogarten)
- Figs: hmm… Fig Newtonini? you’ll have to fig-ure that one out on your own.