Beshallach (Ex. 13:17–17:16), Shabbat Shirah, Tu Bishvat

With everyone busily preparing for the blizzard due to hit us tonight and tomorrow (Gas for the snow blower? Check. Milk? Check. Bread? Check.  Working flashlight?  Hand-cranked radio?  Somewhere around here. Potent potables? Check.), it’s hard to accept that Tu Bishvat (15th of Shevat) starts Sunday night (and my daughter’s Hebrew birthday is the 14th of Shevat).  That’s the Jewish Arbor Day when “almond trees are blooming” (in Israel), as the song goes.  This unimaginatively named little holiday, one of the four New Years of the Hebrew calendar, used to be acknowledged mainly in Hebrew school.  I still remember the inedible carob my mother brought in to Sunday school.  The holiday has had a revival along with environmentalism and the renaissance of Jewish mystical tradition.  It is customary to eat fruits that grow in Israel, like grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates.

I haven’t forgotten this week’s Torah portion, BeshallachPharaoh realizes he’s probably been an idiot to let a huge unpaid work force go, so he sends an army after the Israelites, who shortly find themselves trapped between the Egyptians and the Sea of Reeds (yam suf).  This is where a typical heroic history would have the Israelites turning around, fighting bravely against the army, and miraculously defeating them.  Or unanimously plunge into the water, praying that the Lord would help them cross.  Nope.  Until the Israelites finish crossing and start singing, the story in Chapter 14   could easily be re-written as part of a comedy sketch: 

The people (sarcastically): What, there weren’t enough graves in Egypt, you had to bring us out in the desert to die? (doesn’t that sound like modern Jewish humor?) 

Moses:  The Lord will fight for you, so shut up and chill already!

Lord:  Hey, why dump this on me?  Get your own act together!  Oh right, I haven’t told you how. Just hold out your staff and the sea will split and you can all go across!

OK, according to the Midrash, there was heroism present in the form of Nachshon ben Amminadav, who went into the water up to his neck to show his faith that it would become passable.  But the general picture is one of chaos, capped by Pharaoh’s army getting stuck in the mud and drowning as the waters crash back down.

Now we get back to Biblical grandeur, with a song, known as the Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam) or just The Song (HaShir), full of magnificent imagery.  Consequently, this Sabbath is known as the Sabbath of Song (Shabbat Shirah).  Some of it is chanted according to a special melody when the Torah is read, and it is part of the morning liturgy.  After Moses and the Israelites sing, Miriam and the women not only sing but play timbrels (which they just happened to have brought along) and dance.  The haftarah, Judges 4.4-5.31, also includes a song of triumph, Deborah’s song on the defeat of Sisera.  Sephardim skip the story in Ch. 4 and just do the song, 5:1-31.  Miriam and Deborah are not the only female singers in the Bible, by the way.  Explicit references to groups of women singers include 1 Chronicles 35:25, Nehemiah 7:67, and Ezra 2:65.

Wow.  And how do the Israelites act once they start traveling in the wilderness?  They kvetch. Complain.  Whine.  Yes, they do need water, so Moses throws a branch into some bad-tasting water to make it drinkable, and, later, he strikes a rock as commanded and produces water.  And the people want meat and bread, so quail and manna fall from the sky (reminds me of the children’s book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).  The translation of manna is roughly “whatever?” and a set amount was gathered 6 days a week, double on Fridays, nothing on the Sabbath.  Finally, they get a taste of battle, as Amalek attacks the rear and the Israelites win only as long as Moses’ hands are held up (with a little help from Aaron and Hur).  We’ll read that bit again right before Purim.

Shabbat shalom,


There are an incredible number of cartoon parodies of Moses splitting the Re(e)d Sea:  baby Moses at bath time, Moses in a swimming pool race, Moses splitting a brook’s water to go fishing, and so on.  Generally, there’s somebody else present who says, “Moses, cut it out!”  Here’s one that is particularly pertinent this year:

tph moses in connecticut











Smooth timing, Obi Wan  (

tph star wars tu bishvat








I sent this one out 16 years ago.  Biblical desalination technology.

As Moses and the children of Israel were crossing the Red Sea, the children of Israel began to complain to Moses of how thirsty they were after walking so far. Unfortunately, they were not able to drink from the walls of water on either side of them, as they were made up of salt-water.

Then, a fish from that wall of water told Moses that he and his family heard the complaints of the people, but that they through their own gills could remove the salt from the water and force it out of their mouths like a fresh water fountain for the Israelites to drink from as they walked by. 

Moses accepted this kindly fish’s offer. But before the fish and his family began to help, they told Moses they had a demand. They and their descendants had to be always present at the seder meal that would be established to commemorate the Exodus, since they had a part in the story. When Moses agreed to this, he gave them their name

which remains how they are known to this very day, for he said to them, “Go Filter Fish!”


Manna, Although Maybe Not From Heaven (excerpts)

By erika | 8/04/10 3:58pm

I had always heard the phrase “it’s like manna from heaven” to denote “a good thing falling into your lap at random.”  But not until this recent Metafilter post did I learn that manna is a real thing!  In fact, you can buy it online.   No joke.

In Exodus, as the Jews wandered the desert for 40 years, they were sustained by manna which God provided for their food.  “It was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.”

(I’m going to stop right there and say, I have only the vaguest sense of what that means.  Wafers made with honey.  My mind keeps slipping to the thought of those Crème Wafers that come in three different colors, the waffle crisp long rectangles with the white frosting stuff in between.  And then I picture them being scattered all over the desert floor and I get confused.  And then I want some.  ANYWAY…)

No one really knows what the biblical manna was.  Theories aside from tree sap include aphid juice, the emerging tendrils of psychoactive mushrooms, and “a kosher species of locust.”  (I don’t even want to know what that means.  I just don’t.  Okay, I peeked!  Gross!)  Maybe the “psilocybin mushroom” theory explains why they wandered in the desert for 40 years, when it would only have taken a year to cross on foot at most.  They were all stoned out of their minds!

The distribution of manna was not even; sometimes you could just reach out your hand and scoop it up, and sometimes you had to go hunting for it.  You could pound it into a bread-like substance, but even so, gentiles could not perceive it.  If they tried to catch it, it would slip through their hands.  Animals, however, could feed and drink manna.  In one tradition, the taste of manna depended on how old you were.  It tasted like “like honey for small children, like bread for youths, and like oil for the elderly” to quote Wikipedia.  

What is sold now as manna is usually the dried sweet sap from various trees.  (Which makes it related to maple syrup, if you think about it.)  

Music Jokes and Humour

Q: What’s the difference between a high school choral director and a chimpanzee?
A: It’s scientifically proven that chimpanzees are able to communicate with humans. 

Q: Did you hear about the band director that got zapped by electricity?
A: Yeah! He must have been a good conductor! 

Q: What happens if you play blues music backwards? 
A: Your wife returns to you, your dog comes back to life, and you get out of prison.

Q: What do you get when you play New Age music backwards? 
A: New Age music.

Q: How many sopranos does it take to change a lightbulb? 
A: One. She holds the bulb and the world revolves around her. 
A: Two. One to hold the diet cola and the other to get her accompanist to do it. 
A: Four. One to change the bulb and three to pull the chair out from under her.

Q: What’s the definition of an alto? 
A: soprano who can sightread. 

Q: How many altos does it take to screw in a lightbulb? 
A: None. They can’t get that high. 
A: Two; one to screw it in and the other to say, “Isn’t that a little high for you?” 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s