Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), Shabbat Shirah, Tu B’Shvat

Shabbat Shirah – the Sabbath of Song.  How appropriate, since tomorrow is also the birthday of both Mozart and my daughter.  More on singing below.

When we last left the Israelites, they were not yet singing.  Pharaoh now realizes he has lost a large and valuable labor force and sends an army after them.  The Israelites, caught between the Egyptians and the Red (actually, Reed) Sea, turn on Moses with sarcasm: “What, there weren’t graves in Egypt, you had to take us to die in the wilderness?” (14:11, more or less) Moses doesn’t know what to do and asks God, who responds impatiently then remembers to tell Moses how to split the sea using his staff. Moses splits the sea and the Israelites walk across between walls of water. The Egyptians follow, maneuvering with difficulty, and, with another staff signal, the walls of the sea crash down on the Egyptians, drowning them.

Now the Israelites, led by Moses, sing the Song of the Sea, Shirat HaYam (15:1-19), which is why this Sabbath is called the Sabbath of Song.  The women have also brought along some musical instruments.  Miriam leads the women in dancing and then exhorts everyone to sing. (The Hebrew lahem, “to them,” in 15:21 is a masculine form, used for a male or mixed male/female group.  I have a bunch of references on the whole Kol Isha – a woman’s voice – issue for anyone interested.)  At the Passover seder, we realize that we shouldn’t totally rejoice at the loss of life when the Egyptians drown, but we also recognize the overwhelming joy and awe the Israelites must have felt.  In the haftarah, yet another woman sings triumphantly (Judges 4.4-5.31 – Sephardim start at 5:1), Deborah, when Barak defeats Sisera.  

Singing is a means for expressing strong emotion. I also find it an effective antidepressant. And neuroscience research shows there is so much more to singing and music more generally.  Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis  wrote in “Music is not for ears,”  “(M)usic perception is deeply interwoven with other perceptual systems, making music less a matter of notes, the province of theorists and professional musicians, and more a matter of fundamental human experience.  Brain imaging produces a particularly clear picture of this interconnectedness. When people listen to music, no single ‘music centre’ lights up. Instead, a widely distributed network activates, including areas devoted to vision, motor control, emotion, speech, memory and planning. … Beyond just what we hear, what we see, what we expect, how we move, and the sum of our life experiences all contribute to how we experience music.”

And in “The Neuroscience of Singing,” Cassandra Sheppard writes that singing “fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative. When we sing with other people this effect is amplified… What has not been understood until recently is that singing in groups triggers the communal release of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and even synchronises our heart beats… What’s more, the benefits of singing regularly are cumulative. People who sing have reduced levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress.”  By the way, Delaware ChoralArts is holding auditions February 4 if you want to synchronize heartbeats and lower stress.

Naturally, if unfortunately, the Israelites soon begin to whine.  They want water and food (details, details).  They whine about drinking water three times and are given it via  a sweetening shrub, a dozen springs, and from a struck rock.  The Israelites whine about food and are given quail and manna (literally, “What’s this?)  The manna also provides a way to develop and test (according to Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, et al.) the people’s faith in the Lord, since they have to trust that a single portion will arrive daily, except for a double portion on Friday which will not spoil overnight, allowing them to rest on the Sabbath. According to the commentators, manna could taste like all sorts of good things, except cucumbers, melons, leek, onions or garlic, according to one opinion in the Talmud (Yoma, 75a, cited in “A Daily Dose of Torah”), which the people ate in Egypt and later will complain about missing when they tire of manna (Numbers 11:5-6).  Finally, they survive a surprise attack by the Amalekites, inspired by the sight of Moses, whose weary arms are held up by Joshua and Hur.

Next week (Jan. 30), we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, literally the 15th of Shevat, which is the New Year of the Trees, or Jewish Arbor Day, on which we celebrate the coming of spring (in Israel, not yet in Wilmington, DE, unfortunately).  In recent years, it has also become a sort of Jewish Earth Day, with increased environmental emphasis.  It is customary to plant trees in Israel and eat species of tree fruits and nuts that are grown there (especially, the “seven species”: dates, pomegranates, olives, wheat, barley, figs, grapes).   A recently revived custom is the Tu B’Shvat seder, introduced by Kabbalists of Safed (Tzfat) in the 17th century.

Next time: Revelation! The giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai.

Shabbat shalom,



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Funny Choir Jokes

  • Why did the choir boys laugh?
    Mass hysteria.
  • What do choruses use to pay for things?
  • Why were the singers locked out of their rehearsal room?
    They missed the key change.
  • How long does it take for a conductor to screw in a light bulb?
    Nobody knows because no one was watching.

An American choir had just arrived in Europe for a two-week tour.  One hour before the first concert, the choir director became very ill and was unable to conduct, and the choir suddenly had to find a substitute.

The choir manager asked everyone in the choir whether they could step in and conduct, and the only person who was willing was the last chair alto.

The manager was very nervous about this. “We can’t audition you,” he said.

“No problem,” replied the alto.

“There’s no time to rehearse. You’ll have to do the concert cold.”

“I know. It’ll be all right.”

The alto conducted the concert and it was a huge success.

Since the director remained ill for the duration of the tour, the alto conducted all of the concerts, getting rave reviews and standing ovations at each one.

At the next rehearsal, the director had recovered, and the alto took her place at the back of the alto section. As she sat down, her stand partner asked her “Where have you been for the last two weeks?”


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Tree Jokes

How do trees access the internet?  They log on.
What did the tree do when the bank closed?  It started its own branch.
A crime was committed in the forest, and the police are stumped. Who did it? Yew know who.
Do you want a brief explanation of an acorn?  In a nutshell, it’s an oak tree.
How do you properly identify a dogwood tree?  By the bark!
How did the idiot get hurt while raking leaves?  Fell out of the tree.
How do crazy people travel through the forest?  They take the psycho path.

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