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

I love singing.  But what I like best is not simply singing per se, though I do sing in the shower, enjoy chanting liturgical texts, and have dabbled in karaoke.  It’s singing in a chorus. Since I’m an alto, my part is often buried deep in the music, sometimes the 3rd or 4th out of eight lines.  But it adds color and dimensionality and allows me to become part of the music in a way that doesn’t happen when I am singing alone.  The physical and psychological benefits of choral singing are well-known (see, e.g., The Surprising Health Benefits of Singing in a Choir, Singing in a choir could be ‘the new exercise’—here’s the surprising science behind why), and it’s no surprise that it accompanies emotion-laden events, like being saved from a pursuing Egyptian army by a miraculous splitting of the sea. (How’s that for a segue?)  Yes, this is the Torah portion in which the Israelites escape once and for all from Egypt.  Pharaoh, realizing he has let a large and valuable labor force go, sends out a large army, which catches up with them at the Red (really, Reed) Sea.

The Israelites, trapped between the sea and the Egyptians, turn on Moses, saying sarcastically, “There weren’t graves in Egypt, you had to bring us out to die here in the wilderness?”  In one interpretation, which I cited here 5 years ago (A Daily Dose of Torah, Kleinman Edition, Rabbi Y. A. Weiss general editor, vol. 4, p. 168), Moses has four groups of Israelites to deal with.  One group intends to drown themselves rather than be re-captured.  Another wants to fight.  A third group wants to surrender.  The fourth hopes to be saved by confusing the Egyptians with noise and wild screams.  In Ex. 14:12-14, Moses has a specific response for each group (red = first group, blue = second group, pink = third group, green = fourth group):


Amid the chaos, Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah, according to the rabbis, is the first to obey Moses’ order to go into the sea. The Lord tells Moses how to split the sea with his staff.  Moses splits the sea.  The Israelites cross through on dry-ish land.  Then the waters rush back and cover the Egyptians and their chariots.  Suitably awed, the Israelites join Moses in singing a song of triumph, Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, or simply, the Shir (Song), 15:1-18.  Miriam and the women join in song, with timbrels and dancing.

Thus, this Sabbath is known as Shabbat Shirah, Sabbath of Song.  The haftarah, Judges 4.4-5.31 (Sephardim: 5:1-31), also contains a song of military triumph, Deborah’s song on the defeat of Sisera.  [BTW, there are several other references to women singing in public in the Bible, such as 1 Chronicles 35:25, Nehemiah 7:67, and Ezra 2:65. Other information on “kol isha,” a woman’s voice, in Jewish law rare available on request.]

Now the Israelites must deal with their new reality.  They need drinkable water and food.  Moses turns bitter waters sweet by throwing a plant in, more fresh water is found in springs, and Moses strikes a rock when still more water is needed. For food, quail is flown in, and they are given manna.  In learning about manna, the Israelites also learn (again) about the holiness of the Sabbath.  All this would be okay were it not for the way the Israelites whine and complain when they make their requests. Then their rear guard is attacked by Amalek, who becomes a permanent symbol for evil (wait until Purim).

On Monday, we will celebrate Tu B’shvat, literally the 15th of Shevat, which is the New Year of the Trees, 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” given in Deuteronomy 8:8: date, pomegranate, olive (oil), wheat, barley, fig, grape).  Lately, it has also become a sort of Jewish Earth Day with environmental emphasis.  A recently revived custom is the Tu B’shvat seder, introduced by Kabbalists in the 16th century in Safed. And a shout-out to my daughter Roz, whose birthday according to the Hebrew calendar is 14 Shevat, the day before.

Shabbat shalom


tph moses' first try


Woman with Rare Condition Couldn’t Hear Male Voices (excerpts)

By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer | January 11, 2019 02:27pm ET

A woman in China suddenly developed an unusual condition that made her unable to hear male voices. And while that might seem enviable to some, the hearing loss could carry serious medical repercussions.

The woman, Chen, visited a hospital after waking up one morning and being unable to hear her boyfriend’s voice, Newsweek reported yesterday (Jan. 10). Chen also told doctors that the night before, she experienced ringing in her ears followed by vomiting.

At the hospital, Chen was treated by Dr. Lin Xiaoqing — a woman — who noted that while Chen was able to hear Xiaoqing’s voice, she couldn’t hear the voice of a nearby male patient “at all,” according to Newsweek. Xiaoqing diagnosed Chen with reverse-slope hearing loss, a rare type of low-frequency hearing loss that likely impaired her ability to hear deep male voices.

The good news is that when RSHL is detected quickly, chances are good that the hearing loss can be reversed, Kraskin said.


Moses Must Go: A Vision For the Future (Humor Break)  (excerpt)
Renew America ^ | 10/17/2004 | Adam Graham

The following scroll was found in the Sinai desert and claims to be an op-ed written by Dathan, a Hebrew opponent of Moses…

…When the Pharaoh finally relented and let us go, we found Moses wasn’t prepared to deal with several million people going through the wilderness. We ran out of food and Moses announced that bread would rain down from Heaven. I’m very concerned about the long-term effects of “manna” on people. There have been no scientific studies proving its safety and shouldn’t we be suspicious of anything that goes bad overnight?

We then ran out of water and Moses hit a rock and water came out, but let me ask you a question? How many rocks with millions of gallons of water in them are there in the wilderness? How long until the poor planning of Moses leads to a disaster?

This isn’t to say Moses hasn’t had his moments. I admired his leadership at the Red Sea and had I known that in a matter of several hours, we’d cross over to the other side and the Egyptians wouldn’t drown, I wouldn’t have suggested stoning him at the time….

I’m Dathan and I approve this message.


tph new year trees


A Fun Guide to the SATB Choir (excerpts)

In any chorus, there are four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Sometimes these are divided into first and second within each part, prompting endless jokes about first and second basses. … Each voice part sings in a different range, and each one has a very different personality.

THE SOPRANOS are the ones who sing the highest, and because of this they think they rule the world. … When they reach the high notes, they hold them for at least half again as long as the composer and/or conductor requires, and then complain that …the composer and conductor are sadists. Sopranos have varied attitudes toward the other sections of the chorus, though they consider all of them inferior. Altos are to sopranos rather like second violins to first violins – nice to harmonize with, but not really necessary…

THE ALTOS are the salt of the earth …. Altos …would wear jeans to concerts if they were allowed to… While the sopranos are screeching away on a high A, they … sing elaborate passages full of sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm, and nobody is noticing because the sopranos are singing too loud (and the basses usually are too)… They like the basses, and enjoy singing duets with them – …it’s the only time the altos can really be heard…

THE TENORS are spoiled. … There are never enough of them, and choir directors would rather sell their souls than let a halfway decent tenor quit, while they’re always ready to unload a few altos at half price… The conductor is always telling them to sing louder… No conductor … has ever asked for less tenor in a forte passage… It is a little-known fact that tenors move their eyebrows more than anyone else while singing.

THE BASSES sing the lowest of anybody. … They are stolid, dependable people, and have more facial hair than anybody else. The basses feel perpetually unappreciated…They compensate for this by singing as loudly as they can get away with – most basses are tuba players at heart. …When a bass makes a mistake, the other three parts will cover him, and … sometime, somehow, he will end up at the root of the chord.


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