This week’s Torah portion is B’Shalach and one of my very favorites, not surprising why, as it contains, “the Song of the Sea.” Moses and Aaron have finally convinced Pharaoh (sort of) to let the Israelite slaves go free, after years and years of living in bondage. But the Pharoah changes his mind after the fact and sends armies of men with chariots, horses, and all the artillery in their arsenal to stop the Israelites’ mass Exodus. God saves them by parting the Red Sea, which allowed the Israelites to safely cross, with Moses’ sister, the heroic Miriam, leading the way of the women. The story tells us that Miriam took the timbrel in her hand, the women followed her, and she led them in a song and dance of praise and happiness about the miracle they had just gone through.
This is not the first time we have seen Miriam lead the way through water. Just a few weeks ago, as we began to read from the book of Exodus (Shemot), Miriam led by following her baby brother Moses through the Sea of Reeds. She followed him, no matter how tumultuous the waters until she saw that her brother was safely with Pharoah’s daughter.
“The Song of the Sea” has both a different look AND different sounds. We sing part of this song, Mi Chamocha, “who is like You, Adonai our God,” words they sang as they witnessed the miracle of their freedom. It looks as if the text is parted, giving visual reference to the parting of the Red Sea. The words are stacked, with space in between them, giving reference to the brick and mortar that the Israelites laid when they were forced into slavery. Each time God’s name is mentioned, there is a different melody, giving reference to the idea of there being no one like God.
To punctuate this moment in the Cannon of Torah, many communities celebrate Shabbat in Song and call it Shabbat Shirah. This week, we will be doing a tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim, award-winning composer and lyricist of 19 musicals, many of which remain in the standard Broadway Repertoire today of frequently produced works. He, like Moses, chose a different way of writing the typical Broadway musical, making it more operatic in nature, but, as he said to Terry Gross of the famed NPR radio show, Fresh Air, “NOT opera.” He took dialogue that was typically spoken and upped the ante in the emotion by making it all sung, in a speech-style, tonal vocal line. Instead of taking his timbrel like Miriam, he took his pen and led the musical theater community in creating music that stood the test of time, much of which, many believe, contains Jewish themes. Please join Paul Dykstra and me this coming Friday night as we take you on a musical journey through Shabbat in which we will interweave Sondheim’s music throughout our liturgy. This Shabbat will star our Adult Choir, who has tirelessly worked to bring you such beauty and meaning; Rabbi Heaps; and Matt Rissien. We will be accompanied by Andrew Blendermann.
If you need more raising of your spirits, on Sunday, January 16th we celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Birthday of the Trees. You might think I have my holidays mixed up when I tell you we are celebrating the birthday of the trees, but we really are! They are growing in Israel. This holiday is an off-shoot of Arbor Day, and we celebrate all the beauty and trees which were planted in Israel when the ancient Chalutzim settled there hundreds of years ago. One of the ways we can partake in this holiday is by celebrating all of the goodness we get from trees: the fruits, olives, dates, barley and wheat, with a Seder. Join Ross and me as we model our Family Seder this coming Sunday at 9:30 a.m. We will be masked and distanced, and rather than eating the food, Ross and I will be demonstrating the ways in which we can partake without eating.
Here is a Tu B’shevat song called, “Atzei Zeitim Omdim,” which means, “Olive Trees are Standing,” from my upcoming album, Sing, Pray, Repeat!. It features my dear friend, Cantor Rayna Green, with guitars by Mike Konopka, who is working tirelessly with all his talent to produce this project.
It is my prayer that you will find joy in little things around you: in the growing of trees, in music you hear, and that we will continue to grow together and come together in whichever ways we feel comfortable during this unprecedented time. I have faith that soon, our times will return as days of old, and will no longer be “unprecedented.”