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Finding our Roots

02/05/2020 12:24:34 PM

Feb5

Judaism has always been a religion that celebrates roots. In one of our most important prayers, the Amidah – oftentimes known as the Tefillah (the Prayer) -- we acknowledge the first few generations of the Jewish family tree: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. We continue growing our Jewish family through life cycle rituals, like B’nai Mitzvah, weddings, and baby namings. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by. The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever. What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”

In a literal sense, roots are central in one of our upcoming Jewish holidays. Tu B’shevat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, is the New Year for the trees. As ice and snow continue to coat the grass here in the northeastern United States, our friends in Israel are beginning to greet the blossoming trees of springtime. This year, we celebrate Tu B'Shevat on February 10. 

Above all, the most important root in Judaism is the Eitz Chayim – the Tree of Life that is our Torah. As is often the case, this year marks a convergence between Tu B’Shevat and Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat on which we read Parshat Beshallach, the Torah portion that celebrates the precise moment of the Exodus. On this Shabbat, we read about the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds and the Israelites’ journey into freedom. This year, Shabbat Shira falls on February 7. 

When Tu B’Shevat and Shabbat Shira coincide, we are given a dual reminder of the powers of nature. Not only did we overcome the challenge of the daunting sea in front of us, we remain grateful for the many ways in which trees sustain life.

One Ashkenazic custom for Shabbat Shira is to go out and feed the birds—creatures of air and song that remind us of the beauty and the needs of our natural surroundings. The birds represent the midrash that as the Israelites walked through the miraculously split sea, trees sprouted in the sea and grew fruit for the Israelites to feed their children. These trees – and our impending freedom -- became the roots that held the Jewish people together – they allowed us to continue on this journey.  It is taught that birds perched in these trees, adding to the songs that celebrated freedom for the Israelites.  

We know that the Israelites sang as they crossed the sea because Beshallach includes one the few sections of the Torah that is not written out in prose. Instead, it is a song of celebration, complete with its own special melody. Moses and Miriam each sang pieces of the Song at the Sea, transmitting the text to future generations. It worked – we sing the same words to this day – sometimes coloring them with different musical styles – and we remember their leadership each time we sing Mi Chamocha.

One of the reasons why music sticks so well is that it has its own system of roots and patterns that allow certain melodies to get stuck in our head! Each musical chord has a root, and even as the chord changes inversions and takes on a slightly different sound quality, the root of the chord – and the name of the chord – stays the same. Our roots are what ground us – we almost always come back to a common tone, even after a creative cadence. In music, we can often guess where we are going because we know where we are coming from.

When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they were entering the unknown. To help them on their way, the miraculous powers of music and our environment joined together. As we simultaneously celebrate Tu B’Shevat and Shabbat Shira this February, we are once again reminded of the beautiful connection between song and our natural world.

 

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782