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Elchanan Poupko

Shabbat Shira, Tu Bishvat and the Power of Music

Anemone flowers bloom in the Be'eri Nature Reserve, February 6, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

One Shabbat, walking outside the small town of Zlatopol, Ukraine, a town that no longer exists, Rabbi Nachman of Breslev told the person with him to take a look at the blades of grass and weeds growing in the field. Rabbi Nachman shared with him that every single blade of grass has a unique tune it sings; the songs of all the grass and weeds join together as a beautiful collective song to God. Rabbi Nachman of Breslev shared his belief that for this reason, it is better to pray out in nature, as the song the person sings to God joins the song of the greenery, which is also singing its song to God.

Little did Rabbi Nachman of Breslev know at the time that almost two hundred years later, a young secular woman, the daughter of a Jewish socialist family from Vilna, would make his words famous with a beautiful and popular Israeli song and would also be inspired by this very idea, as she walked the fields around Kibbutz Kinneret and composed songs that would change the Jewish people forever. Her name was Naomi Shemer.

Using a combination of Rabbi Nachman, and her own words, Naomi Shemer wrote her famous song Shirat Ha’asavim:

“Know that each and every shepherd has his own tune.
Know that each and every grass has its own song.
And from the song of the grasses, the tune of the shepherd is made
How beautiful, how beautiful, and pleasant to hear their song.
It’s very good to pray among them and to serve Hashem in joy
And from the song of the grasses, the heart is filled and yearns.
And when the the heart is filled by the song and yearns for the Land of Israel, a great light is drawn forth and goes from the Land’s holiness unto it.
And from the song of the grasses, the tune of the heart is made.”

This song and more are able to transform us within seconds and take us to places of yearning and holiness. There is something special about music that is able to transform everything. Music can take a demoralized army and reinvigorate it with a determined march. Music can take an entire nation and bind it together around a national anthem. Music can inspire individuals to strive for ever greater heights or breath hope into a person in the most difficult of situations. What is it about music that makes it able to do all this?

The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 24) comments on the famous verse, Az Yashir, which speaks of Moses and the Jews singing after the miracle of the crossing of the sea “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord….this is what it means when it says (Proverbs 31: 26) “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and instruction of kindness is on her tongue.” from the day God has created the world and until the Israelites stood on the sea, we have not found anyone who had sung to God, only the Israelites. God created Adam, and he said no song. God saved Abraham from the burning furnace and the kings, and he did not say a song; God delivered Isaac from the knife, and he did not say a song. So too, Jacob from the anger, Essau, and the people of Shechem, and he did not say a song; once Israel came to the sea and it opened, they said song in front of God right away. This is why it says: “she has opened her mouth with wisdom.” God says it is for these that I have been waiting for. ”

Yet despite the beautiful words of this Midrash, we can still wonder, why did the Jews wait to sing under after they crossed the sea? Why not at the moment of the Exodus?

Rabbi David Hacohen, Rabbi of Gan Yavneh in Israel, points out that one word you would expect to appear in Shirat Hayam–the song the Israelites sang upon emerging from the Red Sea– yet does not appear in it is Mitzrayim, Egypt. There is no mention of slavery, Egypt, or what they had been through. What the Jews do mention is coming to the Land of Israel and the construction of the Temple.

“With Your lovingkindness, You led the people You redeemed; You led [them] with Your might to Your holy abode. …You shall bring them and plant them on the mount of Your heritage, directed toward Your habitation, which You made O Lord; the sanctuary, O Lord, [which] Your hands founded.”

This is what the beauty of song and music is all about.

Music can transcend the here and now. To focus on lofty and divine ideas. Music breaks the routine and takes us far beyond where we are right now. True, we were impoverished freed slaves stranded in the desert, just learning about our full freedom, but our minds were already in the Temple in Jerusalem. Egypt was irrelevant at that point; we were united in thinking about the miracle that had just happened and our path toward Israel with the ultimate redemption coming.

It is this same mindset that led so many Jews, Auschwitz bound, crowded in the cruelest, most painful, and subhuman cattle carts, to sing together Ani Maamin. “I believe in full faith in the arrival of the Messiah. And even though he may delay, despite it all, I will await his arrival every day”. Our German captures and tormenters may have oppressed their bodies, but the music raised their soul. They were not longer in the gray countryside of Poland; they were on the path to Jerusalem. Music breaks the ordinary routine and transforms us to a totally different place.

There is a debate between the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud as to why we observe Tu Bishvat on the date that we observe it. The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashana 14, based on Rashi’s explanation) says the reason for this is that most of the rain that would come down that winter has already fallen, and the sap and energy the tree needs for this coming year are all in it. The Jerusalem Talmud states that Tu Bishvat is the cut-off point by which the tree no longer feeds on the rain of the prior year and is now living off the rain of this year. In both opinions, Tu Bishvat is about looking toward the future rather than focusing on the past.

This ability to see beyond the here and now allowed Jews at the end of the 1800s to look at the barren Land of Israel and say: “we will resurrect this land with trees.” The vision of Jewish farmers and the Jewish National Fund to look at that barren Land, see what it can become, and transform it with the planting of hundreds of millions of trees, has helped take Israel from where it was one hundred and fifty years ago, to where it is today.

As we look at the world around us, there is so much to be pensive and pessimistic about. There are great dangers, concerns, disappointments, and letdowns in the world we see. Yet Shabbat Shira, music, and Tu Bishvat are there to remind us that we must break from the here and now. We must look at the beautiful and optimism in our lives.

Someone recently said: “Remember: your job is the dream of the unemployed; your house is the dream of the homeless; your smile is the dream of the depressed; your health is the dream of the sick” Let us do that and remember there is a beautiful world of possibilities ahead of us.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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