Saturday, January 15, 2011

Birds and Shabbat Shirah

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of Jewish Treats' parent organization the National Jewish Outreach Program.

Birds play a very significant role this week. Once the Children of Israel safely got across the Red Sea and set up camp, the Israelites began to complain to Moses. They said "If only we had died by the hand of Hashem in the land of Egypt., as we sat by a pot of meat and when we ate bread to satiety" (Exodus 16:3). In response to their complaints, God gave them the manna, food from heaven. According to tradition, there were those people who tried to plant manna in the field on Shabbat, trying to trick Moses and defy God who did not send manna on Shabbat. The birds were significant here because they came and ate up the manna as to not fool Moses. We reward the birds this Shabbat, also known as Shabbat Shirah, by signing songs for them.

Az Yashir Moshe U'v'nei Yisrael... Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel...(Exodus 15:1). The song, which is recorded in Exodus 15:1-19, is known as the Shirah (the song). The Shabbat on which this Shirah is chanted in the synagogue (Parashat B'shalach) is known as Shabbat Shirah.

The lyrics of the Shirah constitute exalted praises of God, Who saves the Jewish people. Recounting the miraculous event, the Shirah calls out: "For the horses of Pharaoh went into the sea with his chariots and his horsemen, and God brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea." (15:19).

Why is a special name given to this Shabbat? Because the Shirah inspires us to remember the heights that our people can reach.

Those who have read Bible cannot help but notice that such spontaneous praise and gratitude from the Israelites was rare. The Israelites spent much time complaining. They wanted meat (Exodus 16), worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32), sinned with the Moabite women (Numbers 25), etc. But when the Israelites reached the far side of the Sea of Reeds, their faith in God and in their own significance was at an all time high. There was no restraint in their praise of God.

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