Thursday, January 9, 2014


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch/ASHAR


“Among the positive mitzvos (commandments) of the mind are: To believe the world has a Creator; He created it out of nothingness; there is none like Him; to accept upon ourselves His oneness; to serve Him with our hearts ; to contemplate the wonders of His creations in order that they be a sign to (remind us) of Him.”
(Introduction to Chovas Halvavos)

“We fulfill this mitzvah when we see the wonders of G-d in everything we look at. For instance, when we see an apple, we wonder why it turned red, when it became ripe, and why it became sweet. We ask ourselves why it has seeds inside and why it has such a beautiful and airtight skin. We wonder how the apple came into existence from a piece of wood and we realize that everything involved in the making of an apple is miraculous. And so we become excited over the wonders of all G-d’s creations.
“When we put a piece of bread into our mouths, we know that it will be broken up into thousands of different components and transported throughout the body by the blood stream. We know that every organ, every cell will get the nutrients it needs from this piece of bread. How does one simple piece of bread turn into a thousand different components? In our surprise and delight at the wonders of G-d’s creations we are fulfilling a mitzvah in the Torah.
“The purpose of all these wonders (e.g. the apple, the piece of bread, and everything else in creation) is to make us aware that G-d is there and that He is the one who brought these wonders about. That is the only reason for the brilliant design, engineering, and logistics that we see in everything.”
(Commentary of Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt’l)

“My soul shall bless G-d…He established upon the earth its foundations…He sends the springs into the streams, between the mountains they flow. They water every beast of the field…near them the birds of the heaven dwell, from among the branches they give song…how abundant are your Works G-d, all of them with wisdom You made; the earth is full with Your possessions…” (Tehillim 104)

          Throughout the year there are several Shabbasos that have a unique title, e.g. “Shabbos Hagadol”, “Shabbos Chazon”, “Shabbos Shuva”, “Shabbos Zachor”. The titles are based on the haftorah[1] or an added Torah reading[2]. The Shabbos when Parshas Beshalach is read has the distinction of being the only Shabbos that has a special name based solely on the routine weekly Torah reading. The Shabbos is aptly called “Shabbos Shirah” because the great shirah (song) of Az Yashir, which Klal Yisroel sang at the banks of the Sea of the Reeds, is included in Parshas Beshalach.   
          It is intriguing that the following parsha, parshas Yisro, which contains the seminal event of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, does not merit a special name.
There must be an inextricable connection between the Song of the Sea and the holiness of Shabbos. The confluence of the reading of the shirah and Shabbos somehow elevates the entire Shabbos.  Why does this Shabbos merits a unique name?
          Rav Shimshon Pinkus zt’l related the following beautiful thought[3]:
          The prayers of Kabbolas Shabbos[4] repeatedly make reference to song. The prayer commences, “Come let us sing joyfully to G-d, let us call out to the Rock of our salvation.” The following chapter commences, “Sing to Hashem a song that is new; sing to Hashem everyone on earth.” We follow the recitation of six psalms by melodiously singing the enchanting song of Lecha Dodi in unison, “Come my beloved to greet the bride; the presence of Shabbos let us welcome!” The prayer reaches its crescendo with the recitation of, “A psalm, a song for the day of Shabbos. It is good to thank Hashem, and to sing praise to Your Name, O Exalted One.”  The very song of the holy day itself praises the Shabbos as a day of song!
          Why is Shabbos so connected with song?
          The basis of human communication is through the medium of speech. If one wants to convey his thoughts he does so through verbal expression. However, there are concepts and ideas that simply cannot be explained with words; mere words cannot convey the depth of passion, emotion, and inner feelings. For example, if one is suffering from an unusual form of pain he cannot explain his suffering merely by describing it. When he states that he is in pain, everyone in his vicinity conceptualizes his pain based on their own prior experiences of pain. Only one who has suffered the same disease can begin to comprehend the nature of his pain because he himself had a similar experience[5].
          In a similar vein, it is impossible to explain the pleasure of taste to one who lacks a sense of taste. Saying that something is sweet or bitter is meaningless to a person who has never experienced the sensation of tasting something bitter or sweet. The same holds true for a person born blind. He cannot imagine what the beauty of a sunset looks like, no matter how many adjectives are used to explain it to him.
          When someone is enveloped with emotion, those feelings cannot be adequately expressed with words[6]. The greatness of music is that it transcends words. Music and song have the unparalleled power to stir the soul and awaken deep internal emotions. The beauty of a melody sung in perfect harmony transcends words and mundane verbal expression.
          When the sanctity of Shabbos envelopes the world with the setting sun on Friday eve, one is elevated to feel inner euphoric joy. He now has the opportunity to devote the holy day to sanctity, divinity, and closeness with His Creator. At that point emotions transcend verbal expression. That joy can only be expressed with song, a language whose meaning goes beyond words. “A psalm for the day of Shabbos. It is good to thank Hashem and to sing praise to Your Name, O Exalted One.” Shabbos is inherently a day of song for it is a day whose essence can only be expressed with the language of the soul – the power of song!

          With this thought from Rabbi Pinkus, we can offer the following thought: After Klal Yisroel witnessed the splitting of the sea and the decimation of the remainder of the Egyptian army, they stood spellbound and awed. “Yisroel saw the Great Hand that G-d wrought against Egypt and they believed in G-d and in Moshe, His servant.” At that moment the nation pined to express their sublime joy and gratitude to G-d; they wanted to articulate their elation at becoming the Nation of G-d. But words were insufficient.
The only medium they could employ to convey their feelings was with song. “Then Moshe and the B’nei Yisroel sang this song to G-d and they said, saying: ‘I will sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant; the horse with its rider He hurled into the sea’.” Song which utilizes prose, esoteric allusions and the euphoria of harmonious unison, was the only conceivable manner that they could utilize to express their true feelings.
          The beauty and depth of song can be most appreciated on Shabbos, the day of song. In the zemiros of Shabbos[7], we sing, “בשבת יושבת בזמר ושבחה – On Shabbos we sit in song and praise.” The sanctity of the day compels us to immerse ourselves in song, for that is the only manner in which we can express our exuberance and joy.
          Although the transmission of the Torah at Sinai was the most significant and important event that ever transpired, it does not maintain the same inextricable connection with Shabbos as the Song of the Sea. Although undoubtedly the Torah one studies on Shabbos takes on much greater significance and contains special merit[8], Torah is not exclusive to Shabbos. Every moment of every day in the life of a Jew is dictated and guided by the Torah. Therefore, the Shabbos when Parshas Yisro is read does not merit special distinction, for acceptance of Torah is a daily event.
Parshas Beshalach which contains the Song of the Sea however, indeed has a special connection with Shabbos, for it is only when steeped in the sanctity of Shabbos that our souls can emotionally connect with the song our ancestors sang at the banks of the Sea. It is therefore all the more appropriate that following the splitting of the sea, Klal Yisroel was commanded to observe Shabbos[9]. Shabbos granted them a medium to contain the emotions that they felt when they sang the Song of the Sea.

          The fifteenth day of Shevat[10] is a minor holiday. Although it is a mystical day, whose true meaning and depth is hidden, on a simple level it is the day when all “fruit tithes” from the previous year had to be separated[11].
          Tu B’shvat is also the “New Year for Trees”[12]. The Torah compares man to a tree[13]. Based on that verse the commentaries explain that the New Year for trees has special significance and symbolism for man. On Tu B’Shvat the sap begins to rise inside the tree. Although the weather is still cold and winter is far from over, the trees and the natural world have begun to prepare for spring and the rebirth that will transpire. In that sense, Tu B’Shvat is also a celebration of nature and the ubiquitous miracles of the natural world.

Perek Shirah[14] states:, “The trees of the field say, “Then the trees of the forest will sing before G-d who will come to judge the land”.” Perek Shirah teaches us that the whole world is in a perennial state of song. The sun, moon, oceans, trees, and humankind sing to G-d through their mere existence. Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for trees, is inevitably connected with the song of the natural world.
          The holiday of Tu B’Shvat invariably coincides with the Shabbos when parshas Beshalach is read[15]. On Shabbos, the whole physical world is elevated. The food, sleep, and general enjoyment of Shabbos all become conduits of holiness and Service to G-d. In other words, on Shabbos the whole world becomes part of the “song of Shabbos”.
When Klal Yisroel sang the Song of the Sea they were able to recognize how everything was part of a Master Plan, including the exile and servitude. All of their pain and anguish now became part of their song. Tu B’Shvat is a day to take note and appreciate the beauty and greatness of the natural world which we constantly take for granted. It is a day to internalize the timeless words of Dovid Hamelech, “My soul shall bless G-d” and to appreciate the fact that all of G-d’s creations are part of a song of praise to His Eternal Name.

“Then Moshe and the B’nei Yisroel sang this song to G-d”
“On Shabbos we sit in song and praise”

[1] portion read from the prophets
[2] i.e. the Four Parshios – Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, Hachodesh
[3] Nefesh Shimshon – Shabbos. Essay is entitled “Kabbolas Shabbos- Kabbolas p’nei haShechinah (Accepting Shabbos- Accepting the Divine Presence)”
[4] the special prayer recited at the onset of Shabbos
[5] It is for this reason that a woman can never adequately describe the pain of childbirth to one who has never felt labor pains.
[6] It’s often said that words are simply inefficient to explain the feeling of sublime joy that a parent experiences on the night of a child’s wedding. The only way the parent can express it is by dancing with his/her entire body.
[7] in the zemer, Yom Zeh l’Yisroel
[8] It is also noteworthy that the Torah was given on Shabbos
[9] Moshe informed the nation that although one portion of manna fell each day, on Friday a double potion would descend as no manna would fall during Shabbos.
[10] Tu B’Shvat/Chamisha Asar B’Shavt
[11] i.e. Tu B’Shvat is the deadline. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l notes that the reason for our joy on Tu B’Shvat is to celebrate the completion of the mitzvah.
[12] Rosh Hashnana 1:1
[13] Devorim 20:19-20
[14] Perek Shirah, literally "A Chapter Of Song," is an ancient text that is at least two thousand years old; some commentaries even attribute its authorship to King David! It takes the form of a list of eighty-four elements of the natural world, including elements of the sky and of the earth, plants, birds, animals, and insects, attaching a verse from the Torah to each. The concept behind Perek Shirah is that everything in the natural world teaches us a lesson in philosophy or ethics, and the verse gives a clue as to what that lesson is. The result is the "song" of the natural world, the tapestry of spiritual lessons for life that the natural world is telling us.
[15] either the week prior or the following week


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