2005Parshat Beshalach, which is also known as Shabbat Shira, is always around the traditional Jewish beginning of spring, Tu B'shevat (15th Shevat) - the new year for trees. In Israel the almond blossom begins to appear and the feeling of rejuvenation is in the air. This apparent calendar quirk is no quirk at all, but a beautiful synthesis of ideas that carries with it a special lesson for us, especially when we are still engulfed outside Israel in the gloom of winter, at least in the physical world around us.
Spring is sprung and there's a wonderful fling to be flung. (Frank Sinatra)
In the parsha, the episode of the splitting of the Red Sea takes place. Immediately afterwards, Moshe sings the famous song "Az Yashir," which has been incorporated into our everyday liturgy. The rabbis are troubled by the use of the future tense yashir, "will sing." Surely this is after the crossing of the sea and the word should have been in the past tense
("Az Shar Moshe" - then Moshe sang).
The deliberate use of the future tense here conveys a special message. The enemy had finally gone, and it was now the perfect time for true rejuvenation of the people and preparation for the "promised land." This future prospect is alluded to by the use of the future tense of yashir, as this becomes the beginning for all the songs of history (see Ba'al Haturim's comments on this verse, where he lists the 10 "songs of history"). In such circumstances, the future is stressed to give hope and focus to the people and a true reason for continuation.
In the same vein, the celebration of Tu B'shevat is recognition of the future benefits of the spring that await us. A new crop is beginning to come through and new fruits are on the horizon. Spiritually also, we are beginning to go through the process of "hitchadshut" (spiritual renewal), which is described in glowing terms in the Chassidic writings. Our tradition of a Tu B'shevat seder is not a coincidence. Both the seders of Passover and Tu B'shevat preempt the future and the celebration of freedom and renewal and all that this entails. This is even reflected in the custom to feed the birds on Shabbat Shira, which is found in various sources. This is a simple way of showing our faith in the future as the animal world begins to stir again after the winter inactivity.
The message for our work in college campuses is clear. The spring represents a time of challenge and growth. In our Hillel, as I imagine in many others, the various committees have changed and a new energy is injected into all our activities. It is a time of renewal in the physical world, which has to become a renewal in the spiritual sense as well. There is good reason to go forward and continue our important work. Both nature and the Torah are giving us that endorsement. Let us take this to heart and even if it does snow on Tu B'shevat here, think of the wonderful things to be done in the very near future.
Prepared by Rabbi Ian Shaffer, Columbia/ Barnard Hillel
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Beshalach at MyJewishLearning.com.