By April Akiva, MAJE
What is the connection between Tu B’Shevat and the Exodus from Egypt?
Each year parashat Beshalach, which recounts the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, coincides with Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees and produce. While on the surface there are no obvious associations between the holiday and the parashah, various Jewish commentaries help us reveal the true essence of what this week in the Jewish calendar is really about.
The Exodus from Egypt, the Song of the Sea, manna from heaven, as well as the victorious battle over Amalek are all retold in Beshalach. On this Shabbat–Shabbat Shirah (Shabbat of Song), we experience new sights and sounds just as our ancestors did upon the shores of the sea as they opened their eyes and ears to freedom.
Exodus 14, verse 22, states: “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry land.” How can it be possible that the Israelites went into the “midst of the sea,” yet at the same time, walked on dry land? According to the Book of Legends, “the sea was not split for them until they stepped into it, indeed until the waters reached up to their very noses. Only then did the passage become dry land.” In other words, God did not allow for the great miracle to occur until the Children of Israel first took the initiative to actively participate in their own redemption—to work in partnership with God, rather than to passively wait in fear.
The Book of Legends relates another story, this one from Midrash Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael. In it, Moses is standing and uttering lengthy prayers to God. In response, God exclaims, “My beloved are on the verge of drowning in the sea, and you spin out lengthy prayers before Me?!” In other words, God says, “Moses! What’s wrong with you? You and the rest of the Israelites are in danger and you actually think that standing there praying is really going to solve your problem?” Moses then asks God what else there is to do and God replies, “Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward.” We learn from the midrash that there are times when human action is more necessary than mere praise or petition.
By juxtaposing the Israelite’s courageous action preceding the crossing of the sea with the high-spirited praise given at the opposite shore, the biblical narrative reminds us of the balance necessary for our partnership with God. The Israelites take time to pray and rejoice in song only after they collaborate with God by taking the first step in their redemption from slavery, thereby securing a more promising future for them and for the generations to come.
Tu Bishvat falling during the week of Shabbat Shirah only strengthens the concept of our partnership with God. According to the book Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu Bishvat Anthology, the great agricultural revolution empowered human society to grow and produce, thus making one of God’s powers more manifest in human hands–that is, we are given the power and responsibility to continue life on earth and secure our environment for the future.
Reminding us that the great responsibility of action is a necessary element in reinforcing our covenantal partnership with God, a midrash of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai comes to mind:
“ If you had a tree in your hand and were told that the Messiah had come, first plant the tree, then go out to greet the Messiah. ” (Midrash Avot Derabbi Natan 8,31)