Latest update: January 14th, 2013
This coming Shabbos we bentch Rosh Chodesh Shevat, which falls on Shabbos Kodesh (January 12). The highlight of this month is of course Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the trees. As the mind conjures up images of spring, I can spot nary a sign of spring from my vantage point here in the northeastern part of the U.S.
Ah, but it is in the Holy Land where nature is awakening, as witnessed by the new buds on the almond tree that is first to come to life. The Torah informs us that Eretz Yisrael is “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive and honey [dates]” — the shivas haminim (seven species) that grace our Tu B’Shevat table in celebration of the Rosh Hashanah l’ilanot.
This year Tu B’Shevat is observed on Shabbos Shira, when Parshas Beshalach regales us with the stunning events of Krias Yam Suf — where we read of Moshe Rabbeinu and Am Yisrael breaking into rapturous song of praise to Hashem in gratitude for His miracles, and of Miriam HaNeviah taking tambourine in hand as she leads the women in song and dance. The tambourine was the instrument of choice, its ringing sound intended to drown out the female voices and render them inaudible to the men (in adherence to “kol b’isha ervah,” the prohibition against men to listen to the lilting sound of a woman’s voice – Brachos 24:1).
According to the Imrei Noam, the future tense of Az Yashir – they will sing – alludes to the days of Moshiach when Hashem will revive the dead. As the Gemara states, three keys are in the hands of Hashem and are not entrusted with the malachim: the key to birth (children), the key to rain (sustenance), and the key to techiyas hameisim (life).
The haftorah of Parshas Beshalach intriguingly chronicles the story of Devorah HaNeviah. Both Miriam and Devorah are counted among the seven righteous women who were divinely blessed with prophecy. (The others are Sara, Chana, Chuldah, Avigayil and Esther.)
Devorah the Prophetess was a judge renowned for overseeing all her judicial matters in the open, outdoors under a huge palm tree — as a means of avoiding the slightest hint of impropriety in the way of unethical or immoral behavior with a stranger.
When the Jews triumphed over the King of Canaan, Devorah composed a song, a Shira to Hashem — considered by the Torah to be on a par with the Shira of Moshe Rabbeinu. Thus two parallels emerge between the parsha and the haftorah: one that equates the Shira of Devorah with that of Moshe, the other spotlighting the striking similarities of Devorah and Miriam — both prophetesses and both of scrupulous character.
Various reasons are cited for our tradition of feeding the birds on Shabbos Shira (actually carried out on Erev Shabbos), the most common being that we reward the birds for having sung their own Shiras HaYam (Song at the Sea), as well as for having saved the day when two rabble-rousers, Dasan and Aviram, had seen fit to strew mon (manna) about in the fields early on Shabbos – a day when the mon would not be falling – to mock Moshe and the word of Hashem. By the time the people arose that morning, there was none to be found, for the birds had eaten it and thus spared Moshe from being played the fool.
It was on the first day of the month of Shevat, in the last year of Bnei Yisrael’s sojourn in the wilderness and a mere thirty-seven days before he would leave this world, when Moshe Rabbeinu began to review the Oral Torah, the Mishnah, with them.
It [the Torah] is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it… (Mishlei 3:18) Like the fruit that draws sustenance from the tree, so are we judged in Shevat on our spiritual sustenance…
Another of many references in the Torah that alludes to man’s commonality with the tree: “You shall eat from them and not cut them down, for man is the tree of the field…” (Devarim 20.19) Whether in the home or in the field, the reality is that a loving and nurturing environment is the most prone to produce the choicest of fruit.
Speaking of “choice fruit,” the following are among the notable personalities whose Yahrtzeits are observed in Shevat:
Shaul HaMelech (1 Shevat); Meshulam Zusha of Hanipol and the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch (2 Shevat); Asher ben Yaakov, Moshe Leib of Sassov and the Baba Sali (4 Shevat); the Sfas Emes (5 Shevat); Rebbetzin Rivka Schneerson, for whom Bais Rivka girls’ school is named (10 Shevat); Yechezkel M’Kuzmir (17 Shevat); the TaZ (26 Shevat); the Alter of Slabodka and Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Teitelbaum (29 Shevat).
* * *
Once seen to give a substantial sum of tzedakah to a man of questionable character, Reb Moshe Leib Sassov explained to his curious onlookers that by giving such a person charity, “Hakodosh Boruch Hu will be charitable with me despite my own unworthiness.”
The Tzemach Tzedek, Reb Menachem Mendel, was on his way to shul when a simple man heading to the marketplace asked him for a loan of three ruble. The Rebbe answered that he had no money on him but would gladly accommodate him from his home after davening.
As he donned his tallis, the Tzemach Tzedek did a double take. “What have I done?! Today is market day and this poor Jew lives off what he’ll be able to earn in these scant few hours.”
He shook his tallis off, ran home to get the three ruble and rushed to the marketplace to search for the man. Only after locating him and giving him the amount he had asked to borrow did the tzaddik return to daven — for chesed precedes prayer.
Reb Zusha Hanipoli once stopped to rest at an inn and was in need of a footstool. A wooden crate was placed under the table for the tzaddik’s use. But as Reb Zusha lifted his legs, he shuddered and exclaimed, “Oy, Oy – a holy object must lie here!” When the crate was opened, it was found to contain a small sefer Torah that a guest had mistakenly left behind.
The Turei Zahav sheds light on why he always recited Kiddush from a siddur. Apart from the kedusha inherent in the letters, the TaZ sought to alleviate the discomfort and embarrassment of his guests who would experience hardship in making Kiddush by heart.
May the lessons of our holy forbears serve to imbue us with the deep sensitivity they demonstrated in their lifetime — in their kavod haTorah (honor for the Torah) as well as kavod habriyos (respect for every human being).
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