Sing Out Loud – Parshat Beshalach 5778

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Fun fact: When Duncan and I get called to the Torah for an aliyah, Duncan lets me start the blessing a split second before him so that he can match my key and we don’t sound terrible. That is to say, I do not think of myself as a singer. I can chant with the best of them and lead services with gusto, but when it comes to carrying a tune or leading something with a complex melody, I am just not comfortable. I am grateful to Cantor Bitton and Ilene Safyan for fulfilling that role for me when I lead services (and believe me, you should be as well). Honestly, I don’t even like to sing in the shower. For most of my life, I was told I was plagued with the “Tarnoff tone,” and like those women on my mom’s side of the family, I believed we all couldn’t carry a tune.

Nevertheless, music is a big part of my life. I’m married to an avid singer, and we named our daughter Shiri (“my song”) in tribute to my father’s love of music. I was determined that no matter how her voice sounded, we would not plague her with thoughts that she couldn’t sing. Shiri loves to sing. Everything we do or say gets put into a song. Quiet play is almost always punctuated by quiet singing to herself, and, when appropriate, she has no trouble singing out loud and singing out strong.

This idea, while familiar to fans of Sesame Street or the Carpenters, actually has its roots in the Torah. Parshat Beshalach, which we read this week, is notable for showing the power of song. We find the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians go after them, but God intervenes and saves them. The Israelites continue through moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them as well as moments marking the occasional temper tantrum at God because the journey through the desert isn’t perfect. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards.

In the middle of all of this we read the “Song of the Sea.” In this moment the Israelites are overwhelmed with emotion. They have just left slavery and are not quite free yet. They see the waters ahead of them, the Egyptians behind them, and the instinct is to sing. You can almost picture this song, tears running down their faces, freedom in their grasp. And singing. Moses didn’t worry about how his voice sounded in this moment, he simply sang. Miriam took the timbrel and danced her heart out. Imagine what a free flowing release of music this was.

Thanks to my musical husband, Duncan, I’ve since learned that I can sing, I just need to focus on singing in my own key when I’m leading and backing off a little to find the key when I’m singing with others. We read the words of Parshat Beshalach and are reminded that we aren’t supposed to leave the singing to just professional vocalists. Music is a part of life, and singing is our individual expression of that. So as the song says, “Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing.”

 

 

 

 

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Calories Don’t Count on Shabbat – Parshat Beshalach 5777

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I watch what I eat. That’s not to say I’m never tempted. Of course I sometimes cave to my favorites (just about anything with cheese and anything with chocolate), but often it feels like I spend all day trying to be good so that I won’t feel sad later. It’s on Shabbat when I allow myself to splurge a little; Friday night and Saturday are usually what you might call my carb fest days when I loosen the restrictions. We use the phrase “everything in moderation” for a reason. Moderation in all aspects of our lives – not just mealtime – means the “pain” we endure is a little more tolerable and the pleasurable moments just a little more rewarding.

In our Torah portion this week the Israelites are leaving Egypt, and they too are learning about moderation. In Parshat Beshalach we read about the Israelites crossing the sea and God’s great act to save them. As we know, the Israelites are quick to sing praises to God for this incredible miracle and just as quick to turn bitter, complaining that the desert isn’t all they might have imagined. To be fair to the Israelites, they were probably just “hangry.” After all, they endured famine in Egypt only to try to survive in the desert on the run. Perhaps this explains how we got our association with food-based traditions.

To help them survive in the desolate environment, God sends down manna, a sap-like substance that mysteriously tasted like whatever they wanted it to. The rule was you could take what you needed and no more. On Shabbat the people were expected to take double the amount of food for themselves so they’d have enough to last through the holy day. Unfortunately they get greedy in their rationing, and as a punishment the manna tastes rancid. But if you’ve ever been to a buffet on an empty stomach, you can hardly blame them. When your eyes (and options) are bigger than your stomach, your plate is suddenly overflowing because you’ve taken more than you could possibly eat.

This concept of a double potion, Lechem Mishneh, is referenced in the Bible just this once, but it is because of this verse that we have two loaves of challah on the table for Shabbat and festivals. And it is because of this that I allow myself to indulge just a little bit more each Shabbat. It’s all about balance.

Parshat Beshalach reminds us that we have a weekly opportunity – obligation even – to indulge as long as we maintain for ourselves a normal routine of fitness, spiritual care, and healthy eating the rest of the week. Everything in moderation.

 

Thirsty For More – Parshat Beshalach 5776

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If you see me on a regular basis, you’ve seen the purple CamelBak water bottle that I carry everywhere. It may surprise you to learn that for most of my life I hated (I mean really HATED) drinking plain water.  There was nothing fun or flavorful about it, and it was a huge chore to force down anything other than Diet Coke.  At age twenty-five I decided it was time to take control of my weight, my health, and my future, so I started drinking water.

I didn’t quit the colors and flavors cold turkey of course. First it was flavored, carbonated water, then it was diluted flavored water, then just carbonated water. Finally, I could stomach plain old water. My water bottle became like an appendage, and I felt totally lost without it by my side. At a certain point, I started to crave water so much that I was drinking up to four liters a day. That ended soon after I started teaching and had long stretches in the classroom. However, to this day I can’t go more than twenty minutes without craving a delicious gulp of room-temperature water from my little personal reservoir.

Water is a life force and a life-sustaining force.  From the moment of our conception, we are immersed, and we use water throughout our lives to clean, purify, hydrate, and refresh. I’ve written before about the use and symbolism of water in the Torah. Parshat Beshalach, which we read this Shabbat, is perhaps more associated with water than any other parshah because it contains the crossing of Yam Suph. After the children of Israel leave Egypt, they journey with Moses through the wilderness until they reach the bank of the Sea of Reeds, stranded between the body of water and their pursuers, the Egyptians. After the Israelites safely cross to dry land, the water, which parted to save their lives, closes in on the Egyptians.

Not long after this water-based miracle, the Israelites complain about their water supply and the taste of it. The Israelites clearly know they need water to survive, and yet they don’t seem to have a grasp on the type or how much they might need. We learn in chapter 15 that the Israelites traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. Even if my CamelBak wasn’t a constant companion, three days would still be too long to go without water. Our sages delve deeper into this particular span of time and ask, why is three days so notable? They teach that water in the Torah is actually a symbol of Torah itself, and just as the body cannot go three days without water, the soul cannot go three days without some life-sustaining contact with Torah. Interestingly, this is also the reason why we never go more than three days in a row without reading Torah.

What is the life-sustaining force in this metaphor for you? What is the thing you need a regular supply of to refresh and revitalize your spirit? Whether it’s learning, running, cooking, or making music, the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness reminds us to partake every day of the things that nourish our souls as well as our bodies.

You Can Run – Parshat Beshalach 5775

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I ran away from camp. Yes, I was that kid.

I went to summer camp every summer from the age of 8 until the age of 15, when it was no longer a yearly priority for me. Every summer I’d pack my bags and head to sleep-away camp. Jewish residential camp provided me the opportunity to be immersed in Judaism, to live a life filled with song, dance, art, swimming, gaga, and learning.

On paper, the idea was magical. In reality, the intense experience of living in close quarters with twelve girls in one cabin for eight weeks was often just a little too much for this introvert. Like clockwork, I’d find myself overwhelmed by the intensity of experiences and emotions, and I’d get the urge to run . . . away. I became known as the runaway camper because once every summer, when something overwhelmed me, I would bolt from my cabin down the dirt road, out the camp gate (before we had locked gates). I’d take off down the road, running as fast as I could until I could just barely see the camp sign. I was a counselor’s dream, as you can imagine. And every year my counselor would tell me, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” In other words, the thing that upsets you or bothers you won’t change just by running away from it.

There’s some comfort in knowing the Israelites tried to run away from their problems too. This week we read parshat Beshalach. We find the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians go after them, but God intervenes and saves them. The Israelites continue through moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them and moments of the occasional temper tantrum at God because the journey through the desert isn’t perfect. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards. Exodus, like a 40-year sleep-away camp, is a rollercoaster of emotions.

In Egypt, the life of the Israelites was harsh and exhausting. There was no independence and no possibility of change. When God and Moshe offer them the opportunity to leave this environment, they can’t get out fast enough. The Israelites were running from their “problem” of slavery. Once in the wilderness, they realize whether you’re free or enslaved, life is not without its problems. As the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Hassidic rabbi taught, “Often in life, we think we can escape our problems by running away, only to find our problems running after us.”

Did my escaping from camp solve anything or simply create new problems? Likely a little of both. Allow me to paint my fleeing from camp in a new light. Yes, it was a misguided solution that probably scared and annoyed my counselors, but it was also my way of removing some of the pent-up frustration so I could clear my head and return with fresh eyes and calmer emotions.

Even once the Israelites are out of reach of the Egyptians, perhaps in their minds they’re still fleeing. Perhaps the real “running away” is their use of a new, defiant voice that, for the first time, is able to make itself heard loud and clear.