Beshalach: Redemption Song by Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein

It is Friday evening and the sun is just about the set. The synagogue is filled with a psalm and song-filled greeting for Her Majesty, the Shabbat Queen. After six long days of toiling, working, and serving,  we have finally come to Shabbat, the day of rest. People of all ages can be seen humming and moving to the beat, circling and dancing, eyes closed and wide open. They sing: “Az Yaranenu Kol Atzay Ya’ar – then all the trees of the forest will sing out (Psalm 96).”

The 5th century rabbinic text Vayikra Rabbah (30:4) quotes Rabbi Acha who said:

When King David sang the words “Then all the trees in the forest will sing,” he was talking about the days of redemption, when all barren trees that didn’t bear fruit will come to produce and receive what they need.

This teaching not only speaks to the current month of Shvat, which celebrates the New Year of the (fruit) trees, but also to any generation longing to split seas, see the unmasked pharaohs of their time washed away, and address the many inequities facing our humanity. 

The Israelite slave-uprising and rebellion reaches its climax, rising out of four-hundred years of servitude, desperate to live without an enslaver. As they walk amidst the sea on dry land they chant – “Az Yashir Moshe U’vnei Yisroelthen Moses and the Children of Israel sang” (Exodus 15). This week’s Torah portion highlights the redemptive theme of song and equity, and the songs of freedom we all long to sing. It is the “az – then” – the longing for an equitable future. A then – a future – where our needs are met, barriers are removed, and liberation is possible. In the words of Bob Nest Marley: “Redemption song, cause it’s all I ever had….”

Each Shabbat we remember the Exodus. We take this seventh day to be reminded that we have needs that are sometimes like Trees pining to bear fruit. We have spiritual needs, physical needs, emotional needs. The number seven speaks as the ultimate equalizer. It is God’s mandate for a holy and loving humanity. Seven is safe and has a container, and safety engenders love, and love is what brings people together. It speaks to the then: The “Az Yashir,” the “Az Yerannenu.” 

Rav Kook speaks of Shmita, the Shabbat (7th) Year for the land, as a messianic and redemptive process where everyone receives what they need, where the land receives what it needs, where equity reigns, and where song and jubilee is heard. Shmita is when our relationship to the world changes from a then to a now. May we experience it soon.

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Isaiah is a rabbi, songwriter, and spiritual enthusiast, originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Monsey, NY. As a Jew of Color, Isaiah share’s ancestry with people of different faiths, colors, and backgrounds. Isaiah attended Binghamton University, followed by Yeshiva University for his masters in social work and S’mikhah. As one of Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36, Isaiah became a founding member of the Beis Community in Washington Heights, and the Union Street Sanctuary places where “All. Are Welcome. Always.” He is the Rabbinic Scholar and Public Affairs Advisor for Jewish Federations of North America.

Shmita Friday is just one piece of a large conversation that has been ongoing for a long time! We’d love to hear what you think – post a comment below, join our facebook group, and start talking about shmita with your friends and family.