By Rabbanit Shani Taragin
On Shabbat Shira, which always coincides with the week of Tu B’Shevat, we read “Shirat HaYam” — the Song of the Sea (Sh’mot 15), praising G-d for the miraculous salvation from the Egyptian army, and “Shirat Devorah” as the haftarah reading (Shoftim 5) — a similar national military song against the Canaanite forces. As we sing of independence and eventual “planting” in the Land in Shirat HaYam: “T’vi’eimo v’tita’eimo b’har nachalatcha — You will bring them and implant them on the mount of Your heritage” (Sh’mot 15:17), we find a clear connection to the celebration of Tu B’Shevat — a time for planting and calculating the growth of trees in Eretz Yisrael.
Moreover, as we read the haftarah from Shoftim chapter 4 with its ensuing song (as per the Ashkenazic custom; Sephardic custom is to begin the haftarah reading with the song in chapter 5), the Land imagery strikes immediately and the blessings of Eretz Yisrael resonate loudly.
The narrative begins with Devorah—a prophetess who sits under a palm tree near Bet-El. Our initial association is with Devorah, the nursemaid of Rivka who is buried under a tree in Bet-El as Ya’akov returns to his homeland (Hadar Zekeinim on Vayishlach 35:8). Hence, the imagery of milk (associated with nursing) and honey from Devorah (the “bee”) sitting under the date-palm come to mind, reminding us of the blessing of Eretz Yisrael as the “land flowing with milk and honey” — reflective of both opinions in the Mechilta of Rashbi (13:5) regarding the interpretation of “Land of milk and honey.” Rabbi Eliezer maintains that both the milk and honey are from fruits; the honey from dates. Rabbi Akiva posits that the blessing of milk is from animals and the honey from bees — mentioned 16 times in the Torah and five more times in Nevi’im.
Perhaps the prophet is alluding from the outset that after 20 years of oppression from the nearby Canaanites, the blessings of the Land will finally be restored through Devorah’s divine inspiration! (Similar allusions to honey may be found in the parashah as well — “And they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water, and threescore and ten palm-trees; and they encamped there by the waters,” (15:27) and — “And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna; and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (16:31)).
This is underscored through the continuation of the story as we hear of the miraculous mayhem (indicated through the word “vayahom” in both the parashah and haftarah stories) that led to the defeat of the Canaanite chariots by Mt. Tabor, followed by Yael’s heroic assassination of the Canaanite general, Sisera, through her offering of milk. She thereby merits praise of Devorah and Barak in song — “minashim ba’ohel tevorach” — providing for a peaceful settlement in the Land through the women of milk and honey!
The Chatam Sofer explains (Chiddushei Chatam Sofer, Gemara Chullin 71b) that the Land of Israel is blessed with milk and honey to remind us that just as Torah is compared to milk and honey (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:3) for it enhances the body and soul with all its words, so the fruit of the Land nourishes us as if each day is Shabbat (the last letter of each word of zavat chalav u’dvash spells Shabbat!)
How appropriate that we enter Tu B’Shevat, celebrating the blessings of trees, fruit, milk, and honey of the Land of Israel, after singing the songs of milk and honey on Shabbat, praising G-d for the miracles of yishuv Eretz Yisrael!
Shabbat Shalom and Tu B’Shevat Sameach!
Rabbanit Shani Taragin is educational director of World Mizrachi and teaches at Matan and other educational institutions in Israel.