Today, the basics and a bit more on two special dimensions of this Shabbat.
The day we read Parashat Beshalach is always known as "Shabbat Shirah", the Shabbat of song. Often synagogues will give a special focus on music and singing. The specific song of this week is in the Torah reading -- Exodus 15 contains what Jews call Shirat Hayam, the "Song of the Sea." It's the song the Israelites sang after they passed through the Sea of Reeds and completed their escape from Egypt. We quote two lines of this song each day in prayer, morning and evening: Mi Chamocha ("Who is like You Adonai among the mighty ones?") and Adonai yimloch l'olam va-ed ("May Adonai be king through all reaches of time and space").
Although...one midrash says that they sang while they were in the middle of the sea. It sheds a different light on the Israelites when they sang. If they sang at the far shore, they sang out of relief and pent-up emotion, disbelief giving way to appreciation. If they sang in the middle, they sang out of confidence, knowing that their first step into the sea was a sure step toward freedom.
Some say that Moshe taught the song, singing each phrase for people to repeat. Other midrashim suggest that Miryam was the true composer, and that the women who had after all stepped forward first to resist Pharaoh were the ones who had the most faith that the redemption would come. Yet other midrashim teach that Moshe, Miryam, and the whole people were simultaneously inspired, each mind and heart composing the same poetry at the same instant!
As for Tu Bishevat, it began as the "new year for trees" because of a law in the Torah about the fruit of trees. During the first three years of a new tree, we are commanded not to eat the fruit. The produce of the fourth year is an offering to God, and in the fifth year and beyond the fruit is ours to enjoy. Tu Bishevat was designated as the official day when all trees turned the next year old.
In mystical tradition, trees became our connection to the Garden of Eden and to Creation itself, and therefore to the spirit of God. In the past century, Tu Bishevat has become a time to connect with the earth of Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish environmental movement has also found resonance in Tu Bishevat. These threads have combined to shape the "Tu Bishevat Seder" meal that is common today and that we will celebrate at the Temple this Shabbat. You can start here on myjewishlearning.com to learn more about the holiday, and follow the links there for more depth.