Monday, January 10, 2011

A Sabbath of Song

Parshat Beshalach (Shabbat Shira)
Exodus 13:17-17:16
15 Shevat 5771 / Jan. 14 – 15, 2011

A Sabbath of Song
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s portion the Jewish people sing a song of praise and a song of remembrance of the miracle that occurred with the splitting of the sea. When I was younger I imagined a countless group of people skipping and hopping as they joyfully belted out the verses recorded in the Torah. The women grabbing drums and timbrels, their beats exploding into a trance mayhem.

As I read the Torah portion this week, I get a very different sense of the purpose of the song and about the Egyptians drowning in general. The text clearly tells us that the Egyptians have received the message of G-d’s greatness loud and clear. They are divinely forced to chase after the Israelites even as their deepest intuitions scream to leave them alone. The walk on the sea floor and see that they will not make it through and exclaim that they should go back home because they cannot win this battle. If I was an enslaved Jew for 200 years, I would probably want my oppressors to be smashed by the waves and die with severe cruelty. But I am not, and I consider that 10 awful plagues, culminating with the death of every male first-born, is punishment enough. The plagues, plus the miraculous sea splitting seems enough as a testament to G-d’s awesome power. So I ask,

“G-d? Hello there. Did the Egyptians really have to die? Do you really have to be known as a Master of War (25:3)?”

While I am awaiting an answer, I want to suggest that the Israelites’ Song of the Sea, which follows the death of Egypt, is a way to express all of their complex emotions. Of course, they were happy to be free, but they were also witness to mass destruction and a terrible power that exists in their world. I can almost picture the verses of the song (beginning with Exodus 25:1) being chanted slowly by a huddled mass of people, grabbing hold of one another and trembling. Eyes wide open, hearts racing, shallow breaths – perhaps like the haunting sounds of ghosts, almost an unperceivable moan. Then, (verse 20) Miriam the Prophet breaks the spell with a drum beat as the women stomp out the grief, the terror, the shock of the entire nation.

On Jan 9th, 2011 Debbie Friedman, a Jewish song and spiritual leader died. You are probably very familiar with Debbie’s havdalah tune sang Saturday nights across denominational and cultural lines. Debbie did not only create songs for summer camp circles, her music was her access to being a healer. Singing in our faith is an essential way that we record powerful transitional moments. We sing to express joys and fears, our hopes and weaknesses. We sing to acknowledge our confusion and doubts about G-d, our past, and our future.

May the soul of Debbie Friedman find a true place of rest and may we continue to sing our lives through the joy and the pain.


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