Monday, January 6, 2014

A Sabbath of Song

Parshat Beshalach (Shabbat Shira)

Exodus 13:17-17:16

10 Shevat 5774 / Jan. 10 – 11, 2014

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 God’s greatness loud and clear. They are divinely forced to chase after the Israelites even as their deepest intuitions scream to leave them alone. They 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 God’s awesome power. So I ask,

Umm...God? 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 15:1) being chanted slowly by a huddled mass of people, grabbing hold of one another and trembling.

I will sing unto the Lord, for God is highly exalted; the horse and his rider has God thrown into the sea.”

                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. Using, almost the exact same words as the opening of this song,

“Sing to the Lord, for God is highly exalted: the horse and his rider has God thrown into the sea.”

                Music is an essential powerful part of Jewish life and culture.  Singing in our faith is a spiritual practice. It 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 God, our past, and our future.


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