I approach Shabbat Beshallach, and particularly Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, the song of triumph following the parting of the Sea of Reeds, with a mixture of emotions. At one level, I look forward to it, and, in particular to standing to hear it in the special trop, chant, which belongs to this Shabbat and to the 7th day Pesach, when it is again the Torah reading. And yet I have many questions.
The Shirah also traditionally forms part of the Pesukei d’Zimra, the ‘verses of song’ which are part of the introduction to the traditional daily and Shabbat Shacharit service. Interestingly in the new edition of Forms of Prayer, the Siddur of the Movement for the Reform Judaism, it again has a place in the daily morning service, whereas in the previous edition it was somewhat isolated at the end, following the selection of Psalms.
In chapter 14, the Israelites, freed from slavery, and having reached the edge of the wilderness, are ordered by God to change course, a tactic designed to confuse the Egyptians, and culminate in the final defeat of Pharaoh. However, before the end result is achieved, the Israelites are desperately frightened by the pursuing Egyptian chariots. They say to Moses: ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?’ (Exod. 14:11). Moses tries to reassure the people, and God tells Moses to ‘lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground’ (Exod. 14:16). This is then what happened, followed by the drowning of the Egyptians, ‘Pharaoh’s entire army . . . not one of them remained’.
‘And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Eternal had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Eternal; they had faith in the Eternal and His servant Moses’ (Exod. 14:31).
And then in Exodus 15, we have the Shirah, the song. It is one of the two oldest extended poems in the Tanach, the other being the Song of Deborah, Judges 5, which forms the traditional Haftarah for this Shabbat.
I am mindful of the words in the Reform Machzor for the High Holydays, where, before certain sections of Selichot, penitential prayers on Yom Kippur, we have the words: ‘May the thoughts inside us match the words we speak aloud’. I ‘enjoy’ the Shirah, and, yet, I am uncomfortable with some of its words, particularly the military images. Do I really want to see God as ish milchamah, a ‘man of war’? (Exod. 15:3). And there are other examples throughout this song, and in other places of our liturgy. Yet I know that here, as so often in Torah, in our liturgy, words must be interpreted at a multiplicity of levels. I am also deeply moved by the affirmation of faith: ‘The Almighty is my strength and song and has become my salvation. This is my God whom I will praise, my ancestor’s God, whom I will exalt’ (Exod. 15:2).
However, we are commemorating redemption, which, together with creation and revelation, form the three basic concepts of our faith, and this text is important, even as we may want to understand it in a multiplicity of ways. And I am aware that many of my concerns have been expressed by others throughout the generations.
It is not only we moderns who have difficulty accepting the literal truth of the splitting of the sea, God working a miracle for Israel’s sake. The rabbis of old were reluctant to accept the suspension of natural law. One way of dealing with this was to look at the words, ‘a strong east wind’ (Exod. 14:21), and see this as a hint that the dividing of the sea happened through natural rather than supernatural means.
The Song of Moses is followed immediately by the much shorter ‘Song of Miriam’ with just the introductory words. Perhaps far more was left out, and there are even suggestions that Miriam wrote the entire song. Certainly the image of ‘Miriam, the prophetess . . . took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her to dance with timbrels’ (Exod. 15:20), is now very popular, and has indeed given the title and cover illustration to the second volume of essays by British women rabbis: Taking up the timbrel; the challenge of creating ritual for Jewish women today (SCM press, 2000).
While I may have discomfort with the military images, there is a belief, quoted in ‘The Torah: a women’s commentary’ (URJ, 2008), ‘that many modern scholars conclude that the Song was created and performed by women. For example, one ancient manuscript tradition calls it the Song of Miriam’. And then interestingly as I have expressed my discomfort with military images: ‘Also, songs of military triumph belong to a victory song genre typically composed and performed by women—not men—to greet victorious troops after battle’. And, of course, with regard to a general discomfort with regard to exaltation at the fall of our enemies, we are aware of the Midrash of God rebuking the angels who begin to sing, and the custom of removing wine from our glasses as we recite the ten plagues during the Seder, and of not saying full Hallel during Pesach, except at the beginning.
At one level a distant victory song, albeit commemorating something so very crucial to Judaism, but there are also many ways of relating more personally to the text. We recall the Midrash that the sea would not depart until the Israelites showed enough faith to march into the waters. They were reluctant to do so, waiting for the Divine miracle. Finally Nachshon ben Amminadav of the tribe of Judah, was bold enough, and, according to some sources only when he had waded right in, so all but his face was covered, did the sea separate. That is a lesson for all of us, when faced with a difficult challenge. We will be helped, but we also need to help ourselves, demonstrate our commitment.
Rabbi Wayne Dosick, in Dancing with God (Harper Collins, 1997), suggests ways in which we can make this our own. He suggests a new ritual for the Seder, (clearly not possible when there are large numbers), that at a certain stage, those assembled move seats, symbolically crossing the Sea of Reeds, and each one can recite, or might prefer to do so privately, and with no need to wait until Pesach:
God, there are times when I come to the Red Sea in my life. Old doubts and fears pursue me. I am confronted by new and difficult challenges; the vast unknown looms before me. Sometimes I am afraid; sometimes I lose faith in my own abilities and my strengths; sometimes I even lose faith in You. But in Your goodness, You have given me the courage to face every obstacle and the capacity not merely to endure but to prevail.
Be with me God as you were with Your children at the sea. Grant me a full measure of Your all-wise care and loving guidance, so that we can emerge on the other side of the Sea, healthy and whole, assured that a better world awaits. In love and gratitude, like my ancestors of old, I sing songs of praise to Your great and holy name. Halleluyah.
So, yes, there may be misgivings, but I hope that we can truly stand for the Shirah, literally (or metaphorically if it is not the minhag of a particularly congregation), and affirm our faith, past, present and future, aware of the ways in which every generation has struggled with the text.
Rabbi Amanda Golby
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.