Drash on Parashat Beshallach
Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple Beth Israel
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Beshalach offers us beautiful prose and poetry and a story that is miraculous. Mostly, the UPJ drashot are dedicated to the Torah Reading, and the Haftarah rarely receives a mention. Yet, for Beshalach, I feel that the two are so closely related that they should be almost read as one, if that were possible.
The Haftarah for Beshalach is from the Book of Judges. Judges continues the Deuteronomic history of Israel. It is possible that the title “Judges” is misleading, as the characters are neither legal nor the religious authorities we expect. Rather, they are charismatic figures who judge the enemies of Israel by defeating them in battle as they continue the conquest of the Promised Land.
Both texts contain resilient women, Devorah and Miriam, yet the parashah and the haftarah are not just about strong women (in Beshalach, Miriam is called a prophet and in Judges, Devorah is the only female judge and is also called a prophet), but offer a range of ideas that challenge our modern sensibilities.
The Song of the Sea from the parashah celebrates how Adonai “threw the Egyptian army into panic” (Ex. 14:24) and occurs at the beginning of national liberation. It anticipates the Israelites settling in the Promised Land as well as the building of the Temple. Deborah’s song celebrates how “Adonai threw Sisera and all his chariots and army into panic” (Judges 4:15)and occurs within the time of settling the Promised Land and it too concludes with a positive note
In many haftarot, the rabbis edited biblical stories to suit their liturgical needs. Yet, in this case, they chose to include not just one rendition of the story of Deborah, but two complete versions, making this the longest Haftarah in the annual cycle. Both the Haftarah and the Parasha tell the story of military victory and redemption in prose and then poetic form.
One idea that arises from this is communication. Recently, I watched the movie Babel with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The movie was set over four countries: Morocco, Japan, Mexico and the US, and the title is a play on words from the Tower of Babel. The film is essentially about communication and, like our parasha, the stories of these people’s lives, even though they are thousands of kilometers away, affect each other. The focus was on how people communicated, what was said, verbally, as well as through actions and touch.
The repetitions of the poetry and the prose in Beshalach raise the notion of communication. Both contain difficult messages. So we ask the question: Why the poetry was included? Was it to soften the harshness of the prose? The Song of the Sea includes the death of Pharaoh’s men and chariots, while Devorah’s song sweetly sings of Yael’s killing of Sisera.
How do we get our own messages across? It is easy to share happy and good news. But we shy away from difficult conversations. Are we open in our communication? Are we transparent? Are we sensitive with our words when we need to be? Are we clear about the message we are trying to give so that there is no ambiguity?
“Not enough” is my response to these questions. Let us endeavour to try to be better communicators in an age where communication modes have increased. A smiley face after an SMS doesn’t contain the sincerity of a face-to-face conversation where facial expressions and verbal tones are heard and read … and an email is not an appropriate way to share difficult news. Communication is hard, and it is the way we deal with the associated challenges that make us so very human.