Drash on Parashat Beshalach (Shirat Hayam)
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel
This week's Parashat Beshalach incorporates Shirat Hayam or Moshe’s Song of the Sea. This Shabbat is therefore named Shabbat Shirah or the Sabbath of Song, as according to tradition it contains one of the 10 “true songs” in the history of the world. These 10 “true songs” are not mere melodies, but rather they are “an expression of the harmony of creation, and mark monumental transitions in history”. They of course relate to the 10 sefirot.
The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) was sung by the Children of Israel after the splitting and the passage through the Sea of Reeds. Another of these songs appears in this week’s haftarah (Judges 4:4-5:31) the Song of Deborah, and is the link between the Torah and Parasha. Shir Hashirim is another of these 10 mystical songs, as interestingly enough it is the song that is yet to be sung during the messianic times at the “end of days” (Isaiah 26:1).
The physical format of Shirat hayam only occurs this one time throughout the Torah, and according to Yalkut Me’am Loez (probably the best known Tanach commentary written in Ladino in 1730), the alternating “bricks” are intended to resemble the waves of water, while the blank spaces separating these (i.e. text blocks) suggest “blank spaces in our knowledge and praise of God”, which we are therefore encouraged to add to the “building”. The regular cantillation is superseded by a special melody only heard for this one portion, and which many communities will rise to hear.
The text consists of 198 words, which is the numerical equivalent of “tsachak’, the word meaning “laughter, which is also the word used to describe Sarah’s reaction when she finally gave birth to Yitzchak” (Genesis 21:6). According to Rabbi Bachya, who lived in Zaragoza, Spain in the first half of the 11th century, the laughter in Yitzchak’s name comes from Abraham’s joy, (Genesis 17:17). The joy of Isaac’s birth is therefore linked with the birth of the nation of Israel at the time of the Exodus, just as his symbolic death during the Akedah represents Israel’s rebirth.
This text, later reduced to its essence and becoming known as Shirat Hayam or Mi Chamocha, was so fundamentally important to Jewish tradition because it was sung in perfect faith, and not just because of the impact and impression of the many miracles they had witnessed and experienced as part of the Exodus. Rather, the Midrash explains that the Israelite handmaiden at the Sea saw what Yechezkiel ben Boozi did not see in his vision of the Chariot (this is the quintessential mystical Jewish experience in which the prophet was allowed an unusually close view of God, and the angels). Yet what is it that inspires such a “true faith” and even more importantly how can we achieve such this closeness to God?
This text has become so fundamental that it is recited daily; it makes up a part of this week’s Torah portion, and is also read on the seventh day of Pesach when we remember the splitting of the sea with a special melody and with great rejoicing.
Judaism’s central focus, ever since the liberation from Egyptian slavery and right through to the present day, has been the translation of Jewish values into acts of sacred obedience. The Mishnah is quite clear that “it is not the explanation that is essential, but the deed itself”. We are judged on neither our faith nor belief, but rather on how we proverbially “walk the walk”. Judaism testifies that true religiosity is demonstrated through godly behaviour, rather than through any acquiescence to approved beliefs or ritual practices.
This week’s Torah portion presents us with a concise description of biblical and rabbinic Judaism (Exodus15:26): “Heed Adonai your God diligently, doing what is right in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments and keeping all God’s laws.”
Mechiltah interprets this verse as follows: “The voice of Adonai” means the Ten Commandments; “What is right in God’s sight” refers to praiseworthy conduct which is apparent to all humanity; “Give ear to God’s commandments” refers to decrees that accord to reason; and “all God’s laws” refers to those practices which have no reason but are simply performed because the tradition requires it – called ‘chukim’.
How remarkably wide ranging are Jewish responsibilities!
We tend to think of Judaism in terms of ritual practices, such as kashrut, or dietary laws, Shabbat candles, mezuzot or tefillin, but the rabbis here emphasise those decent practices which all humanity insist upon – not murdering, not stealing, fair business practices, avoiding sexual transgressions – these too are a fundamental part of Jewish living. Just because something is a basic moral or ethical principle, and it may be a deed or an insight that is not unique to Judaism does not mean it is not an essential part of Judaism. Rather, Judaism functions as a network of sacred deeds, providing a path to holiness or godliness and goodness through the tangible acts of moral living as defined by the mitzvot.
The midrash relates that as the sea closed over their heads and the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the angels came before God to sing their daily songs of praise. God responded: “My creations are drowning in the sea and you are singing?!”
Mimesis is the reflection in the heavens of what occurs on earth, and this midrash effectively represents the dialectic tension which we struggle to bridge. We must sing – and yet we cannot sing. While we owe praise to God and exult in the miraculous exodus and salvation, yet we mourn and are struck dumb by death and destruction. Meanwhile, in the ensuing silence, after Miriam and the women of Israel set aside their timbrels, perhaps we can hear the whisper of prophecies: “Nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness, the wisdom, neither the grace nor the true blessing that living at peace would have.”