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Parashat Beshallach

02/07/2020 04:04:37 PM


What is the song that you sing for liberation? No, really, I’m asking you. Take a moment to think about it and answer honestly. If you were facing a huge and positive transition in your life, what would be the song you would want to burst into spontaneously?

For me, I like to listen to and sing along with showtunes to amp myself up when I’m doing my activist things. Ragtime has several bangers (Til We Reach That Day; The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square; Make Them Hear You). Sometimes Fiddler's Now I have Everything or Far From the Home I Love hits the right spot for me. These songs move my heart, make me feel empowered to move forward in the fights for justice, to march forth from the narrow places toward the wide open wilderness of freedom.

This week's Torah portion is Parashat Beshallach, which contains the Song of the Sea, the words of Mi Chamocha and Ozi v'Zimrat Yah, the song Moses sang and Miriam danced and played her timbrels to, as they crossed the split Sea of Reeds on dry land. Just before the sea splits and they all break into simultaneous, spontaneous song, the Torah reads, "The LORD will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Exodus 14:14). Rashi says, “This means He will fight on your behalf; similar is (v. 25) “For the Lord fight for them (להם)”; so too, (Job. 13:8) “will you contend for God (לאל)?” and thus, too, (Genesis 24:7) “and who spoke on my behalf (לי)”, and so, too, (Judges 6:31) “Will you plead for Baal (לבעל)?” In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets, he says, “The prophets proclaimed that the heart of God is on the side of the weaker. God’s special concern is not for the mighty and the successful, but for the lowly and the downtrodden, for the stranger and the poor, for the orphan and the widow.”  We see time and again throughout our ancient Jewish history God fighting on our behalf: in the Purim and Chanukah stories, and right here in the Exodus story of this week’s Torah portion which is also a part of our Passover story. In the Purim and Chanukah story, we see our ancestors fighting too, strengthened by God, but here we see they are expected to turn their backs on the charging Egyptian army and let God do all the heavy lifting for them.

Which led me to think, maybe the song of the sea wasn't the amp-up, celebratory song of liberation, but a song to calm the nerves of a people trusting their fate into another Being's hands? What are the songs that fill you with the peace and quietude to let what will be simply be? This question reminded me of a time when I was in high school and on a People to People trip to New Zealand. One of our activities was to repel ourselves down a cliff-side. I am not a rock climber and I don't like steep hikes. I don't have a problem with heights if I'm firmly at the top, but the feeling of instability in steep climbs is terrifying to me. Dropping off a cliff and climbing down, even while strapped in to a safety harness, was just as scary. So I started singing to myself, "Do You Hear the People Sing" from Les Miserables. It's a little ironic that the song is explicitly a call to revolution in the context of the play, but is my calming song and not one I go to when I want to psych myself up for liberation. Yet, this irony also fits in the context of the question of what exactly was the purpose of the Song of the Sea. One person's celebratory song of liberation might be another's song to calm their shaken nerves. Someone at the front of the procession might have felt they were already out of Mitzrayim, safe and free, while those at the back might still feel the pressure and fear of having to trust in God to protect them.

So, I ask again, what are the songs you sing? May we all sing each other’s' spirits home, at peace and free.


Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780