Redemption Song (Parshat B'Shallach)


This Shabbat, the Hebrews leave Egypt to begin what will be, unbeknownst to them, forty years of wandering. At the center of this parsha is the final end of the Hebrews' slavery: their narrow escape from the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds.

A few words about The Song of the Sea, the bizarre and poetic set of lyrics sung by Moses and the Israelites just after they've crossed through the ocean and watched the Egyptian army sink to their deaths:

This text is a calligram, i.e., the closest the Torah got, pre- R. Crumb, to being a graphic novel. Visibly set apart from the rest of Torah text, the poem's disjointed, three-columned format creates a story optic, evoking two walls of water with a column of people moving in between them. (On some scrolls, this is very clear; on others, you kind of have to use the Magic Eye squint to see it.)

The Song recounts, in poetic form, what the Hebrews have just been through. In between lines of praise for The Almighty, the song returns four times to recount the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers, marveling that Pharaoh's "chariots and his army," "horse and driver," "the pick of his officers" have "sunk to the depths like a stone" (Ex: 15: 1, 5). Like an ancient, Jewish version of "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead," in somewhat gorier detail.

The song's final section, which begins with the biblical-come-liturgical phrase "Mi chamocha b'eilim, YHVH?" ("Who among the gods is like you, Yah?"), praises God before launching into a description of the ripple effect this victory will have on all the other clans and tribes who may have been thinking to take the Israelites down: "The peoples hear, they tremble; Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia. Now the clans of Edom are dismayed; The tribes of Moab, trembling grips them ... etc." (Ex: 15: 14, 15).

In honor of the Song of the Sea, this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song. Jews have a tradition, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes in his lovely piece, of filling this Shabbat with singing -- using music, the "language of the soul" to get closer to God.

In modern practice, Shabbat Shira is a musical leader's dream: We get to do a service full of songs! But there's a problem: The actual Song for which this Shabbat is named is gruesome. Taken out of context, it appears to obsessively dance on the Egyptians' watery grave and then triumphally claim superhero status for the Jews -- that doesn't translate well to Friday-night singalongs. On the gravity meter, this text approaches not Shabbat but Eicha (The Book of Lamentations). "You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw .../ You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them / They sank like lead ..." (Ex: 15:10). Open a service with that and people will wonder why they shlepped to shul in the freezing cold. It's a guaranteed buzzkill.

"Music," writes Sacks, "has extraordinary power to evoke emotion." But on Shabbat Shira, which emotion do we want to evoke?

There are perhaps those who see nothing strange in celebrating the death of one's enemy, even on Shabbat. I am not one of them. However, in the context of its own story, I believe the Song of the Sea makes sense -- not as a vindictive and gleeful celebration of the Egyptians' demise, but as the expression of something much more sombre and complex.

I recently asked a class of seventh graders how they thought the Israelites must have felt after crossing the sea and watching their slavemasters drown after them. "Happy," some answered at first; "relieved." Then, as they started to think about it: "Confused," they said; "Tired." "In shock." Indeed. This song is written at the end of a prolonged traumatic moment; after centuries of slavery, we were running for our lives; we narrowly escaped, and then we witnessed the total, violent destruction of our pursuers, just meters from where we stood. It's hard to imagine that in that moment we would have been feeling one, singular emotion.

The Song of the Sea reflects that; it details our collective attempt to process what we have witnessed, to make sense of it. To process what might have been our sheer desire moments earlier to see human beings drown in front of us; to reconcile that moment with the fact of our existence now as we stand on the shore, watching the wreckage. Or watching nothing but waves where our pursuers were minutes before. Hence the cyclical repetition of facts, interspersed with both belief and disbelief; hence the awe, and the sense of precariousness: "... they are still as a stone/Till your people cross over, God,/Till your people cross whom you have ransomed" (Ex: 15: 16). In those post-traumatic moments, shock and confusion can dominate; jubilation is often the very last emotion to arrive. And when it does, it is not unmitigated.

Enter song. Rabbi Sacks notes that singing the Song of the Sea is the first thing the Israelites do together since leaving Egypt. Yes, they are singing together, and I see, in the text of their song, waves of conflicting emotions. Here's the magic: Music is the only element that can hold all these emotions at once, and singing is the only act that can move the singers through their confusion to the other side of it. The exhilarating and traumatic events of this story have brought the people physically to the other shore, but the events themselves have not redeemed the people; to reach redemption, they must first sing their way through this song, in all its wet, messy, gory grappling.

So we, appropriately I think, don't suffuse our entire Shabbat Shira service with its namesake; instead, we lift up the lines of redemption: Ozi V'Zimrat Yah/Vayehi Li Lishuah ("My strength and the song of God will be my salvation"), and we take the texts of our beautiful service music from other sources.

But when we reach the Mi Chamocha prayer - as in every service - we return to that moment at the sea -- the moment of joy mixed with relief, awe, confusion, shock, and probably sadness, because the world we've known is gone. This is the moment just before redemption, when all we can do is just be, and breathe. We stand on the sand. We sense the waves. And then, slowly, we begin to sing.