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Torah Commentary
B'shalach (January 19, 2008)

Lori Corrsin

Music, especially song, touches the soul in a way that is difficult to express with words. Leonard Bernstein perhaps described it best: “Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.” It is for this reason that we try to communicate with God through song; there is no other way as effective, as the text alone often can feel ineffectual. In fact, our tradition teaches that “One who sings prays twice.” (Chasidic saying)

In B’shalach (Exodus 15: 1-18), we sing Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea. Thus, this Sabbath is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. The Israelites, led by Moses and then Miriam, break out into triumphal song on the shores of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea). Song is the only way they can express their tremendous joy, relief and awe.

The contrast could not be greater to the uncertainty and fear of Bo, last week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites cower in terror at midnight. In Bo, the spirit of God moves over their dwellings, killing the first-born Egyptians while leaving the children of Israel alive but fearful. The Israelites overcome this paralysis and take action in B’shalach. Indeed, the whole nation marches to the Red Sea. According to the midrash, the sea does not part for them until Nachshon, the son of Amminadav, plunges headlong into the raging waters. Because of his courageous action, God parts the sea. After they cross over and Pharaoh’s armies are swept away by the returning waters, the entire nation sings in thanksgiving together. Through their song they become one people in a fantastically powerful moment of exultation.

It is actually an amazing story. How many times in history have a whole people — slaves — successfully escaped their overlords? This is why Benjamin Franklin suggested that the young, fledgling United States have a picture on the back of the dollar bill showing the liberation of the Israelites.

Looking at the text itself (at right), the layout of the Hebrew words is extraordinary. The song isn’t written in straight prose but as poetry. It is a forceful text, with vivid imagery and poetic fire. Some think that the words are spaced to look like bricks laid over each other, reminiscent of the bricks the Israelites made and used as slaves in Egypt. Others have suggested that the Torah text looks like waves sweeping across the scroll, setting the context, of course, for us at the Red Sea.

The singing of the text is unique as well. To add expressiveness and festivity to Shirat Hayam, the phrases that contain God’s name are sung with special musical “detours.” This melody is the oldest song in Jewish history; it is a “Mi Sinai” tune, so holy and important that it seems as if it was given by God at Mount Sinai. Click the following links to listen to the first six verses through our audio player or download and save the MP3 file. Look at the Hebrew text at the top of the page as well; the special “detours” are highlighted in colored ink.

The Mi Chamocha text, a prayer of liberation in our liturgy, comes directly from the Song of the Sea. The parting of the sea is a moment of physical and spiritual redemption that we relive every time we sing this prayer. We thank God for our deliverance on weekdays, on Shabbat and at festival observances, especially Passover. In fact, the Song of the Sea also is chanted on the seventh day of Passover. It is sung traditionally with the congregation standing, as if one actually were standing by the sea. On this day in Israel, it is sung communally at the beach in Tel Aviv and Eilat.

To hear the song in person, join us at Sabbath services on Saturday, January 19. Our cantorial intern, Joshua Breitzer, will chant Shirat Hayam at the 10:30 AM service. On that day, in celebration of Shabbat Shira, the Temple choir and I will sing a sermon in song: Yearning for Jerusalem. This is the beginning of the Temple’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. More events will follow in the spring, including the May visit of our Israeli scholar-in-residence, Dr. Michael Marmur of HUC-JIR, Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shira urges us to experience the exuberance of living. We, too, stand at the shore of a vast sea, and like Nachshon, we must take the first step. Go out, take a chance, step into the Red Sea of your life and watch the waters part. Our God of splendor and wonder provides countless miracles all around us, every day.

Enjoy the moment. Don’t sit back and wait for life to happen to you.
As B’shalach teaches us, stride forward and sing a song of triumph to God.

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