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Torah Commentary
B'shalach (January 26, 2013)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION includes one of the oldest songs you’ll find that still is sung regularly today. The Mi Chamocha prayer, a critical part of every morning and evening service, first appears in the Song of the Sea, ascribed to Moses and the Israelites upon crossing the Sea of Reeds and escaping Egyptian slavery forever. Considered by scholars as one of the most ancient texts appearing in the Bible, Exodus describes first Moses leading the Israelites in song and then Miriam and the women joining in, dancing and playing drums. For thousands of years, commentators have debated the form that this singing took, implying different styles both of worship and of leadership.

One of the earliest disagreements appears in the Mishnah (Sotah 5:4). Rabbi Nehemiah, likening the moment to the recitation of the Sh’ma, argues that Moses and all of Israel sang in unison, divinely inspired to join their voices as one. From his point of view, the hierarchy between Moses as leader and the Israelites as followers disappeared in this moment of celebration of liberation. Rabbi Akiva, however, takes the position that Moses sang a line of the song, and the Israelites, in unison, responded, much as we would see in a responsive reading in a contemporary worship service.

While Akiva’s perspective became the dominant interpretation in Rabbinic commentary, it can be understood in several different ways. According to one line of thinking, Moses sang a line, and all of the Israelites repeated the line after him. In this way, everyone could participate in the singing, even if they did not have words of their own to contribute. This traditional reading of the text celebrates the value of inclusiveness in our prayer services and the role of the leader to provide words for those who might otherwise remain silent.

Another Rabbinic tradition holds that Moses sang a line and then the Israelites took up the theme and completed the verse in their own words. “So [for example] Moses began with the half verse, ‘I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously,’ whereupon the people answered, ‘The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.’ And in this wise developed the whole song,” writes Louis Ginzberg in The Legends of the Jews. Here, we see a more collaborative style of leadership and a view of prayer that endorses a diversity of voices within the community.

Still a third tradition, also cited by Ginzberg, maintains that the Israelites asked Moses to sing, but he refused, saying, “It is a greater mark of honor to be praised by the multitude than by a single one.” So first the Israelites joined together in song, and only then did Moses answer with his own. Here is a leadership style characterized by humility and modesty, in which the role of the prayer leader is to be a great listener, to synthesize and respond to the voices of the congregation.

The song that Miriam leads differs from that of Moses in several significant respects. Dr. Norman J. Cohen writes that:

[Moses] sang his song to the people, while Miriam, by contrast, is said to literally “respond” to [the women]…The word used is ta’an, which comes from the root anah (answer). Moses sings in front of the congregation, but Miriam reacts to those around her. Hers is a feminine model, one of sensitivity and response, through which she encourages her sisters to sing their own songs…Miriam’s model as a leader is clear: to enable those around her to find their own voices through which to praise God.

It is also noteworthy that the song of the women is accompanied by drumming, an innovation echoed within the aesthetic of the Reform Movement, in which prayer often is enhanced with an organ, a guitar or other instrumentation. Early commentators remarked on the foresight of the Israelites, who left Egypt in such a hurry that they were unable to bake leavened bread, yet managed to grab their timbrels and drums, anticipating that there would be cause for celebration in their future. Here, leadership implies preparation for the future, with faith in one’s success.

One final song, however, was silenced: That of the angels. According to Rabbi Yochanan (Babylonian Talmud, Megilah 10b), the angels wished to sing hymns of praise to God as much as the Israelites did: “But the Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to sing songs?’” The sense that the lives of even the wicked are precious to God and that our joy in their destruction cannot be whole-hearted is echoed at the Passover table, where we remove a drop of wine from our glasses for each of the plagues upon the Egyptians. In this final model, a leader must be compassionate and sensitive to the suffering of all people, even of the enemy.

Works Cited:

The Legends of the Jews, 1909 Louis Ginzberg (New York: Jewish Publication Society)

Moses and the Journey to Leadership: Timeless Lessons of Effective Management From the Bible and Today’s Leaders, 2007 Norman J. Cohen (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing)

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