February 6, 2020
Shevat 11, 5780
In this week's Torah portion Beshallach, we read, among other things, the song the Israelites' sang as they crossed over the waters, known as "Shirat Hayam" (the "Song at the Sea"). This Biblical poem is a classic mythic song, filled with joy and exaltation. It is also well-known liturgically - in our prayer services, we regularly sing an excerpt from the song known as the "Mi Chamocha."
But read in its entirety, the poem can also be deeply troubling. It's difficult to ignore that the song expresses a strong note of vengeful triumph over the destruction of the Israelites' enemy. God is described in many different ways throughout the song - and some of the images are not particularly savory. We read of God as a liberator, but also as a brutal executioner and a "Man of War."
This issue was not lost on the early rabbinical commentators on the Torah. A well-known midrash, included in many a Passover Haggadah, quotes God as rebuking the Israelites for singing so gleefully over their enemies downfall: "How can you sing while my children are drowning?"
It's often seemed to me that the Song at the Sea cold be regarded as a kind of commentary on the complex perils of liberation. Is this just a simple hymn of freedom, or on a deeper level is the song ultimately making the claim that, "our God is bigger than your god?" Is liberation nothing more than an oppressed people overthrowing their oppressor? Does this not open the door to the possibility that they might then become oppressors themselves?
As a kind of response to these questions, I wrote a poem two years ago entitled, "Songs at the Sea," in which I imagined the Israelites singing different, conflicting songs as they left Egypt. The poem ends, shall we say, on a less than triumphant note:
As they marched on
their voices joined into one feverish song
a tuneless wordless howl
that echoed on and on
before finally disappearing
somewhere in the deep.
These are indeed rich and important questions and there is obviously much more to say about them. In his Dvar Torah at tonight's Shabbat service, our Assistant Clergy, Jay Stanton, will discuss the song, the famous midrash and the ways they illuminate what he refers to as "the complexities of liberation." I look forward to his teaching and we hope to see you there.
Rabbi Brant Rosen