Friday, January 29, 2021/16 Shevat, 5781
Parashat B’shalah Exodus 13:17–17:16
It strikes me as fitting that at the heart of arguably the most significant moment in the Torah, the Israelites erupt into song. The song that appears in this week’s Torah portion is so important that this Shabbat is named Shabbat Shirah, or Shabbat of Song. All over the world, Jews look forward to hearing the interesting and nuanced melody of this short passage of Torah, sung long ago by the Israelites on the shores of the sea.
After ten plagues and 400 years of oppression in Egypt, the Pharaoh finally allowed the Israelites to leave. They ran towards the Sea of Reeds, but as they approached this body of water, they heard a most frightening sound: Pharaoh changed his mind, and his soldiers were coming for them. The Israelites were scared, stuck, and unsure if they would make it out of Egypt. It is then that they witnessed a miracle, the parting of the Reed Sea. They marched through on dry land towards their future, watching as the waters closed in over pursuers. They were free at last.
Before the Israelites even had a chance to process what had transpired, Miriam led them in song. At this moment, Miriam proved herself to be a great leader. God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to deliver the people from bondage, explains the 8th-century prophet, Micah. This was Miriam’s moment. She wisely knew that sometimes feelings cannot be expressed in words alone, so she offered them an opportunity to mark the occasion and express their joy, relief, and gratitude. It is a role held by many women throughout Jewish history.
This expression was so crucial that every member of the Jewish people was present, teaches Ibn Ezra. They couldn’t help but raise their voice in song. In response to the Exodus, the infant lifted his neck, and the suckling child paused to utter prayers to God. Even the fetus couldn’t help but join in prayerful song (Talmud Bavli Sota 30b-31a).
“The inner history of a people is contained in its songs,” wrote 19th Century Austrian Rabbi Adolph Jellinek. We understand why.
Throughout this year of ups and downs, music has played an essential role in our lives. Many of us have been comforted by the melody of our healing prayer, Misheberach, or consoled by El Malei Rachamim, a prayer we offer at funerals. We have rejoiced in Shabbat songs and nigguns and felt the nostalgia of age-old melodies for lighting candles and drinking the wine. Singing the priestly benediction has elicited joy as we’ve celebrated baby namings, B’ mitzvah, weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries.
Music is a gift that is integral to our Jewish and our human experience. Tonight, we will join in song. Like Miriam and our ancestors on the shores of the sea, let us come together for an evening in which we, too, can express our mourning and our yearning, our joy, gratitude, and hope for the future.
Rabbi Cassi Kail