Hearing Our Song at the Sea: A Dvar Torah on B’Shalach (Ex. 13:17-17:16)

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Posted on January 14th, 2014 | Filed under Learning, Social Issues
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Miriams Tanz, Miniatur aus dem bulgarischen Tomić Psalter

This past week’s parsha (Torah portion), “B’Shalach” (Exodus 13:17-17:16), is a rich and event-filled text. We witness the physical and spiritual movement of the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom. This transition, as we have seen in the preceding weeks, was not accomplished easily. It has taken ten plagues, culminating in the death of the Egyptian firstborns, to convince Pharaoh to let his Hebrew slaves go free. In B’Shalach, Pharaoh has finally let the people go. The narrative begins as the Israelites are encamped by the Sea of Reeds. Though they have finally managed to break free from the house of bondage, their trials are far from over. G-d has hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he changes his mind about his decision to free the Hebrew slaves. Pharaoh asks, “"What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?" He, along with his warriors and horsemen, gives chase to the Israelites. It is at this point that G-d works one of his most famous miracles. Acting through Moses, G-d splits the Sea of Reeds so that the Israelites pass through safely, but hurls their Egyptian pursuers into the water, where they are all drowned.

When the Israelites reach they other side, safe and unharmed, they are finally free. At this pivotal moment, their overwhelming emotional experience: joy, relief, awe at G-d’s power, can only be expressed through music. In Ex. 15, Moses leads the people in song, praising G-d’s glorious acts and describing his triumphs over Israel’s enemies. It is after this song that “Shabbat Shirah” (the Shabbat of Song, referring to the Shabbat on which B'Shalach is read) is named. This holiday is particularly meaningful for me. I first fell in love with Judaism through its music, especially the songs of the Kabbalat Shabbat service and the Passover seder, which I attended many times as a guest of friends while growing up. I credit a large part of my decision to convert to Judaism as an adult to the wonderful musical experiences I had in Jewish settings as a child and a teenager. After college, when I joined my first synagogue in New York, one of the first things I did as a Jew was to join the synagogue choir. Making Jewish music allowed me to deeply connect to my new faith in a way that gave me great joy and personal fulfillment. At Congregation Kehillath Israel, my synagogue in Boston, I am so happy to be a part of a community that places such value on great, soulful davenning (prayer); as a service leader on Friday nights, I hope that I can help enrich others’ spiritual experience the same way mine is enriched, through communal song and prayer.  In marking the incredible transition from slavery to freedom through song, Moses and the Israelites taught us a valuable lesson. Let us not forget the power of music to express and create experiences in our own lives.

Shabbat Shirah, and its accompanying parsha, is doubly significant to me because it is one of the few moments in the Tanakh that values the unique experience of women. Ex. 15:20-21 states, “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”

At moments of great uncertainty, when the future is unknowable and your very survival is in question, it is easy to suppress the voices of the less-powerful, to enact rigid controls in the name of the safety and security of the group. How tempting it would be to do so at this moment in B’Shalach, when the Israelites have just survived yet another assault on their lives, with who knows how many threats ahead. Instead, the opposite happens. At this foundational moment, Miriam and the Israelite women take a leadership role in their community. Miriam sings “for them,” a masculine plural pronoun, and commands them to “sing,” in the masculine plural imperative. The use of the masculine plural strongly suggests that it is the whole community, men and women, that Miriam leads. Instead of being silenced, Miriam and the other women are celebrated and valued for their unique gifts—their singing and dancing—which bring joy to the whole community. Though we live millennia after Moses and Miriam, we can still learn from their actions. The voices of all people in the Jewish community must be heard. People of all genders, all abilities, all backgrounds, even all people with whose politics or theology you don’t agree—the voices of each person must be elevated. At the moment the Israelites became truly free, and set the course for their future, both Miriam and Moses lifted up their voices in song. We must ask ourselves, whose song do we hear today? And whose song don’t we hear, and how can we change that? Only then will we have truly honored the legacy of B’Shalach.

Image used with permission from Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Miriams_Tanz.jpg

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2 Responses to “Hearing Our Song at the Sea: A Dvar Torah on B’Shalach (Ex. 13:17-17:16)”

  1. Josh Weisman says:

    Amein! Part of what’s fascinating about this instance of women’s voices coming to the fore is that one doesn’t expect it. Yet I think that the fact that it peaks through here is testament to the multiple genres we find in Tanakh. The law — and especially ritual — codes don’t betray a lot of women’s priorities. But here we have a story of a people, plain and simple, and even in a patriarchal society, the reality of women’s contributions to the life and spirit of a people is bound to shine through sometimes.

    • Sarah Fein says:

      Thanks for your comment, Josh! I agree–the stories of women and other marginalized communities are there, we sometimes need to just dig a little deeper to find them.

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Sarah Fein is a PhD student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Her work focuses on the role of women and gender in the Hebrew Bible and its later interpretation.


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