Parashat Beshalach – Erev Shabbat 3 February 2023 (5783)
Week of 5-11 February 2023
Torah portion: Exodus 13:17-17:16   Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31
Theme: The distance between

The distance between the world behind the biblical text and the world in front of it is often vast. This is particularly so with the Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam, Ex 15:1-18, 21), which is at the centre of this week’s parashah. Most scholars agree that this ancient poem, which appears here as a hymn celebrating YHWH’s rescue of the Israelites from the Egyptians, dates back to the late C12 bce (Eskenazi 367).

As we read through the parashah, there is little doubt about the centrality of the Holy One in the story’s unfolding. God (ʾelohim) leads the Israelites. YHWH hardens Pharaoh’s heart, causing him to pursue the Israelites (Ex 14:8). YHWH causes the waters to part, allowing the Israelites to pass through on the dry ground, and YHWH drowns the Egyptians (Ex 14:21-29). The Israelites see the Egyptians dead on the shore and fear and believe in YHWH (Ex 14:30-31). All of this is repeated and amplified in the song that follows.

Moses and the “sons of Israel” (b’nai Yisraʾel) sing to YHWH (Ex 15:1-18) before Miriam, and all the women sing, dance and play hand drums—a more accurate translation of the Hebrew tof than the anachronistic tambourine (Ex 15:20-21). Women in the Ancient Near East traditionally performed such victory songs and provided the rhythmic accompaniment (see Judg 11:34 and 1 Sam 18:6-7). One can imagine the esteem they would have held within their community and the importance of their role in musical performances such as these (Ibid 392).

As I write this commentary, I have also been grappling with the distance between a worldview that attributes military success to the intervention of the gods—including YHWH—and my discomfort with such beliefs. In the Song of the Sea, YHWH is described as a warrior (Ex 15:3)—Heb. ish milchamah, lit. “man of war”—who fights on behalf of the Israelites (Plaut 439). Using metaphors such as this and attributing the victory to YHWH is not out of place in the ancient world in which Exodus was composed and later redacted (Berlin 128). 

I am not alone in my discomfort with attributing the acts of war to the Holy One. In the Talmud (Megillah 10b, C4-6), we read that the Holy One is also aware of the seriousness of what occurred on the shores of the Sea of Reeds. At the climax of the confrontation, “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns [celebrating the defeat of the Egyptians], but the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing a song?’” (Lewis 132)

In her poem “The Other Shore” (2008), Shira Rubenstein asks questions about fear, doubt, guilt and innocence. She asks if they are questions for God or those of us who stand in front of this text today before reimagining the song and dance, not as celebrating victory but as trying to drown out the difficult questions that the text confronts us with (Eskenazi 405). These questions can only be asked when the distance between the world behind the text and the world in front of it is a safe one.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. YHWH is also described as an ish milchamah in Isaiah (42:13), juxtaposing the metaphor of a man of war with that of a woman in labour. What might we make of the distance between these metaphors? What do they reveal about our relationship with the Mystery of the Divine? 2. The Song of the Sea, read or sung as a response to Exodus 14, is part of the Catholic Easter liturgy (Easter Vigil). How might Jewish responses such as the one from the Talmud and Shira Rubenstein’s poetry inform our interpretation?

Bibliography: Berlin & Brettler Eds., The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd Edn (Oxford, 2014); Eskenazi, Ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (URJ, 2008); Lewis, Sheldon. Torah of Reconciliation (Gefen, 2012); Plaut and Stein, eds., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (URJ, 2006).

This week’s Sunday Liturgy Commentary was prepared by
Mark David Walsh, Bunurong, Australia, Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013

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