Beshalakh: Bearing Witness
In this week’s Torah reading (Beshalakh/When He Sent), the Children of Israel cross the Reed Sea and are finally and decisively freed from Egyptian bondage. After agreeing to release the Israelites, Pharaoh changed his mind and set out with his army in hot pursuit. Trapped between Egyptian chariots and the sea, the Israelites panicked. But God, by the hand of Moses, parted the water, the Israelites crossed to safety, and the Egyptians perished as the sea closed back in on them.
It was an extraordinary victory, and the astonished relief of the Israelites is apparent in the Song that follows these verses. One can almost hear their triumphant shouts and see their stunned and joyous expressions:
Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel this song to YHVH. They spoke and said, “I will sing to YHVH, for he has triumphed wondrously; horse and charioteer He cast into the sea. Yah is my power and my strength; He has become my deliverance. This is my God–I will extol Him, the God of my father–I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:1-2)
This victory song holds an understandably important place in Jewish tradition, so much so that the Sabbath on which Beshalakh is read is known as Shabbat Shirah, The Sabbath of the Song.
I have mixed feelings about that. As much as I can relate to the Israelite’s joy in their liberation, I can’t read this portion without also considering a well-known rabbinic teaching. In this midrash from the Talmud, the angels are said to have been singing in jubilation as the Israelites escaped and the Egyptians drowned. But God quickly silenced them, saying, “My creatures are perishing and you sing for joy?” (Sanhedrin 39b)
This past summer, I was blessed to participate in a course on deep ecumenism taught by Rabbi Chava Bahle. Reb Chava led us in a powerful bibliodrama based on this text. We divided into small groups and each group was asked to speak for one of the following players in the midrash: the singing angels, the Voice of God, Israelites, the Egyptians, and the sea itself.
My group, representing the Israelites, began with a gloating and boastful chant. Then we listened as the other groups spoke from their roles. . I don’t remember exactly how we got there, but at one point a member of the Egyptian group spoke as an Egyptian mother, and a member of my group spoke up as an Israelite mother in what amounted to a competition over whose suffering was the worst and who deserved it more. The experience was far more powerful than I can possibly convey in these few words; I can tell you that our tears were real. At one point, without really thinking about it, I found myself crossing the room to join the Egyptians. I had no answers, nothing but the realization that that in our suffering, there was no separation. We could cry together, and maybe, for the moment at least, it would be enough.
It is understandable, that in the moment, we are inclined to gloat over our triumphs. Perhaps that’s why, in the midrash, God chastised the angels, but not the Israelites. After all, we are only human. But we also have the capacity to bear compassionate witness to the truth of each other’s suffering. And when we do that, we become holy.
May you be blessed…
May you be blessed to see the sacred in all beings. May you be gifted with the opportunity to see into the hearts of others and recognize your common humanity. And may the time come soon, and in our day, when we are united in our joyous song instead of our tears.
Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.