Pursued to the shores of the Yam Suf in Parshat Beshalach, B’nai Yisrael are again seized with fear. 600,000 people strong, they ostensibly dwarf the six hundred plus chariots of their former Egyptian masters—and yet they cower still! Could they not defend themselves? Though lacking cavalry, did they not have mounds of rock-hard shmurah matzah at hand for bludgeoning? Nechama Leibowitz observes that in the description of the chase, the Mitzrim are referred to in both the plural and singular forms. At first, the narrator speaks in the plural: “and the Egyptians pursued them” , “and they overtook them” (14:9). When describing B’nai Yisrael’s emotional reaction to the sight of the advancing forces, however, the text shifts to the singular. “And, behold,” it reads, “Egypt was marching after them” (14:10).
Rashi resolves this grammatical discrepancy by offering two explanations. He first writes that the Egyptians hunt the Jews ’בלב אחד כאיש אחד’—”with one heart, as one person.” Having just been redeemed from slavery, B’nai Yisrael are not yet Am Yisrael; they are not a nation. Stunted and enfeebled by two hundred years of bondage, they are like a ragtag collection of dependent children, requiring the constant guidance of heavenly pillars of cloud and fire to feel secure. Worried about satisfying basic physiological needs—later in the parsha, they complain about drinking water and hoard extra portions of G-d’s “celestial tofu”—they lack the capacity to self-actualize as a people by seeking harmony with one another. They do not operate “with one heart, as one person.” Watching the Egyptians approach as a united front, they believe they stand no chance for survival in their state of discord.
The second explanation Rashi offers for the singular “Egypt” is a bit more personal. Describing the way B’nai Yisrael inwardly see their enemy, he says, ’ראו שר של מצרים נוסע.’—”They saw the prince of Egypt marching after them.” In this commentary, it is not the unity and composure of the army that frighten the Jews; rather, it is the army’s identity. The malevolent mass of arrows and horsemen following from behind isn’t any old mass—it’s an Egyptian one. To the escaped slave, nothing is more terrifying than the sight of old masters and the possibility of recapture. As they flee to the Yam Suf, B’nai Yisrael crane their necks and, seeing the Egyptian people personified as a stately prince, remember the misery of serfdom. Their slave-complex alive and robust after centuries of bondage, they feel their greatest fear magnified.
So there the Jews stand on side one of the reedy waters, a fragmented assemblage of separate hearts and bodies linked only by common fear. And then—after an awesome display of Divine intervention—they find themselves positioned on the opposite shore, finally safe from the Egyptian threat. And they do something incredible: they sing. In one ecstatic voice, they tell the story of their salvation. In those few minutes of shared jubilance, they do not only stand physically parallel to that first forlorn shore; they also parallel their previous condition of dissonance and fear with one of harmony and hope. Having recently questioned G-d’s ability to protect them, they now faithfully declare ‘ה’ ימלוך לעולם ועד’—”G-d will reign forever.” For a few transcendent moments, their conviction in G-d and in their national future is absolute. They are one people.
Some scholars read the verses of שירת הים in disbelief. Sure, B’nei Yisrael have just witnessed the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea, but are they not a stiff-necked nation? Are they not still stunted and feeble barely-redeemed slaves? Although the Egyptians have been eliminated, do they not have other things to fear—the uncertainty of their future, for example, or the mysterious dangers of the surrounding wilderness? Is it possible that B’nai Yisrael were capable of soul-rousing, soul-connecting song even at this point in the redemptive process? The introduction to שירת הים presents another grammatical quirk: ‘אז ישיר’, it reads. Skeptics of B’nai Yisrael’s spiritual vitality point to this phrase and interpret it literally as “they would sing.” They did not really sing on the banks of those guzzling waters, but rather imagined a day when song would be possible.
I prefer the position that B’nai Yisrael really did sing שירת הים after kriat yam suf. I prefer to believe that in those fleeting moments, B’nai Yisrael demonstrated their national potential and set a precedent for future generations to follow. The imperfection of their circumstances make their song and its implications all the more relevant and profound. Throughout history, Jews have rarely found themselves in positions of perfect equanimity, and yet we have defiantly found ways to make song. David made song for Shaul, a soothing balm for a troubled spirit. Under the restrictive umar laws of Muslim Spain, Jews wrote beautiful lyrics that continue to enamour. Even in cattle cars, Jews wailed “אני מאמין באמונה שלימה,” a niggun sung today by youngsters visiting those same now-empty cars. To me, עז ישיר implies that the Israelites’ song was not only sung then, but for years afterward, albeit in different keys, for different reasons.
The Jews on the second side of the Yam Suf were much the same as the Jews on the first side. They had no Tabernacle or Torah; they had little established tradition or clearly defined value system. They were still fragmented and still fearful. In our daily lives, we, too, resemble the Jews of the yam suf. We, too, are uncertain and fearful of taking the wrong turn in our own daunting wildernesses. Like B’nai Yisrael’s fear of the prince of Egypt, various anxieties possess us that can leave us aloof and alienated, inhibiting soulful collaboration. Still, we sit around the same table each Friday evening, and we sing together.
Writer Arnold Bennett calls music “a language of the soul which the soul alone understands but which the soul can never translate.” May our souls always be accessible and understandable to one another, and may music grant us this access where words cannot.
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