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The Song Is Still Alive

  • The Song Is Still Alive

    B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16
D'var Torah By: 

You're driving along the freeway and that song comes on the radio. You travel back-first love, high school dances, vacations, summers at the beach. As soon as the first notes register in your mind, the memories come flooding back. You don't just remember the moment, you relive the moment-the smells and the feelings. It's as if you've traveled back in time, and you're there again.

"Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song unto God...." (Exod. 15:1) Having miraculously passed through the Sea and escaped Egypt, the Israelites, in their relief and joy, sing to God. Thousands of years later we are singing those same words. Although the melody may have changed, the power of music keeps the message of those ancient words alive.

Music is often the key that can unlock our memory - the melody plays and our minds travel back. This may not have been central in the minds and spirits of Moses, Miriam, and the Children of Israel as they spontaneously broke into song. Yet, their song, Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea (Exod. 15:1-21), brings us back, returns us to the moment, and enables us to experience the event as if we were there. When we chant Mi Chamochah, perhaps the most familiar verses of Shirat ha-Yam, we return to Egypt: The wind blows through our hair, the salty spray stings our eyes, the water rushes as it parts. We relive the power of that ancient moment each time we pray, each time we chant the words composed by our newly freed ancestors.

Memory alone, however, is not enough. Our remembering connects us to the past and at the same time provides us with a vision for the future. Shirat ha-Yamis a fine example of collective memory that calls us to change the future through our behavior today. Our collective memory of redemption instills in us the dream that all will be redeemed and that those who are oppressed or face prejudice might have hope. Our memory of the strength of God's hand as it "shatters the foe" (Exod. 15:6) calls us to use our hands to serve as God's agents in acts of redemption today.

It is no coincidence that the people of Israel broke out in song so many thousands of years ago; the power of that song is still evident today. Modern musical settings coupled with those ancient words enable us to stand at the shores of the sea again, collectively remembering God's presence and God's might. Standing again in the presence of God, we are compelled to serve with God as agents of hope and redemption in our world.

Donald Goor is senior rabbi at Temple Judea, Tarzana, California. Evan Kent is cantor at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, California.

Leading from Behind
Davar Acher By: 
Michelle Lynn

Who was responsible for the Israelites' miraculous escape? Just before the waters of the Sea of Reeds closed over Pharaoh's army, the Egyptians cried, "Let us flee from the Israelites for the Eternal is fighting for them against Egypt." (Exodus 14:25) Hence, even the Egyptians recognized that the hand of God was the force behind the dramatic events, which was God's exact intention: "Let the Egyptians know that I am the Eternal when I assert My authority against Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen." (Exodus 14:18)

The Egyptians experienced God's Presence in a very immediate way. The pillar of cloud settled between them and the Israelites, preventing the possibility of a battle. In the most dramatic fashion, God "drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night and turned the sea into dry ground." (Exodus 14:21) God locked the wheels of the Egyptians' chariots, throwing the horsemen into a panic. At this point, the Egyptians acknowledged God's authority; only then did God close the waters of the sea and drown Pharaoh's army. God wanted to be recognized by the Egyptians as the ruling authority. But what image of God did God want the Israelites to possess?

Having also witnessed God's Presence during their escape, the Israelites praised God for their safe passage through the water. A close look at the text, however, leaves us with a different image. Immediately after proclaiming God's intention to assert divine authority in the presence of the Egyptians, God makes an important move. God's Presence (in the form of an angel and a pillar of cloud), which had been "going ahead of the Israelite army," leading their way, "now moved and followed behind them." (Exodus 14:29) Up until this point, the Israelites could actually see that God was with them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night: God's Presence was a visible source of comfort and strength to them. (Exodus 13:21) Always in front of them, God guided the people along the way. Why, then, at this crucial moment, did God move to the back?

Perhaps God was preparing the Israelites to lead themselves. Although the pillar of cloud remained behind them, visible, the decision to move forward through the walls of water had to come from the people themselves. God's move to the back gave the Israelites, a people with many struggles ahead of them, the opportunity to see the power of their own faith even as they witnessed God's miracles.

Some thoughts for discussion:

  • Compare the images of God that the Egyptians may have held with those of the Israelites.
  • How might the future of the Israelites have been changed if God had led them through the sea from the front?
  • Can you think of other instances in which "moving to the back" can constitute an effective way to lead or show your support?

Michelle Lynn, M.A.J.E., is the director of education at Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, Ontario.

Reference Materials: 

B’shalach, Exodus 13:17–17:16
Shabbat Shira
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 478–507; Revised Edition, pp. 431–461;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 379–406
Haftarah, Judges 4:4–5:31
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 703–709; Revised Edition, pp. 462–467