Imagine that you have just been liberated from slavery. After centuries of oppression, you and your people escape, fleeing into the unknown in hopes of a better life. Your oppressors follow you, hoping to return you to slavery, or perhaps even kill you. At the moment when you lose all hope, an escape route opens up before you; you cross to safety and your oppressors drown.
How do you feel? How do you respond to what can only be described as a miracle? For the Israelites, now gathered on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds, the answer was clear.
“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Adonai… I will sing unto Adonai, who has triumphed gloriously” (Ex. 15:1).
Can we appreciate this poem as an affirmation of God’s commitment to Israel, rather than merely wince at a song celebrating victory while ignoring its cost: the annihilation of the Egyptian army? Let’s consider some of the themes of the Song at the Sea.
Although not mentioned until midway through the song, the fear of the pursuing foe provides a context for the lack of concern – or even relish – for the death of the Egyptians. Exodus 15:9 imagines the thoughts of the Egyptian army as it approaches the fleeing Israelites: “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall have its fill of them. I will bare my sword – My hand shall subdue them.”
When they saw their pursuers, the Israelites fully expected to die. They say to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness” (14:11).
The ferocity of the Egyptians provokes – and justifies – God’s forceful response. A midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b) imagines God condemning the angels for singing as the Egyptians drown, but there is no Divine critique of the Israelites’ song. The rabbis understood that at a moment of deliverance from death or enslavement, it probably isn’t reasonable to expect the oppressed to feel compassion or pity for the oppressor.
The bulk of the song focuses on God’s power and majesty. When the Israelites saw the Egyptians, they forgot about the power of God manifested in the ten plagues; all they could think of was their present peril. The Song at the Sea captures a profound realization of God’s presence among them. God is Israel’s “strength and might” and has “become [Israel’s] deliverance” (15:2). “Who is like You, Adonai, among the celestial beings? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders?” (15:11) These words, now a part of our liturgy, capture the wonder of people who witness the seemingly impossible.
Although Exodus 15:1-18 is presented as the response to the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the destruction of Israel’s pursuers, it is written with an eye to the past, present, and future of God’s relationship with Israel. The song acknowledges Israel’s deliverer not only as “my God,” but also as “the God of my ancestors” (15:2) and speaks of the ways God will protect and care for Israel in the future, including leading and guiding Israel to their future home: the site of God’s “holy abode” and “sanctuary.” God’s deliverance of Israel from their immediate foe (who, interestingly, are not identified in the song as Egyptians) has made an impression on the peoples Israel will encounter in the future: the people of Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Canaan.
Why did the early rabbis (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 31a) choose this reading for the seventh day of Passover? Together with the reading for the first day (Exodus 12), the traditional reading for the seventh day (Exodus 13-14) completes the story of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. The narrative and the song remind us that we do not achieve liberation from an oppressive ruler or system in a single moment. Rather, freedom is achieved through a journey, a series of steps that remove us further and further from oppression. The Israelites hurried out of Egypt, concerned about pursuit. Only on the far shore of the sea could they begin to imagine themselves as free people who could march forward into the unknown. And, as we know from reading further into the Torah, even then they harbored doubts about themselves, about Moses, and about God.
We can understand why the Israelites sang a song at the moment of their deliverance. What prompted the author of Exodus to not only tell us that the Israelites sang in the moment, but projected to future generations a full-blown song? What made it so significant that it was incorporated into the daily liturgy? The Song at the Sea serves as a reminder to future generations that oppression can be overcome, and that liberation should evoke gratitude. It also captures a moment when the entire community of Israel, even those still in their mothers’ wombs, according to one midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 50a), shared a moment of faith and thanksgiving.
What better way to end Passover, the Festival of Freedom?