Thursday, January 28, 2010

Who May Sing Halleluyah / Parshat B'Shallach

For three weeks we have been recounting the story of our redemption, from the moment Jacob and his family went down into Egypt, through the plagues, on into the wilderness. The week’s parashah, B’shallach, recounts the climax: the actual moment of redemption when the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea and the waters closed in on the Egyptians so they cannot follow after them.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen…

Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. When Israel saw the wondrous power that the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and God’s servant Moses.

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and might; God is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine God… (Exodus 14: 26, 30, 15:1-2)
The 15th chapter of Exodus is comprised of the song of redemption the Israelites sang. It is so powerful and important that it is included in each morning’s prayers, at the beginning of shacharit (the morning prayers), establishing the purpose of prayer as redemption. What is more, this shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira (the sabbath of song) because this ancient paean in praise of God is the centerpiece of the parashah. The entire congregation stands to hear it chanted.

In the Talmud (Megillah 10b) we are told that when Israel was redeemed,
The ministering angels wanted to chant songs of praise, but the Holy One blessed be God said, “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you would chant praises?
God’s contempt and disgust are evident in the text. The angels in heaven are silenced and rebuked for rejoicing at a time when the Egyptians are suffering death in the sea. This might well be the all-time favorite midrash and has found its way into many haggadot for Pesach. It is taken as a lesson on empathy and compassion: we may not rejoice when our enemies are suffering.

Yet God does not stop Israel from singing a song of victory and redemption at the shores of the Reed Sea. It is only the angels who are censured. Perhaps this is became we humans are not angels, and need the catharsis of rejoicing when we experience redemption so that we can affirm both the possibility and necessity of redemption. Perhaps it is because, having experienced redemption, Israel will fully comprehend the need to bring redemption to others. Perhaps it is because Israel does not take “credit” for the destruction wrought against Egypt nor learn from it that they should impose suffering on their enemies; rather it is God’s triumph that is the focus of the Shira. Perhaps it is because the Shira ends on a note of peace and tranquility, evoking the image of God’s Holy Mountain and Sanctuary, where some day – in the messianic future – peace will reign.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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