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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Additional Thoughts on the Song at the Sea

This week in synagogues around the world is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of the song, for on it in our annual cycle of Torah readings, we come to the narrative of the newly freed nation of Israel arriving at the shore of the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds, if you prefer, and experiencing the great miracle of the splitting of the sea, the passing of the people of Israel through the waters on dry land, and the subsequent return of the waters to cover over and drown their enemies, the pursuing armies of Egypt. Looking back over the sea, the Israelites burst into song, the famous song of the sea that we spoke of a few weeks back as an addition to the Psalms of the P'sukei D'zimrah section of the morning service. As we read these verses of poetry in the synagogue from the scroll, the reader departs from the usual melody of the Torah tropes and utilizes a special tune to celebrate this great victory of the God of Israel over Pharaoh and his hosts. It is customary for the congregation to rise as these verses are read. Indeed, we rise during P'sukei D'zimrah for this section as well.

Many years ago, I attended services at Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in New York City, which is the oldest congregation in the country. There they sang the entire song as part of their regular Shabbat service to a different repeating melody. The melody was familiar to me, however, having heard it used for at least the opening verses of this prayer back in my days as a camper at Camp Ramah some years before that and occasionally I have used it myself in the synagogue as well during that portion of the preliminary service. The Torah tells us that Miriam and the women of Israel went forth to sing the song with timbrel and dance, tof umachol. Some commentators have noted the great faith of these women, grabbing matzah from the oven before it could rise, but at the same time, not forgetting to grab a timbrel for whatever occasion of celebration might occur in the days ahead.

In my previous piece on the incorporation of the song into part of the regular daily service, I focused more on the setting of this section of the P'sukei D'zimrah and really only skimmed over the surface of this unique and ancient poem. I thought that I would return to look a little closer at these lines as we re-read them this week as our Torah portion. They really deserve a closer look. As with most biblical texts there are a variety of ways of looking at them. There is a rich collection of midrashim associated with this song, particularly in the Midrash known as Mekhilta which covers most of the book of Exodus. However, it is also quite interesting to take a literary look at this poem. The brief commentary by Professor Robert Alter focuses on the language and structure of the poem in his translation of the Tanach which was completed a few years ago.

Many of us were moved by the poem read by the young poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, at the Biden/Harris inauguration last week. A number of people have commented on this reading and noted that what made it so memorable aside from whatever merit was in the words carefully chosen by the poet, was the energetic presentation of the poetry by Amanda Gorman. One commentator noted that it is not sufficient to read the words of a poem. One needs to dramatize it, feel the emotions of the words and present them to the audience so that they can join with the poet in feeling their import. Gorman succeeded in this most admirably. Likewise, Biblical poetry is intended to be read aloud and presented to the public, not merely skimmed through for content.

From the very beginning, it is clear that the song is addressed to God. “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord.” And the song itself begins, “Ashira l'Adonay” “I will sing unto the Lord.” This is meant to be a prayer with deep spiritual content. The authors of the Midrash imagine not only the men and women of Israel singing this praise, but even unborn children in their mothers' wombs, sucklings at the breast, and all the little children were part of this outpouring of song. The angels on high, we're told, joined in the chorus as well, though I mentioned in my earlier piece the Midrash that tells how God ordered them to be silent in recognition that those drowning in the sea were also God's creatures. The verse continues “ki gaoh ga'ah” a rather difficult phrase to translate. It is often rendered “for He is highly exalted.” The root gimel-aleph-hay has to do with pride, that which is raised up on high. The repetition of the root, suggests the Midrash, may indicate that God has raised us up and we in turn exalt the Almighty. Various enemies throughout history have filled themselves with pride and haughtiness, only to be brought low by God whose pride is fully justified.

Alter takes a different tack and associates the verbs gaoh ga'ah with the sea, “for He surged, O surged” he translates. We praise God as we recall this moment with the waters rushing back into the seabed and, as the verse continues, “sus v'rochvo ramah vayam” “horse and rider He hurled into the sea.” The poet talks of horses and riders in spite of the prose narrative talking about chariots and their drivers getting stuck in the mud at the bottom of the sea. A bit of poetic license perhaps or an indication of a later composition inserted into our narrative? The midrash, somewhat fancifully, imagines the horse and the rider jointly standing judgment afterwards on high and the horse trying to get acquitted for simply following his master's orders, while the rider claims he was only going where the horse took him. In another midrash, body and soul make similar claims in the world to come when God judges us after this life.

“Ozi v'zimrat Yah, vay'hi li yeshuah.” “The Lord is my strength and my song and He has become my salvation.” Alter says that while zimrah does mean a song, here it should be taken as “my power” but also as a play on the word zimrah in its meaning as song. It is God's power that has saved us from destruction and thus called forth this song of praise. “Zeh Eli v'anveihu, Elohei avi v'arromemenhu.” 'This is my God and I will extol Him, my father's God and I will exalt Him.” The word “anveihu” is connected to making things beautiful, thus we are urged to fulfill every mitzvah in its most beautiful form, to take an extra effort to do it well. Our praise is not merely on our own behalf, but also for blessings bestowed upon generations before us and those yet to come.

“Adonay ish milchamah, Adonay sh'mo” “God is a man of war, the Lord is His name.” God manifests Himself in different ways at different times. Here He seems to be a youthful warrior, clad in armor, bearing weapons ot the day, at other times He appears as an elder in judgment sitting in court on high. However God's power appears, ultimately “Adonay sh'mo,” He is God and in need of no props or costumes. By the force of His being, He accomplishes His will among us.

“Mark'vot Paroh v'cheilo yarah vayam umivchar shalishav tube'u b'Yam Suf.” Now we read of the chariots, “Pharaoh's chariots and his force were pitched into the sea and his chosen officers drowned in the Sea of Reeds.” This is midah k'neged midah, measure for measure. Those same officers who cast the little newborn children into the Nile, are now cast into the sea in retribution for that crime. “Tehomot y'chasyumu, yardu bimtzolot k'mo aven.” “The depths covered over them, they went down into the deep like a stone.” This verse is a little surprising for the crossing of the sea, was really the crossing of a swamp; there really were no “deeps.” The sages imagine a cooperative effort by the surrounding seas, pouring their water into the Red Sea to accomplish this drowning. God is in control of all the forces of nature and when He acts, He can command them all to join forces with Him. “Like a stone” for their hearts were hardened against the Israelites like stone.”

“Yemincha Adonay nedari bakoach, yemincha Adonay tiratz oyev,” “Your right hand, O Lord, is mighty in power; Your right hand, O Lord, smashes the enemy.” “Uv'rov geoncha taharos kamecha, t'shalach charoncha yochleimo kakash.” Once again, we encounter that verb for pride, here geoncha. “In Your great triumph You break those who rise up against You, You send forth Your wrath, devouring them like straw.” Whoever rises up against Israel, is rising up against the Lord and arousing His wrath. These words the sages apply to enemies throughout the ages as well as to the Egyptian warlords. “Uv'ruach apecha ne'ermu mayim, nitzvu k'mo neid nozlim, kaf'u tehomot b'lev yam.” “And with the breath of your nostrils the waters were piled up, they stood like a flowing mound, the depths froze in the heart of the sea.” This image is captured in some of the movie versions of this story, when you look beyond the walls of water and sea the fishes swimming around in flowing water, stopped only by the frozen barrier set up for the passage of God's people.

The song goes on to describe the battle. “Amar oyev erdof, asig, achalek shalal, timla'eimo nafshi, arik charbi torisheimo yadi.” “The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake them, I will divide the spoils, my gullet will fill with them, I'll bare my sword, and my hand will subdue them.'” Here the poet imagines the boastful intentions of the enemy before he is brought low by God's power. They have it all figured out, however, what happens? “Nashafta b'ruchacha kisamu yam, tzal'lu k'oferet b'mayim adirim.” “You blew with Your breath – the sea covered them over. They sank like lead in the mighty waters.” So much for their plans.

Now come the praises of Israel, in a verse familiar to us from our services morning and evening, “Mi chamocha ba-elim Adonay, mi kamocha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot oseh fele.”“Who is like You among the gods, O Lord, who is like You, mighty in holiness? Awesome in praise; worker of wonders.” Some translations demote the elim, from godhood, to celestial beings (angels?) or just mighty ones. In context, however, we have just seen God vanquish all the Egyptian gods through a series of plagues aimed at each of those forces worshiped by Egypt.

In the concluding sections of the song, we see an anticipation of that which is yet to come as the reverberations of this mighty miracle are felt throughout the area. “You stretched out Your right hand, the earth swallowed them up. You led forth in Your kindness this people that You redeemed. You guided them in Your strength to Your holy abode. Peoples heard, they quaked, trembling seized Philistia's dwellers. Then were the chieftains of Edom dismayed, the dukes of Moab, shuddering seized them, all the dwellers of Canaan quailed. Terror and fear did fall upon them, as Your arm loomed big they were like a stone..”

The final verses speak of Israel being ensconced in their own homeland, secure under God's protection, “Till Your people crossed over, O Lord, till the people you made Yours crossed over. You'll bring them, you'll plant them, on the mount of Your estate, a firm place for Your dwelling You wrought, O Lord, the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established.” And we conclude with the final verse which also is familiarly included in our liturgy, 'Adonay yimloch l'olam va'ed.” “The Lord shall be king forever and ever.”

One can feel the energy of the encounter with Egypt at the sea and God's mighty intervention on their behalf. The rabbis claim that even a humble handmaid had a greater revelation at the sea than the prophet Ezekiel with all his wondrous visions. We attempt to capture that power in our daily prayers and recognize God's gracious intervention on our behalf throughout history. If we invest the poem with song and emotion, we can feel a bit what it was like to stand at the sea and experience the divine presence in our own lives. Every day we are called upon to sing the song, to tell the story, and to praise the Lord.



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