Community Torah Corner - January 26, 2024

Rabbi Marc Katz
Temple Ner Tamid
Bloomfield, NJ
Parashat Beshalach
What happens when we lose the melody to an ancient song? How do we know what our ancient ancestors were feeling when they sang it? Was it sung done with bated breath, pain or joy? 
This week’s portion, Parshat BeShalach, contains one such conundrum. Exodus chapter 15 contains Shirat Hayam, or the Song of the Sea, the song that the Israelites sang to God after crossing the Sea of Reeds, en-route toward their freedom from Egypt.  
Az yashir Moshe u’venai Yisrael 
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: 
I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; 
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. 
The Lord is my strength and might; 
He is become my deliverance. (Ex. 15:1-2) 
Despite the song’s fame, we know nothing of its original tune. We have no idea if it was sung hurried or slowly, if the melody was desperate or excited.  
And as with any great mystery our ancient Rabbis, our tradition’s detectives, had plenty to say. 
One ancient voice said the song had the sound of surprise. Our Rabbis imagine that our ancient Israelite ancestors struggled with faith under Egyptian bondage. That is, until they passed through the sea and everything changed. They saw God’s miracles, God’s might, and God steadfastness and they believed again. They proclaimed, “I will sing to God for God has triumphed gloriously” with astonishment and surprise. 
But as we know, for every two Jews, there are three opinions, and another set of ancient detectives jumped in. The Song of the Sea isn’t a song of surprise, they said, but a song of repentance. They tell an allegory of a king who is ready to wage war against a revolting province. Before leaving, his general questions him, “Do you really think you can win this war?” Eventually, the king does go to war and wins. The general is embarrassed and decides he will seek the king’s favor. So, he makes him a crown of gold. This, he thinks will be the payment he needs to show just how sorry he is for questioning him. 
So too, the Rabbis teach, the Israelites questioned God when they were standing on the edge of the sea watching the Egyptian army approaching them. So when they got to the other side safely, the song wasn’t one of ecstatic surprise but one of embarrassed repentance. “oops…God IS my strength and might” after all. 
But no sooner does this voice weigh in than another shouts over it: the Song of the Sea is one of faith and confidence. The Jews stood on the edge of the sea, knowing full well that God would save them. Then they crossed, heads held high. And no sooner did they get across than they proclaimed in great exaltation, “God is/has/and always will be my strength and might, and now we can add deliverer to God’s resume!”   
Then the final voice jumps in. It is a song of unadulterated joy.” There’s a word in our tradition for this feeling. It’s called RINA. It’s the sound we make when joy escapes our lips without our intent. It’s playfulness, giddiness, happiness, and delight all rolled into one. Once the Jews crossed the sea, they thought very little of what they would sing. The words flew from their mouths. Unable to contain their happiness, their joy bubbled over. They sang to God, not because they wanted, but because they couldn’t not! 
In the end, there was no consensus. And now today we are left with a choice. Do we see the song of the sea as one of surprise, one of repentance, one of faithful confidence, or one of joy? What is the nature of the song?  
Rather than see it as none of the above, perhaps we can see all as viable options, and read the poem as we need it in the moment.