Songs On The Far Side


It is dawn on the seventh day after the Children of Israel walked out of Egypt into the wilderness. We encounter them on the far shore of the Yam Suf, after a night of roaring wind and terror [Exodus 14:21-31].

Half-a-million people, they walked across a dry seabed between towering walls of seawater held back by the breath of God, guarded by the Pillar of Cloud, lit by the Pillar of Fire (Siftei Chachamim). Had God not stationed His angel at the mouth of the seabed to shield the Israelites from the Egyptians’ poisoned arrows and catapult stones, the sand would have soaked red with Israelite blood. Instead, the moment the last Israelite set foot on the opposite shore, God rolled back the walls of the impatient sea, engulfing Pharaoh’s eager army, drowning man and beast.


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 5:07 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 13:17-17:16
Haftorah: Judges 4:4-5:31
Havdalah: 6:08 p.m.


Come dawn, the Israelites experience silence and a calm sea. They discern shapes floating on the water and tossed onto shore: bloated, muscled bodies; horseless chariots; flotsam of a mighty army: tack, helmets, swords, quivers, flightless arrows, sandals, breastplates. They see sparkling golden chains, and silver amulets encrusted with precious stones [Tanchuma Yoshon] strewn alongside animal carcasses.

The Israelites, surviving, are disbelieving, exhausted, grateful to be alive. Their God of War has fought a two-front battle for them. Not only has He demolished the Egyptians, He vanquished the sea. Man and nature proved no match for the God of Moses.

The people are in a state of post-traumatic shock. Yet the Torah tells us, Moses and the people immediately break into a song of thanksgiving and praise to God [Ex.15:1-18]. Is this possible or even likely, given what this nation of ex-slaves has just experienced?

Moses is aware of his people’s fragile psychological and physical state. So he does what he does best: he leads them—in a stunning example of responsive oratory, in the brief epic poem known as “Shirat Ha-Yam” (“Song of the Sea”). It recounts in eloquent, laconic detail God’s might in the fierce battle just won, thanking Him for saving the Israelites. Rashi explains how it is sung: Moses calls out the first line, and the Israelites (men only, says Rashi; everyone, says R. Eliezer in Talmud Sotah 30b) repeat it responsively, and so on, through eighteen verses. For a traumatized people, this chant-and-repeat is a fitting mode of giving communal thanks. 

This is not all. Two verses later, Miriam, prophetess and elder sister of Aaron and Moses, tambourine in hand, leads the women of Israel in song and dance [Ex. 15:20-21]. Rashi and the Mechilta explain that though the Torah recounts Miriam’s song only in brief excerpt, in fact she and the people sing it in its entirety.

In a subtle but essential way, Miriam’s song differs from Moses’. Note the different forms of the verb “to sing” used in each song. For Moses the phrase is “Ashira l’Hashem” (“I will sing out to God”) in the singular. Whereas when Miriam calls the women to “Shiru” (“Sing out to the Lord!”), the verb is in the plural.

In a state of ecstatic jubilation Miriam is urging the women to sing out an unscripted song from their hearts. Rabbi Binyamin Lau recalls the Midrash that in Egypt, Miriam, known as Puah, had been a midwife to the Israelite slave women [Ex. 1:15]. Her trademark was singing to mothers and their newborns. Lau says that here, by pronouncing “Shiru!” in the plural voice, Miriam similarly is “midwifing” a new song from the freed Israelite women.

Alas, says Lau, Miriam is ahead of her time. People who yesterday had cried out to God in existential terror are today simply incapable of producing a shiru under their own power. If, writes Aviva Zornberg, God’s presence — the Shechinah — sang and danced through Miriam at the Yam Suf (an awesome prospect) we can appreciate that the people aren’t ready for Miriam’s song just yet. Moses is right when he leads the nation in responsive oratory. “I will sing out,” says Moses, and each and every Israelite will sing out in response.

The Israelites mature. Forty years later, wandering in the wilderness after Miriam’s death, a familiar pattern unfolds. Again, water is scarce. Again, God fights their battles. Again, the Israelites find themselves on a far shore — this time, of the Arnon River. Given the parallels to our parasha, we expect a song, and we are not disappointed. In Bamidbar [Numbers 21:17] we read another “Az yashir.” This time, independent of Moses or Miriam, all Israel spontaneously sing out the brief “Song of the Well.”

Poignantly, it has taken until a new generation is on the verge of entering the Promised Land for the Israelites to sing out to God an intimate song of their own. Millennia later, we are still singing. 

Sandra E. Rapoport is an attorney and author of the award-winning book, Biblical Seductions: Six Stories Retold Based on Talmud and Midrash. She is at work on her fourth book.