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The Singing of the Oppressed

This week's parashah includes one of the most familiar images in the Torah, that of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea, depending on one's translation). How fortuitous that this particular parashah should fall on the weekend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday this year. For the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the sea are two of the central images to African Americans as a representation of their quest for freedom from the days of slavery through the civil rights movement. Even today these images are central to the African American people and to the Black Church as they continue to wage the battle for full freedom and equality.

But beyond the 'pshat' (the simple story) of this narrative what else can we learn from 'kriyat yam suf' (the splitting of the Sea of Reeds)? In her discussion of Shemot, Aviva Zornberg focuses on the familiar midrashic image of the angels rejoicing after the sea closes in on the Egyptians. God's response to this in the midrash is to silence that angels by chastising them "how can you sing when my creatures (the Egyptians) are drowning in the sea?!" We often focus on this midrashic response as pointing to the universalistic nature of Judaism. We are a religion that rejoices in our uniqueness (traditionally viewed within the framework of 'chosen-ness') and yet we also hold as true the belief that all human beings are created 'b'tzelem elohim' (in the image of the Divine).

However, Zornberg focuses on an alternative midrash focusing on the response to the Splitting of the Sea that imagines the angels refraining from singing because of the Israelites' anguish through the night. The authors of this midrash imagined that as the Israelites were crossing the Sea through the night, walls of water on both sides, stumbling over rocks, carrying all of their possessions, they realize "that their lives tremble on the verge." as they ".experience . those ominous corridors." (Zornberg, "The Particulars of Rapture", pp. 214-215).

Zornberg's thesis is that these two midrashim represent the basic reality that in some way "the Egyptians and the Israelites are not clearly differentiated. The Israelites were redeemed from slavery, but were not, in fact, ripe for redemption. God, as it were, took out a mortgage on the future" by redeeming this untested, rag-tag group of slaves. Finally on the brink of potential freedom they were also on the brink of potential death, as the walls of water seemed to close in all around them through the night. No wonder the angels did not sing yet! And yet, it is possible that the people were singing.

Our Sages differ on whether the Israelites began to sing their song of redemption and praise of God's power and strength (from which the 'Mi Chamochah' prayer is taken) while still crossing the Sea or only after the crossing is complete. Though the Torah text seems to support the latter, there are Sages who said that the song began while the Israelites were still crossing. Given the midrashic interpretation above it would seem that determining when the Israelites began to sing would give us some insight into their state of mind at the time. Were they only able to sing once they were "assured" of redemption (at least for the moment) or were they able to sing while they were still on the brink while walking through the corridors of the Sea. Or did they perhaps need to sing while crossing the Sea. Not knowing if they would make it to the other side they needed to find the strength within them to praise God while still not certain of what God had in store for them. Their fear and their hope were too much to express in mere words, and so they burst forth in song. Perhaps first tenuously, but eventually reaching a crescendo as they approached the other side and then bursting forth as a full-blown "Hallelujah chorus" once they were on dry land.

In this way, what distinguishes the Egyptians crossing the Sea and the Israelites could simply be their ability to sing while the water was all around them. The Egyptians did not sing, as far as we know. One might think that this is because they were focused on their task of obliterating the Israelites or that they were so afraid of the water closing in on them that they couldn't sing. However, given the nature of Pharaoh and the Egyptians as portrayed up to this point, I would venture to guess that they did not sing or pray while crossing because they were sure that they would be victorious. Even after the 10 plagues, even after seeing the pillar fire that at first prevented them from entering the Sea and even after seeing the Sea itself split they were not convinced that God was more powerful than Pharaoh (who was their god). Their hubris and faith in a false deity enabled them to enter the Sea without any fear or trepidation. One can only image the cry that they must have let out when they realized that the walls of water were closing in on them and that Pharaoh could not prevent their watery deaths.

This juxtaposition of the simple, formerly-enslaved Israelites singing to give them strength while caught somewhere between death and redemption while the Egyptians crossed the Sea sure that they were in the right and that they would be victorious is reminiscent of much of the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Martin Luther King and those who followed him, including prominent Jews such as King's dear friend Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel and many others, walked from Montgomery to Selma and from the South and beyond to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial praying for freedom. As Heschel would later say, they were "praying with their feet". And they were also singing. They sang songs of hope and freedom. They sang songs reminding them of the plight of the Israelites in Egypt and how God made the waters part in order to bring them to freedom. And as they did so they also realized that they were walking through the Sea heading towards potential redemption all the while knowing that the walls of water might fall in upon them. And often they did. Walls of water from fire hoses sprayed on those seeking equal education and voting rights or simply the ability to use a water fountain or sit at a lunch counter. Walls of water made manifest by the hangman's noose as innocent people were lynched on trees, "strange fruit" that no one dare touch, blood soaking the ground and the roots beneath them. Walls of water, taking the form of soldiers, police and government officials blocking the entrance to schools restricted to whites only. I could continue on ad infinitum. And yet, even as the walls of water seemed to be closing in around them, the people were able to sing. And their songs gave them courage and strength in spite of the odds.

The bigots, white supremacists and others involved in the oppression did not sing. They did not need to. They believed that God was on their side. They believed that they were doing God's will. They believed that they were fighting for a just cause. One can only imagine the cry that went out when they realized that their god of hatred and bigotry was being defeated by the God of love, acceptance, equality and freedom.

Today the struggle continues. Dr. King's dream is still not totally a reality, even though great strides have been made. But as long as all those involved in the struggle, no matter what their race, religion or creed, continue to sing we can be sure that the walls will not fall down upon us, even though at times it may seem that they are about to. For our song gives us strength and reminds us that God is with and within us giving us the ability to bring peace and wholeness to a war-torn and fractured world.

As we continue through the night of redemption, let us sing together with all the oppressed in American and throughout the world, as we work to bring ourselves closer and closer to the Promised Land of freedom, liberty and true equality, justice and mercy for all.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah