Friday, January 26, 2018

Parashat Beshallach - the Song of the Sea

            Shabbat Shira Shalom! As you should know by now, this week’s Torah portion is Parashat Beshallach, an exciting time of joy, liberation, and song and dance. The parasha tells of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, and immediately freaking out. They are scared, they are tired, they are hungry, they are thirsty, Pharaoh’s army is pursuing them. They are certain they will die before they even reach the border, marked by the Sea of Reeds. When they do finally reached the Sea safely, Moses stretches his staff over the sea and it splits in two, leaving a dry path for the Israelites to cross to the other side on. Moses spontaneously bursts into song, and all the Israelites miraculously know the tune and the lyrics and they are able to join in immediately. Then, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances,” (Exodus 15:20).
            It’s a beautiful and empowering moment! But, in this moment of extemporaneous singing and dancing, our favorite 11th century commentator Rashi wants to know: “How did the Israelites have tambourines in the desert?” He answers himself: “But the righteous women of that generation were certain that G‑d would perform miracles for them, and they prepared tambourines and dances while still in Egypt.”
            A common understanding of last week’s parasha, of the reason for matzah, is that the Israelites were too busy to prepare for their exit. They were in a rush when they left. They weren’t quite sure freedom was coming. They were consumed with the back-breaking labor and soul-crushing reality of being a slave, that they did not have the time or the presence of mind to really get ready for the long journey ahead. It’s interesting to think about the priorities at play here that they could not prepare to leave, but that they could prepare tambourines for the dance party that would follow. Not only the priorities of the women who chose musical instruments over practical logistics, but those of Rashi who identifies Miriam and her friends as the “righteous of that generation,” precisely for making that choice. I wrote once before that Emma Goldman is among the great ranks of iconoclast Jews descended from Korach, all the more Jewish for their iconoclasm, but perhaps here we see where she is also descended directly from the righteous women of the Exodus, straight from Miriam the dancing prophetess, as she is quoted as saying, “If there won't be dancing at the revolution, I'm not coming.”
            This parasha reminds us to take pleasure in the miracles of our lives, and to rejoice appropriately when they arise. To sing and dance and express our elation with our community. Every day, every success can be a revolution worthy of merriment. May you find yourself preparing for celebration, bursting into song and dance, and reveling in the music and miracles of your life. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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