Beshallach: Song and strength

It’s tech week. As the Hebrew saying goes, “mavin yavin” (he who understands will understand). So, given “tech week tired”  this is a reworking of a post from Beshallach, 2012.  Astounding that it’s still relevant.  Song can change the world.  

Sometimes I open the next week’s text and just stare at it.  Some parashiot are so huge and layered and profound I just don’t even know where to start.  That would be the case this week, with Beshallach.  Crossing the Sea of Reeds.  Armies drowned.  Singing the Song of the Sea.  Miriam dancing with the women.  Beginning to travel as a people, not just tribes. Complaining about no water. Miracles of water. Miracles of manna.  More miracles of water. And Amalek attacking.

I mean, seriously, where do you begin?  A few weeks ago, millions of us marched or stood in protest, and many of us have made ourselves present at more marches and protests. We raised our voices in song.  The one I kept singing in my head, and out loud, was “Never Turning Back” by Pat Humphries.  (sung here by Judy Small)

The centerpiece of the parasha is the Song of the Sea – Shirat ha Yam.  It is the song of victory sung as we passed through the Sea of Reeds, safe from the Egyptian pursuers.  Not surprisingly, after such an escape, the people, led by Moses, broke into song and dance, taking  what they’d just experienced and translating the Divine into very human terms.

The Song of the Sea is bold and strong, militaristic and unbowed at the death of the Egyptians.  It’s loud and long.  It’s the cry of a new birth – those who have passed through the waters from a narrow place into the open, into a journey.  There was death and blood, crying and shouting…and a new life: tentative, scary, vulnerable .

The poem mentions chariots thrown into the sea, strength of God’s right arm, wind and fury.  Personally, I don’t find the Shirat ha Yam all that compelling, in its totality; the battle images don’t appeal.  But  I like parts of it.  At the very beginning of the poem is a verse that evokes more calm than fury.    We sing, “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vay’hi li yeshua” (Yah is my strength and song, Yah is my deliverance.)

God is my strength and my song, and that is what saved me.  (If you want to hear a beautiful setting to this verse, check out  a couple of recordings using Rabbi Shefa Gold’s melody to the text, or at a recent Limmud )

Ozi v’zimrat Yah-Yah is my strength and my song.  I love the idea of pairing strength and song. It does take strength to lift up your voice and sing.  I’m not talking about the “stage-fright-I-can’t sing” strength;  I mean “something is wrong here that needs to be righted” strength.   If you can sing about it, it’s real and lasting.  Song is what changes the world, and song changes us, too.  We have sung when the danger has passed, like the Israelites did here, and we have sung while we are still in the scary places, when we need the strength.  We sing to give strength to others.  We sing when something needs to change, and then sing again when it does.  We sing to remember, and we sing so we’ll never forget.

Vayihi li yeshua…and that is what saved me.  The Israelites were literally saved from their pursuers.  But they were being pursued by their past – what they had been: slaves.  Moses told them that the Egyptians they see that day they will never see again.  They must not see them again; they must not go back “there” to what they were.  There is only onward into the wilderness.  What pursues us today?  Our enslavement to whatever has kept us in our own “mitzrayim” (Egypt, but also “narrow place, from the word “metzar”, narrow), our indifference, our resistance to sing it out and sing it strong; who we’ve been, for which we need the strength to move onward.

Sometimes our songs are put to melodies, sometimes to dance, sometimes to words, and sometimes to our mere presence in a place.  These are the songs of the soul.

Ozi v’zimrat Ya-Yah is my strength and my song, and that is what will save me.

This is the Sabbath of song.  Go out and sing to change the world.

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