Every year as we read the story of the Israelites crossing the sea, we lift up the role of song as a source of inspiration and celebration. In fact, we refer to this very parsha, Beshalach, by a secondary name, Shabbat Shirah - a shabbat dedicated to the power of song. And in every morning service, we remember this moment from which comes the famous Shefa Gold chant "Ozi v'Zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah - My strength and God's song will be what saves me" (Ex. 15:2).
While the image Miriam and the Israelites singing and dancing with their timbrels is core to our liberation narrative, so is the image that follows. That of the Egyptians and their horses drowning in the sea as the Israelites pass over to the other shore. In a world where we believe that none of us are free until all of us are free, it is hard to reconcile this theological moment.
And not just for us postmodern folk. But for the ancient sages as well. The Talmud tells the story of the angels who wanted to sing a song of praise as the Israelites crossed over to the safety, while the Egyptians drowned. But God scolds them saying: "The work of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?!" (B.T. Megillah 10b). There is inevitably tremendous loss in even the most liberating of choices. The rabbis make clear that we are not meant to derive joy in the suffering of others.
In my own experience, singing itself opens me to the possibility of transforming anger into compassion. In the words of Joey Weisenberg, "Music reminds us that even as we must sometimes fight, we can still urge ourselves to consider the essential humanity of even our worst enemies" (The Torah of Music, 91). If not for their sake, then for ours.
I wish you all a Shabbat Shirah Shalom.
Rabbi Ari Lev