The Singing of the Oppressed | Reconstructing Judaism
D'var Torah (Beshalakh)

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). Most years, this story falls on or near the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 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 chosenness) 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.” (The Particulars of Rapture, pp. 214-215). 

Zornberg's argues that these two midrashim represent a basic reality: “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.

According to the Torah, after crossing the sea, our people sing their song of redemption and praise of God's power and strength (from which the Mi Chamocha prayer is taken). However, some sages argue that the song began while the Israelites were still crossing. Determining when the Israelites began to sing has deep psychological import. 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, walking through the corridors of the Sea?

I wonder if they needed to sing while crossing the Sea:  not knowing if they would make it to the other side, but reaching for the strength within them to praise God while still not certain of what God had in store for them. Perhaps 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, then bursting forth as a full-blown “Hallelujah chorus” once they were on dry land.

If the Israelites were able to sing, whether surrounded by water or after reaching safety, why do we find no mention of the Egyptians' singing?Perhaps they were focused on their task of obliterating the Israelites, or 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 Ten Plagues, even after seeing the pillar of fire that at first prevented them from entering the Sea,  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 imagine 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 formerly-enslaved Israelites singing out of inner strength while caught somewhere between death and redemption, while the Egyptians crossed the Sea sure of their righteousness and immanent victory, echoes 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 realized that they too 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 right,s 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 dared 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.  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 a reality. 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 America 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.

Beshalakh

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