2006Our people celebrates the crossing of the Red Sea, a miraculous step in the journey from slavery to freedom, in song: "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord" (Exodus 15:1); "Then Miriam the prophetess...took a timbrel in her hand" (Ex. 15:20).
The Song at the Sea (Shirat haYam)
The Song at the Sea, as this poem is known, is beloved. Many recite it daily. It is traditionally read on the seventh day of Passover. The Shabbat on which it is chanted as part of Parashat Beshalach is called Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of song. A special melody adorns several of its verses.
In addition to having a unique sound, the song has a special appearance. It is one of two sections of the Torah that look poetic when seen in a Torah scroll (the other comes toward the end of Deuteronomy). Several rabbinic sources describe the graphic pattern of the song as "a half-brick over a brick and a brick over a half-brick" (Talmud Tractate Megillah, folio 16b).
We may be accustomed to thinking of poetry as free flowing and formless. Yet poetry is often well constructed. In English, we call a small unit of poetry a stanza (Italian for "a room"). In Hebrew, such a unit is sometimes referred to as a bayit ("a house"). In poetry, words can join to form walls, floors and roofs.
Shirat haYam, the Song at the Sea, "builds a house" in more ways than one. Verse by verse, brick by brick and half-brick by half-brick, the song grows as a firm structure. Near the beginning of the song, Israel sings "this is my God ve-anveihu" (Ex. 15:2), to which a Midrashic comment from the second-century Mechilta adds, "this is my God and I will build Him a habitation." The song looks forward beyond the splitting of the sea, across the experiences of the Sinai wilderness, to a "sanctuary" (Ex. 15:17) we know of as the Temple in Jerusalem. As the song draws to a close, the watery walls (see Ex. 14:29) of the sea enclose the people Israel with words:
"...the sea; and the people Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea" (Ex. 15:19).
For us, looking back over the millennia, the song teaches that we can use poetry and the telling of our stories to make a house and home in which future generations of Jews may flourish. Such a house celebrates our common experiences in the present and connects us with our people's history as well as with the future that lies ahead.
The song suggests several strategies for succeeding in this endeavor in a Jewish way:
May we all succeed in building song-houses for the Jewish university students whom we serve, to the benefit of the Jewish people and the world.
- Stories are ideally sung and told in groups. Invite others to join your song.
- Musical instruments help. Dancing helps.
- Everyone's voice counts.
- A sturdy, well-built song will speak well.
- Don't be afraid to use Hebrew. The Hebrew language opens up untold storehouses of story, melody and song. If you do not have access to Hebrew...
- ...seek a teacher.
- The wonder of a moment resides not only in its own contours but also in how we perceive it and celebrate it.
- A meaningful song reflects our experience and inspires the future.
- Be boldly imaginative. Do not be timid.
- Write it down. Record it. Post it to a blog. Photograph it.
Prepared by David M. Rosenberg, executive director, the Johanna and Herman H. Newberger Hillel Center at the University of Chicago
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Beshalach at MyJewishLearning.com.