The exodus from Egypt may be the most seminal experience in all of Jewish history. Its importance is central to Jewish theology because it granted us the freedom required to willingly enter into a covenantal relationship with G-d at Mt. Sinai. Like Mt. Sinai it was also a shared experience that every living Jew had a part in, and thus it became a central element in Jewish historical identity.
The centerpiece of the parsha is the "Shirah," the song that was sung after the crossing of the parted sea and vanquishing of the pursuing Egyptians. These verses have assumed a major role in Jewish liturgy, appearing in the morning service each and every day. The song is an acknowledgement of Divine salvation at a time when the Jewish people faced what seemed to be certain annihilation. What is also unique about this song is that it was sung in unison and spontaneously by the entire Jewish people.
As educators we know that learning something like a song takes either prolonged exposure to the piece or a concerted effort at learning the words and music. Often we use songs to unite communities in a common purpose, such as prayer, or to forge a common bond, like a college fight song. Not knowing a song can exclude someone from a group, and knowing a song can bring total strangers together without precondition. Often we take comfort in knowing that certain commonly known verses may appear when most needed, such as the kaddish prayer to a mourner, or Hatikvah at an Israel rally. They can bond us together in a shared purpose and a shared experience that becomes an important part of our collective Jewish memory.
Here the Midrash gives us two versions of how the entire Jewish people broke into spontaneous song, almost like the cast of a Broadway musical. In the first midrash, "R. Yose Haglili taught that when Israel came out of the Red Sea they all turned to sing the song of praise. How did they manage to sing altogether? The child was on its mother's knees and the infant suckled at the breast. Then as soon as they saw G-d's Presence, the child stood up and the infant stopped feeding and they sang 'zeh Eylee v'anveyhu, Elohei avi v'arom'menhu' (this is my G-d and I will glorify Him, my father's G-d and I will exalt Him). R. Meir used to say that even the unborn children sang the song." It is the experience that begins literally on the parents' knees (or even in the womb?) that can be such a crucial contributing factor in the development of personal memory and Jewish identity.
In the second midrash, "R. Avin Halevi (commenting on the opening verse of the song 'az yashir Moshe u'venei Yisrael et a shirah hazot' (thus sang Moses and the Children of Israel this song...) said: When Israel sang this first song to G-d, Moses had to lead them, just like a teacher will say the lesson first and the child will repeat it. So our verse makes it clear that Moses and the Children of Israel sang the song, so to speak, in that order." This time it was a "teaching moment" for Moses, who imparted the song which was quickly learned by his attentive students.
Perhaps both of these midrashim offer examples of nurture rather than nature, highlighting the important roles of parents and teachers. Some of our students arrive on campus having experienced Judaism on their "parent's knees." We in Hillel are similarly engaged in this holy work, teaching our own students the "song" of our Jewish heritage as Moshe taught us the Shirah. Let us hope that the common experiences that our students can share of "singing the song" as part of a community of Jews will create those meaningful moments that build a memory and an identity that lasts a lifetime.
Written by Rabbi Joseph Topek, director of Stony Brook University Hillel Foundation.
For more information on Parshat Beshalach visit www.myjewishlearning.com