Beshallach: Awakening the Spirit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

We have just enough time to sneak in a
little bit of Torah study before Shabbat, and a good thing, too,
because the haftarah this week is the longest one of the year, in the
Ashkenazi liturgical tradition.

The Torah portion, Beshallach, concludes the story of the Exodus with
the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and a great song of gratitude once
the Israelites have reached the other side. In the haftarah, Devorah,
a prophet and judge, gives instructions to her general Barak to defeat
the enemy general Sisera. Sisera’s army is routed, he flees to the
tent of Yael, who lures him into a deadly trap, and once again a great
redemption song is offered by the leader of a grateful nation, in this
case Devorah herself. Because of the Song at the Sea and its related
haftarah, this Shabbat is actually called “Shabbat Shirah,” or the
Sabbath of Song.

The song of Devorah is considered by many scholars to be older than
the story which precedes it; it’s not hard to imagine that victory
songs were part of the ancient culture of tribal and national
leadership. There are other examples of exultant poems in the Bible,
including poems of gratitude from figures as diverse as Hanna and King
David. (Remember, in Hebrew, “shir” means both poem and song.)
Devorah’s song is poetry, but it’s also about war- she, like Moshe in
our Torah portion, is grateful to God that her people has been spared,
and the enemy has not.

Yet one line from Devorah’s poem has made its way from victory in war
to the peace of Shabbat:

” Awake, awake, O Devorah!
Awake, awake, strike up the chant!” (Shoftim/ Judges 5:12)

This line: “uri, uri, Devorah, uri, uri, daberi shir,” which literally
means “arise [or awake], Devorah, arise, my words of song,” was used
in the fifth verse of the famous Shabbat hymn “Lecha Dodi”:

“Uri uri shir daberi , Kavod Ado-nai alayich niglah. . . .”

Perhaps for poetic reasons, the author of Lecha Dodi switched the
words “daberi shir” to “shir daberi,” but the intent, as far as I can
tell, is the same: “arise, arise, the song of my words, let the glory
of God be upon you and revealed. . . ”

Lecha Dodi is also about redemption, in the classic Jewish
understanding: that one day we will be returned from exile and free
and peaceful in the Land of Israel. In the meantime, we only have a
little “taste” of redemption, in the peace of Shabbat. Yet Shabbat
doesn’t happen automatically: we have to awaken our consciousness to
embrace a day of gratitude, of reflection, of connection to others, to
God, and to our own deepest self. Just as an ancient victory could not
be taken for granted- one had to arouse oneself to a state of great
gratitude and praise- so too Shabbat slips from our awareness without
conscious and deliberate acknowledgment.

The songs of our soul don’t just happen by accident- we may be graced
by inspiration but we also choose the circumstances under which our
spirits are most likely to be opened wide. If we want to scale the
spiritual heights, we have to awaken our hearts and let them arise anew.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S.- Some of my thinking for this commentary was sparked by this
week’s chapter in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, edited by my
teacher and friend Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. You can check it out on
Google books- then go buy one!

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