Beshallach: Daily Liberation

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Beshallach: Shmot/ Exodus 13:17-17:16

In Beshallach, the Israelites cross the Sea to safety, but after celebrating redemption, grumbling and dissension sets in. Amalek attacks the stragglers and the journey to Sinai begins.

Good afternoon! This week we have one of the clearest and most famous connections between the Torah and the siddur [prayerbook], in a quote from the Song of the Sea, which Moshe sings on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds after cruel Pharaoh’s army is destroyed while chasing the Israelites:

“Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in splendor, working wonders!”  (Shmot 15:11)

Even those who go to synagogue only occasionally may remember these verses, recited after the Shma [declaration of Divine Unity} and before the Amidah [standing prayer] every morning and every evening:

Mi chamocha b’elim Adonai?
Mi chamocha, nedar b’kodesh . . . .

This quote is attached to a blessing which calls God the “redeemer” of Israel, and which not only recalls the great redemption from Egypt but also call for a new redemption:

“Rock of Israel! Arise to Israel’s aid! Remember Yehudah and Israel as You have promised, One Who redeems us. . . ”

It’s perfectly obvious from the siddur, or the Passover seder, or our holiday liturgies that the Exodus from Egypt is seen not only as the paradigmatic redemption but also one that prefigures an even greater miracle in the future- we recall the Exodus not to be nostalgic but as an act of radical (I might even say audacious) hope. Yet the grammar of the prayerbook is interesting: it calls God “redeemer” not only in the past tense, but in the present tense [go’alenu] as if the Exodus is happening right now.

Which, of course, it is.

We sing a piece of the Song of the Sea (and in many congregations, the whole thing) every day because every day, within each of us, redemption from Pharaoh is an ongoing possibility. Pharaoh wasn’t just a wicked king way back when- Pharaoh represents that aspect of human nature which treats others as mere means to self-centered ends, which sees humans only in terms of power, control, economics and institutional imperatives, rather than spiritual beings, manifestations of the Divine Image. The very job of Judaism is to overcome Pharaoh every day when we meet each other in right relationship, characterized by the fundamental attributes of hesed [loving-kindness] and tzedek [justice].

So it makes sense to recall the Song of the Sea every day, because every day is a potential liberation from the inner Pharaoh. Yet- to invoke Paul Harvey- don’t forget the rest of the story: after the joy of the miracle came the hard path of making a community and starting across the wilderness. That’s why we remember the Exodus twice daily: because we constantly have to do the work of leading ourselves away from Pharaoh, and towards Sinai, and every day we sing for joy in the opportunity to do so.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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