Parshat B’shalach

Torah Reading for Week of January 21-27, 2018

“After the Song”
By Cantor Jonathan Friedmann, PhD, ’10, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Music History

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

The biblical account of the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt concludes with the fabled crossing of the Red Sea. Moses holds out his arm over the sea and split the waters, revealing a path of dry ground leading to freedom’s shore. When the sea march is complete, Moses raises his arm again, this time causing the waters to fall upon the pursuing Egyptians. The unlikely victory fills the Israelites with a mixture of elation and awe. Mere words cannot express the magnitude of their feelings or do justice to the spectacle they had witnessed. Without hesitation and without rehearsal, they burst forth in a spontaneous, yet poetically elaborate, song of thanksgiving (Exod. 15:1-21).

This episode is musically significant. It is the first prayer-song we encounter in the Bible and the first example of what might be called congregational singing. It presents music as a natural response to momentous events and overwhelming emotions. It shows song as a means of proclaiming group affiliation and expressing national pride.

The depiction of the Red Sea song is memorable in part because it resonates with our own experiences. Most of us have, at one time or another, felt the camaraderie of communal singing, turned to music as an emotional outlet, or used songs to assert our identities. There is, however, a less obvious but similarly important role the song plays in this biblical narrative: the return to normalcy.

A characteristic remark appears in the verses leading up to the Red Sea crossing. Catching sight of the advancing Egyptian army, the frightened Israelites ask Moses: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?’” (Exod. 14:11-12). This sort of complaint—and the lack of trust underlying it—recurs throughout the Israelites’ desert sojourn. The Israelites were unmitigated complainers, constantly pressing Moses to satisfy their physical and psychological needs, and prove the might and compassion of their deity.

We can, then, classify as anomalous the exuberant words the Israelites sang while gazing at the sea. Although springing organically from their lips, the lyrics were a departure from their ordinary disposition. Indeed, the scene’s immensity is accentuated by the fact that the song was so atypical of this grumbling lot. The Israelites were stunned both by the remarkable chain of events and by the unusual feelings it excited. The rush of sensations was unlike anything they had experienced before, and singing was the best they could do to deal with it. The song’s success in this regard is demonstrated shortly after the music stops: “the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (15:24).

This normalizing effect should be added to the more familiar musical elements of Exodus 15 (e.g., congregational singing, emotional outlet, and identity assertion). When the course of life is interrupted by dramatic incidents—big or small, good or bad—music can help ease the transition back to a comfortable and ordinary state. If the exodus story is any indication, this effect was as well appreciated by the ancients as it is today.