This Shabbat has special recognition as the Sabbath of Song, Shabbat Shirah. It is so noted because this week we read/chant Moses’ first great song/poem. Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea is Moses’ response to the Exodus, the experience of leaving Egypt fully free and on the journey to the Promised Land. It is a joyful song that Moses sings and teaches the Israelites.
His sister, Miriam, is also inspired by the experience and adds to her song musical instruments and dance. I can only imagine what these moments felt like to our ancestors. The exhilaration of these first moments of freedom filled our ancestors so fully that they were compelled to sing and dance in joy, gratitude, and relief.
We know, however, that this moment was short lived. As soon as reality hit, the reality of their surroundings – a desert devoid of food and water – they became fearful and irrational. Even in the midst of their miraculous redemption, they turned against Moses and lost faith in God as soon as they became thirsty and hungry.
I marvel at this quick and complete reversal of emotion and belief, and I also understand it very well. It can be so hard to keep the good lifted up in the midst of fear and chaos. Fear can be completely overwhelming. Fear can paralyze us or worse cause us to act contrary to what our higher selves call us to do.
Perhaps it is for this very reason that we include verses from Moses and Miriam’s song in each and every worship service we celebrate. Coming at the end of the Sh’ma and its blessings and right before the Amidah we chant the words: “Who is like You, Adonai, among the gods that are worshipped?” We remind ourselves each day of the blessing of goodness that surrounds us, especially when we experience chaos and fear. We remember that there is good in our world and that there is strength in faith.
The rabbis of our tradition play off the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzraim, to teach about the Israelite journey and our own journey toward the Promised Land. Egypt, Mitzraim, was a makom tsar, a narrow place. Leaving this narrow place and entering the sea, the Israelites emerged on the other side as a new creation…reborn. So it is with us. The goodness never leaves. Even in the narrow place of fear there is the promise of rebirth and renewal. Therefore, we sing the ever-new song of Moses and Miriam: “Who is like You, Adonai, among the gods that are worshipped? Who is like You adorned in holiness working wonders?”
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.