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Shmot - Beshallach

The choir practice and the packing list

It’s Shabbat Shira - the parasha in which we read the Song of the Sea, Shirat HaYam - sung first by Moshe and then by Miriam who leads the women in dance. I have memories of some very special Kehillat (Na)shira services falling on this shabbat, where anyone lucky enough to be leining or given an aliya gets to see the beautiful formation of the Torah calligraphy, laid out a bit like waves of the sea that is dramatically split to let the Israelites through.

The parasha is dramatic beginning to end. It spans six weeks, beginning with our ancestors trooping out of Egypt and heading to the Read Sea. The euphoria and faith that comes with the sea splitting and drowning the murderous Egyptian army is intense but doesn’t last long. By the end of just this parasha, the Israelites have grumbled about hunger or thirst no fewer than three times and they have faced their first gruelling battle with an enemy blocking their path - in this case Amalek. Freedom, they discover, does not come served on a golden platter.

Let’s focus on the song and music before the going gets tough though, because the theme of singing to express faith is so close to our community. While the whole Song would take more than the space we have here to unpack, let’s just look at the first word: אָז, as in “az yashir”. Translated as “then Moshe sang” or “so Moshe sang”, we might well ask why this word אָז was necessary. Why not begin simply with “Moshe sang”?

The 17th Century talmudist and kabbalist known as Or HaChayim suggests that the “then” hints towards a much bigger back-story: “The Torah wanted to tell us of the preparation which resulted in that song of jubilation. After Israel acquired the fear of God's Majesty, which in turn resulted in a profound measure of faith both in God and in Moses, they were inspired to sing this song of thanksgiving.”

I love the idea of a lengthy process of choir-practice that came before reaching the Red Sea. It explains how such a complex song came to develop and while it may feel less romantic than a spontaneous song, it also feels more real.

This also reminds me of a beautiful midrash that explains how Miriam and the other women at the Red Sea came to have tambourines at hand ready to dance with:

“The righteous women in that generation were confident that God would perform miracles for them and they accordingly had brought timbrels with them from Egypt” (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 15:20:2).

So the “az” of “az yashir” teaches us that behind the spontaneity of song and dance, came preparation - choir practice and careful packing. My teacher Rav Avi Weiss likes to quote his teacher, Rav Soloveitchik, who said “אין קדושה בלי הכנה” - “there can be no holiness without preparation”. Whether it’s the pre-Shabbat rush or the work that goes into each Kehillat Nashira service, this rings so true.

May our community always embody this dual quality of Bnei Yisrael at the Red Sea - the ability to plan ahead and prepare thoroughly, and the inspiration in the moment to look and feel spontaneous. Maybe we should consider a new name - Kehillat Az Nashira!


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