My Song and My Strength – Parashat Beshallah 2012

The splitting of the Sea of Reeds is, perhaps, the most exhilarating scene in the Torah: The Israelites, escaping Pharaoh’s cruel slavery, hastily flee from Egypt and camp at the banks of the Sea.  Meanwhile, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened one last time, and he sends his entire army charging after them.  The Israelites find themselves trapped between the impassable Sea and Pharaoh’s charging army.  It appears to be certain death.  But miraculously, God causes the Sea to split in two, allowing the Israelites to cross safely.  And when Pharaoh’s troops follow them, the sea returns, crashing down and drowning the Egyptians. Thus, Israel secures its redemption from slavery.

When the Israelites see the Egyptian charioteers dead on the shore of the sea, Moses erupts into song, leading the Israelites in a triumphant anthem now known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea.

After Moses’ song ends, we are told that “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them.”  Led by Miriam, the Israelite women sing a song which, though substantially shorter than the men’s song, is quite similar: “Shiru l’Adonai ki ga’oh ga’ah, sus v’rokhvo ramah bayam! Sing to Adonai, for God has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea!”

For me, there are a number of questions this story raises, but I want to bring to our attention one incredible question found in an ancient rabbinic midrash on the Book of Exodus, known as the Mekhilta:

V’khi m’nayin hayu lahen tupim u’maholot ba-midbar?!

Why would the women have drums and timbrels in the wilderness?!

What a profound question! Think about it: we are taught in last week’s Torah portion – and, whether we like it or not, we are reminded every year on Passover when we take that first bite of matzah – that the Israelites run away from Egypt toward the wilderness with such haste that they did not even take the time to let their bread rise.  In that mad scramble to leave Egypt, what possessed the Israelite women to stop and say, “Hold on, Moses!  Wait a minute!  I’ll be right with you.  I just have to run back home and get my drums.”

So, given what we know about the nature of the Exodus from Egypt, why did the women even think to – much less take the time and energy to – pack their instruments?

According to the medieval French commentator Rashi: Muvtahot hayu tzidkaniyot she-bador she-haKadosh Barukh Hu Oseh lahem nissim, v’hotziyu tupim mi-Mitzrayim / The righteous women of that generation were certain that God would perform miracles for them.  So they brought drums from Egypt.”

The women did not just hope that God would perform miracles for them.  They were confident about it.  They were certain of it.  Avivah Zornberg remarks that the women “prepare for miracles: almost a contradiction in terms.  They are set for wonder, carrying the instruments of song with them through the corridors of fear.”

There is a profound power in the optimism of these Israelite women. Facing the uncertain abyss of chaotic liberation, they are so positive that “everything will be okay” that they take care to bring musical instruments to celebrate the inevitable triumph.

A number of years ago, a Protestant minister named Norman Vincent Peale wrote an influential book called The Power of Positive Thinking.  In that book, Peale argued that a positive attitude makes seemingly impossible achievements possible, while negativity and doubt tend to produce failure.  “When you expect the best,” he said, “you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of attraction tends to bring out the best in you…”

One of the examples he gives is of Josh O’Reilly.  O’Reilly was the coach of a struggling baseball team, a group of talented guys with a losing attitude.  They doubted themselves too much.  So O’Reilly devised a plan: he had heard of a preacher who was believed to have the powers of faith-healing.  He told his players that he was going to have the preacher bless their bats.  The players gave O’Reilly their bats, and he put them in a wheelbarrow, and hauled them off.  A couple hours later, O’Reilly gave back the bats and told them that this powerful healer had blessed them, and he had been given assurances that the bats would now get results.

The players were energized. The next day, they went out and beat the pants off their biggest rival.

According to Peale, what changed was not the bats, but the players’ minds.  They stopped doubting themselves, stopped expecting failure, and started expecting greatness.

That’s what happened with the Israelite women.  The fact that they expected miracles meant that they would not relent until they had one to celebrate.

So the Israelite women, through their faith, are an example for all of us.  We can drag ourselves to failure through doubt and pessimism, or we can lead ourselves to great things by expecting them to happen.

And yet, as I say this, I know that it is only a half-truth.

Simply hoping that something will be does not make it inevitable.  I can expect a great many things, but my expectations give no guarantee that those things will come true.  I know many people who never once doubted that their marriages would last, only to find themselves divorced.  When my friend Joel was diagnosed with Leukemia, he didn’t entertain the possibility that he wouldn’t make a full recovery.  He had complete faith that he would get better.  But his belief did not cure him.

Perhaps, then, I ought to be teaching the opposite lesson to us today, that positive thinking has no power, that we ought not expect miracles.  It is the lesson of Murphy’s Law that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”  Perhaps the wisest possible course of action is always to be prepared for the worst.  And it is the lesson of the Israelite men who, as they flee slavery, pack something quite different than the Israelite women.

The beginning of our portion says v’hamushim alu bnei yisrael m’eretz Mitzrayim, which Rashi and nearly every other commentator interpret to mean that the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.  Unsure of what they would encounter, the Israelite men came prepared to defend themselves.  And wouldn’t you know it, not a few weeks into their journey, the armor and weaponry that the Israelite men think to take with them becomes necessary. Toward the end of our portion, a nomadic people called the Amalekites viciously and cynically attack the Children of Israel, an attack that, fortunately, the Israelite forces are prepared to repel.

It seems like sound policy, then.  Who knows what would have happened, God forbid, if the Israelites were unarmed when attacked by Amalek?

Without the capacity to protect ourselves, without the wisdom to take care of our physical needs, without the realism of acknowledging that life is fragile and constantly in peril and that the worst case scenario may ultimately come true, none of us would be here today.

At the same time, though, this doctrine is also only partially true.

At one point, at the height of World War II, Churchill’s advisors came to him and said, “We’re going to stop all funding for the arts so we can put that into the war effort.” To which Churchill responded, “Then what are we fighting for?”

The realism to defend oneself, the pragmatism of providing for one’s physical needs is necessary, for without it we would not be able to live.  But when pragmatism comes at the expense of the transcendent, when it diminishes our capacity to hope and dream, to sing and dance, to expect good things even though we know on some level that the worst may happen, when pragmatism itself threatens these things, we cease to live lives worth defending.  In the words of the Torah, ki lo al ha-lehem levado yihyeh ha-Adam / man does live on bread alone / ki al kol motza pi Adonai yihyeh ha-Adam / Rather, a man will live through that which God utters.

We appear, then, to be left with a paradox: We must expect miracles, and at the same time, we must not rely on miracles.  We must be prepared to sing and dance, and at the same time, we must be ready to fight.

How can we be expected to be idealists and pragmatists at once?

The answer, I think, is God. One of the great lines of the Song of the Sea is ozi v’zimrat yah va-yehi li lishu’a. God is my strength and my song, and will become my deliverance.  God holds the tension of both of these extremes; that, on the one hand, I ought to expect to sing, I ought not entertain the possibility of failure because doubt, and especially self-doubt, often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; and yet, on the other hand, I ought to expect the need for strength, that sometimes we stumble, sometimes we fall, sometimes we are threatened, sometimes we have a need that must be looked after, and it is important to be prepared to tend to those needs when they arise.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg once described it this way: Imagine you have a tug of war.  On the right is the need to be optimistic.  On the left is the need to be realistic.  And they both pull in opposite directions, creating an impossible tension in the rope.

But suppose in the center we introduce a new force, one that lifts upward.  Our two opposing forces now swing together; and the harder they pull, the closer together they come.

God is that third force.  God eases the tension created by these two extremes.

God eases the tension because through God, we have purpose.  I know when it is proper to be realistic, to be prepared for my own defense: when it aligns with the high calling that God has laid out for me.  This is not always. We know that, for example, in the Jewish tradition, there are even times when we must lay down our defenses, when we must choose death rather than violate a Divine precept.  I know that the preservation of life is urgent, that it trumps many other values, and that we must always be prepared to save; but I also know that its primacy is not absolute.

And with God, I know when I get to believe I am capable of any achievement, when I can count on miracles happening.  I know that performing mitzvot makes miracles happen for others, even if not always for myself.  I know that, having been created in the image and likeness of the Sovereign of the Universe, I am a prince who is entitled to great things.  But I also know that I can’t simply rely on Divine intervention when I am sick.

This is why, when the Israelites are fighting against Amalek, Moses has them look upward to his raised hands, so they remember God.  Because God reminds them what they are fighting for.

And Miriam the prophetess is not only responsible for music, singing, and dancing.  She also makes sure the people always have fresh water.  Because God requires providing for the body as well as the spirit.

So expect miracles in your life.  And be prepared for the times when they don’t happen.  And cast your eyes heavenward for guidance on the way forward by a God of strength and of song.  That will become our deliverance.

Shabbat Shalom.

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One Response to My Song and My Strength – Parashat Beshallah 2012

  1. Well done. Hope you keep posting more posts like this. If you have a chance, check out my blog

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