The Avodah Blog

The Discipline and Practice that Enable Spontaneous Joy: Parashat BeShallach (Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song)

Our parasha opens with the first steps of the free, Jewish people. Then, Psyche! Here comes the Egyptian army, and in case there were remaining doubters after the ten plagues and the Egyptian population handing over their property to send us free, a mind-bending splitting of the sea and drowning of the army, washing their corpses to shore while the Israelites watch. No doubt about it: we are really free. The Israelites’ reaction to freedom is to break into song, call and response, prompted by the prophet siblings, Moshe and Miriam. Life begins in song. It’s hard to imagine the vertiginous carnival of emotions the people felt at that moment. How did they focus their energies into that song in unison? What enables a community to respond to crisis and intensity with collective, devotional creativity?

“Then Miriam the prophet, Aharon’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing-flutes. And Miriam prompted them: ‘Sing to YHWH, Who is highly exalted, horse and rider has hurled into the sea’” (Sh’mot/Exodus 15:21-22). There are different opinions as to chronology and choreography of Moshe prompting the men and Miriam prompting the women. Personally, I find most convincing the reading of my teacher, Rabbi Bonna Devora Haberman, z”l, that Miriam initited the song, prompting the women, and once they started, Moshe jumped on board, prompting the men to follow: “Then Moshe and the Israelites sang this song to YHWH, and they said, saying, ‘I will sing to YHWH, Who is highly exalted, horse and rider has hurled into the sea’” (Sh’mot). Be that as it may, how did they know what to do? How does spontaneous response happen? If so much is staked in this song, how do we do it? The Rabbis probe this question a provocative midrash:

“But from where did the Israelites get timbrels and flutes in the desert? Rather, righteous people were confident and knew that the Holy Blessed One was doing miracles and heroic things for them. At the time they left Egypt, they built timbrels and flutes” (Mekhilta of R. Yishma‘el on Sh’mot 15:20). Rashi, quoting this midrash, specifies, “righteous women”.

This midrash teaches a few important lessons about freedom:  1) Liberation requires celebration: there’s a time for confrontation, for morbidity, and for moving to the next challenge. There’s also a time to bust out the instruments and sing and dance. We are not more radical by refusing to celebrate major, partial victories, as all victories are partial. 2) Liberation requires confidence and faith. Even though they had been oppressed and enslaved their whole lives, even though, as we discussed last week, most of the Israelites were naysayers and sellouts, probably mocking the liberationists, nevertheless, some of them had the confidence to prepare for triumph. Maybe being commanded to despoil the Egyptians on their way out — that is, being assured that their labor was valuable and they are owed reparations and had the backing to confront their oppressors to demand them — helped them build up that confidence.  3) Liberation requires preparation. The midrash could have said that they brought instruments they already had or that they took them from the Egyptians. No, they made them. During those two weeks of counting and waiting, after they were told the date it would all go down, when undoubtedly, the Israelite community reverberated with loud and contentious discourse, these righteous women sat down and got to work: I don’t know exactly when we’re going to play these, but when we know, we’ll know, and we have to be ready. Real swagger plans ahead. Miriam and the righteous women teach us that liberation is a practice, a discipline, that even spontaneous expression is fueled by preparation. Before they are free, with just some skins and reeds around, the righteous women see abundance where others see scarcity; they make something out of nothing. And when the moment comes, they don’t just express their readiness, but they bring everyone else in, making their practice communal, prompting the whole people in a joyous call-and-response.

The freedom party ends and grind of free life begins. Immediately after the song, the Torah records a terse, strange passage with several repeated words and ambiguous terms, hinting at doubles entrendres. 

“(22) Then Moshe set Israel out from the Reed Sea and they went toward the wilderness of Shur; they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. (23) They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter (marim); that is why it was named Marah. (24) And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ (25) So he cried out to YHWH, and YHWH taught him (vayorehu) a piece of wood, so he threw it into the waters and the waters sweetened. There he put for them/him (Sham sam lo) a statute and a law, and there he tested him/them. (26) He said, “If you listen, really listen, to the voice of YHWH your God, doing what is upright in [God’s] eyes, giving ear to [God’s] commandments and keeping all [God’s] statutes, then every illness that I put upon the Egyptians I will not put upon you, for I, YHWH, am your healer” (Sh’mot/Exodus 15:22-26).

So many questions. What’s the connection between making poisonous water potable and law-giving? What do both of those have to do with Egyptian diseases and healing? What happened during those three days: were they drinking water throughout, but then it ran out? Have they not drunk for three days? Who is putting the law forward and who is putting whom to a test and what is the test? God to Moshe? God to the collective people? Moshe to the people? Are the Israelites rebellious here or reasonably crying out for help? Why the rhythmic, poetic repetition of the name Marah? How does the bitterness of the water connect with the bitterness of Egypt, “and they embittered/vaymarreru their lives with hard labor” (Sh’mot 1:14)? How does it connect with Miriam, who’s name seems to mean “bitter sea”, and who starred in the previous verse? Is there a hint of the root meri, meaning “rebellion”, such as we find in Psalm 106:7, “Our ancestors in Egypt did not make sense of Your wonders, did not remember Your abundant love, but rebelled/vayamru at the sea, at the Reed Sea”, or in Moshe’s ill-advised dressing-down of the Israelites in a later drought episode, “Listen up, you rebels/ha-morim” (Bemidbar/Numbers 20:10)? Why does God not show Moshe (va-yar’ehu) the wood, but teaches it to him (va-yor’ehu, from the same root as “Torah”)?

On the simplest, narrative level, God institutionalizes a lesson that Miriam and the righteous women had already learned or intuited: You have the tools of your liberation. If water is toxic, there will be some raw material in their environment that can sweeten the water, render the unusable usable, making the poisonous life-giving. God teaches the abundance mindset where we feel scarcity. The word-plays uncover much more: God shows us the wood, but shows it pedagogically, teaching us the tree, training the full people to engage in the freedom practice modeled by Miriam and the righteous women, to let the energy from the freedom song sustain them in more challenging moments. 

Second-century Rabbis highlight specific mitzvot/commandments that they think were commanded at Marah, in verse 25. According to Rabbi Yehoshu‘a, “statute” refers to Shabbat and “law” refers to honoring parents, noticing that on these two of the Ten Commandments, the Torah says, “which YHWH your God has commanded you” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 5:12 and 16). When were they previously commanded? At Marah. Rabbi El‘azar of Modi’in sees linguistic evidence that it was not those two mitzvot, but the sexual prohibitions and civil laws that were commanded at Marah (Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishma‘el on 15:25). The Talmud fuses these views: “Israel were commanded with ten mitzvot at Marah: the seven that all descendants of Noah accepted, and they added to those: Civil laws, Shabbat, and honoring father and mother” (Sanhedrin 56b). The mitzvot taught at Marah manifest core rejections of slavery: Shabbat, is one of only four mitzvot in the Torah commanded with an insistence to “remember that you were slaves” (Devarim 5:14-15), institutionizing regular interruptions in interpersonal labor hierarchies. Honoring parents, an affirmation of of family autonomy, is a rejection of the abuse from Phara‘oh: the entire slavery enterprise stemmed from Phara‘oh’s anxiety about Israelite fertility (Sh’mot 1:7-12), and focused on breaking down Hebrew families, to the point of commanding murder of half of their babies (1:22). Honoring parents, having strong family bonds, is a resilient act of freedom. Civil laws regulating fair and just economic interactions are only possible for people who freely labor for their yield or their wages. 

There is an enormous literature about the meaning and scope of this law-giving at Marah, several weeks before the all-encompassing law-giving Revelation at Mt. Sinai. For our purposes, let’s say just this: the full experience of commandedness is shaped by awe and reverence, the profound weight of our total responsibility in the world. The Torah dramatizes this awe with the thunder and lightning, smoking mountain, and overwhelming power of the Divine voice in next week’s parasha (19:18, etc.): it is staggering to fully grasp our duties in this world. That awe and reverence cannot precede responsibility unless they also proceed from it. Freedom implies responsibility, the stuff of law, which must be learned, internalized, and translated into practice from our experiences. Miriam and the righteous women modeled it and God taught it. In order to receive commandments, we have to be practicing commandedness. Spontaneous celebration can energize us…for about three days. After that, we need the discipline and practice of freedom. As the Ramban explains it, God taught these mitzvot which would soon be commanded again, in the context of the full Revelation, “in order to habituate them to commandments, and to know whether they will receive them joyously and good-heartedly” (comment to Sh’mot 15:25). 

Freedom requires discipline, learned from our experiences outward. This is the stuff of law and it is our most profound songful joy.

Shabbat shalom.

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