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Our parashah of Beshalach opens with:
וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם
בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה. וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱלֹהִ֧ים ׀ אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם.
“When Pharaoh sent the people forth, Hashem did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearby. For Hashem said, “The people may reconsider when they see battle, and they will return to Egypt. So Hashem led the people roundabout by way of the desert to the Red Sea.”1
Introduction: Paths to Redemption
The lesson that keeps coming up is that the path to the Promised Land – and to holiness – is fraught with obstacles, and we each must overcome our doubts and confusions and clarify our goals before meriting our ultimate goals. This happened first with Avraham, having to go to Egypt first, and now we see it happening to the entire Jewish nation2 Instead of leading B’nei Yisrael by way of the “Philistines,” Hashem took them around. As Mac Miller sings on “Hurt Feelings” about being stuck in a rut: “I’ve been going through it, you just go around it.” It sometimes feels like the only way to power through something is to push directly through it, but sometimes a circular path instead of a direct one is more healing and conducive to holiness. It allows time for healing and clarity, and that is exactly how we as a nation pushed through the waters of the Red Sea and became free.
This parashah features the song that Moshe and the three million Jews of the Exodus burst into in unison after they were saved by the splitting of the Red Sea. Prior to taking their fateful step into the sea, they were surrounded on all sides– Pharaoh and the Egyptians pursuing them from behind, the sea in front of them, a forest on one side and impassable cliffs on the other.
Spiritual exile corresponds to Egypt, and we find ourselves spiritually stuck and often feeling trapped in our own lives, sometimes in indecision, other times by a series of obstacles that seem insurmountable. It’s each of our willingness to draw close to Hashem that represents our own exodus from impurity and indecision, to purity and clarity, from faithlessness to a life more faithfully balanced. Often, when we do feel trapped and feel that we have no viable options left, we are only left with crying out, speaking out, praying out to Hashem, and in those times we will see the waters open up and the beginning of a redemption will reveal itself.
It’s written in Tehillim, “the sea saw and fled.”3 Reb Natan of Breslov teaches that the entire night that B’nei Yisrael waited by the sea, the disparaging angels tried to make a case to Hashem that the Jews weren’t worthy, but the sea saw the coffin of Yoseph that they carried, fulfilling the promise to bring his bones to Eretz Yisrael, and in the merit of the Avot (Patriarchs) the sea split. But it did not split just then, as Hashem waited for the Jews to express themselves in tefillah. When they finally did in the morning, Hashem answered them. Hashem has abundant redemption stored up for each person, and we need to make the effort to receive it through Torah, prayers and the mitzvot.4
Taking the Plunge in Faith
When it’s written, “The angel of Hashem who walked before the camp now walked behind it,”5 this refers to Moshe, who was giving them a chance to take action to prove their faith. When Hashem commanded Moshe to “Speak to the Children of Israel and they will move forward,” (וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ)6 it was at that moment that Nachshon Ben Aminadav proceeded to jump into the sea, that the action of faith was fulfilled, and the sea split. Moshe had to give space for that to take place.
Or Hachayim explains Hashem’s instruction in this case as the blueprint on how to be saved. B’nei Yisrael at that moment were at their lowest ebb of faith. This caused the disparaging angels to say, “How are the Jews any better than the Egyptians?” And addressing their complaints, Hashem said to Moshe, “Why are you crying to Me?”7 It’s puzzling because it was not Moshe who was crying, but the nation. Ramban addresses this seemingly strange verse, explaining that Moshe symbolizes and embodies the Jewish people, so while addressing Moshe, he means the Jewish people. The Talmud Yerushalmi states, “All of Israel are one body”8 and gives the analogy of two hands of the same body. The revelation of oneness is when we tap into our spiritual essence, the focus of soul over body, then we can see the interconnection and oneness of all Jewish souls stemming from “the source of their souls in the one God.”9 As the Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya, this results from “elevating and raising the soul higher and higher to its root and source.”
And so Hashem commanded Moshe to rekindle the light and faith within the Jews: “Speak to the Children of Israel and they will move forward,” and by virtue of that they will be saved.
All the recurring themes of Egypt/Mitzrayim (constriction), safek (doubt) and Amalek (the nation and notion we are commanded to eradicate) come to their most revealed state in this week’s reading, as B’nei Yisrael are led in circles in the desert, Pharaoh and the Egyptians come to take them back into enslavement, but they take a faithful step to clarity, leaving their doubts behind.
When they question and doubt the salvation entirely, they reach a low spiritual realm, seemingly no different than the Egyptians, and while one could argue if they even merited redemption, this was the deciding moment to show faith. To be redeemed, action had to be taken: if they lost hope, gave up, and hadn’t taken the faithful step into the sea believing Hashem would save them, but if they did take that fateful step, it would prove their allegiance and demonstrate an action towards full faith. It was at that moment that they were redeemed.
How to Sing the Song of Salvation
This is the parashah of the Shirah, the Song of the Sea. There are, according to the Midrash, ten preeminent songs in our tradition that stand out as the key occasions in which our redemption manifested into music. The first was sung on the night of the Exodus in Egypt,10, the second we read this week, the “Song at the Sea”11, the next is the “Song at the Well”12, then we have Ha’Azinu, Moshe’s song to commemorate completing the writing the Torah13, then there is the song with which Yehoshua stopped the sun14, there is Deborah’s song15, King David’s song16, the song at the dedication of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple)17, and of course, Shir HaShirim (King Solomon’s Song of Songs). The tenth song will be the Shir Chadashah, the “New Song”, the one, much like the Song of the Sea, that we all sing in unison in the final redemption.
As we read and sing, “God is my strength and my song; He will be my salvation.”18 ‘Strength’ refers to Torah and ‘Song’ refers to tefillah. When a person is able to turn their Torah study into tefillah before Hashem, asking for help, asking for the dveykus (clinging to) of observing the Torah, then “[Hashem] will be my salvation.”19
Abarbanel points out that the 9th verse of the song, which reads that the Egyptians desire to “give chase, overtake, and divide the spoils,” illustrates that their desire wasn’t to take B’nei Yisrael back to Egypt to enslave them again, but to kill them in the desert and take their riches. Of course, fate had a different ending in mind. In the 13th verse, we read that Hashem leads B’nei Yisrael to His “holy habitation,” which Ramban explains is the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple), as it is written in Yeshayahu, “all nations will flow unto it,”20 and further in Yeshayahu, “Look upon Zion, our festival city, our tranquil habitation.”21
Chazal (Our Sages) have differing opinions of the way the Shirah manifested and how leadership should play out. Rabbi Akiva holds that the people responded to each of Moshe’s verses with “I will sing to God” after every verse, like a chorus would. And in that way, they acknowledged and agreed with the path laid out for them by their leader (Moshe), but it never became wholly their own. Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabbi Yossi HaGalili, holds that they repeated every verse after Moshe, demonstrating that a leader can elevate his people, when the leader’s understanding can truly become their own. Rabbi Nechemiah holds that the people were so inspired that they too merited ruach hakodesh, the spirit of prophecy, and so they recited the song together with Moshe. And by this, Rabbi Nechemiah’s belief is that a leader makes leaders, so much so that they become partners and share the leader’s vision with their own eyes.
Leaders and Unity
The Lubavitcher Rebbe expands on these concepts, taking them further, teaching that Jewish leadership results from an inherent spiritual potential that goes beyond a physically bound concept. And that the true leader embodies a collective soul– the soul of the people as a whole– and connects them all to their Godly source. The Kabbalah explains the Jewish people as a whole being, one human body, and that there are two organs that relate to the life-force of the body as a whole– the brain and the heart. It is through this that every member can be elevated beyond our own subjectivity and connected to the Godly spark and source that we all share. That unification through song, no matter how ephemeral it may have been, was the beauty and clarity of a state of full faith, and no fear.22
And so we know at that moment the entire people tapped into Moshe’s illuminated state of da’at (higher perception) that was so powerful and unifying that they recited the song in unison “without any distinction or differentiation.”23
The Rebbe goes on to explain:
It is possible to say that the breakthrough achieved through the Song of the Sea was that the unity that stems from the Jews’ essential being was overtly manifest. Generally, the essence of the soul is not expressed. Therefore, there are differences between Jews. When reciting the Song of the Sea, the Jews’ essence was revealed. As a result, these differences were eclipsed.
For this reason the unity was expressed through song, which is an expression of joy. “Joy breaks through barriers.”24 So too, in the instance at hand, joy breaks through a person’s inner limitations and self-definitions and penetrates to the essence and core of his soul. Moreover, joy reflects the revelation of inner potentials25 The rejoicing in the recitation of the song brought the essence of the Jews’ souls – and the unity stemming from their essential oneness – into revelation. (The manifestation of the Jews’ unity paralleled the revelation of the Divine presence that was manifest in a visible manner. When the Jews recited, “This is my God,”26 they were able to point their fingers at His presence.27
To this day we all struggle with staying unified as a people and unified with the Source of all life itself. When we left Egypt, we were still fearful of Pharaoh– these elements of fear take a long time to overcome. The miracle when the sea split is that it also parted our beings from fear. The less fear, the more free we are, and the more we can grow. What is the most crippling element that could paralyze a person? It’s not a lack of self-confidence; it’s fear. The prophecy B’nei Yisrael merited was because their fear washed away at that moment. It was at that moment that all the Jews reached the highest level and visions. It’s said that the simplest person reached an even higher level than Ezekiel the Prophet. It was then that we had the same vision as Moshe and sang in unison.
When we left Egypt, Pharaoh still existed in reality and in the mind of each Jew. That evil still overpowered them, to the point that they dared say, “Are there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert?” They had such crippling fear that they couldn’t let go and celebrate their freedom. They couldn’t sing their song of redemption yet. But when they crossed over the Red Sea, Pharaoh and the Egyptians all got washed away. There was no evil in their world and no fear in their hearts.
Song as Divine Inspiration
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach says that in order to sing one has to be free. The slaves from Africa used to sing to tell you that no matter how much you tried to enslave them, they were still free. As Nelson Mandela said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Singing comes from the world of freedom. When you sing, you are telling evil, “You don’t have dominion over me.”
The word מדבר/midbar (“desert”) and דבר/dibur (“speech”) share the same root. Speech and song represent freedom, and the desert landscape is a metaphor for freedom– it’s a place where the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) showed most clearly to Moshe — at the Burning Bush and Mt. Sinai– and to the Children of Israel– in the ananei hakavod (clouds of glory) and countless other examples. The desert is a place without distraction and so is the place where humility lives; it’s a place where the dance with Divine consciousness paves the path to unification.
The elevated state, the space of calm and feeling aligned, is when we focus on the spiritual and do the mitzvot and not fall into the desires that our physicality leads us towards. Fear is a result of faithlessness, however momentary the feeling. In the film, Anything Else, Woody Allen looks at Jason Biggs and says, “there is a seminal joke that Henny Youngman used to tell that I think is perfect. It sums it up perfectly as far as you go… A guy comes into a doctor’s office. He says, ‘Doc, it hurts when I do this.’ The doctor says, ‘Don’t do it.’… Think about that.” It’s never as easy as it sounds or as it feels it should be, because even B’nei Yisrael on the brink of redemption felt the urge to turn back to Egypt and to enslavement. And so we have to focus on faith and that is always strengthened by action, but the sort connected to the source and not to the sitra achra (the other side). We have to take action to remain faithful, we have to take the first step towards the waters of redemption and never, God forbid, the actions that hurt us, taking us away from that.
Prophecy is a state of consciousness that is achieved when an individual experiences an intense bond with God. And this is done through song. You could picture the moment and the joy of redemption reading as Miriam, the elder sister of Moshe, led the female encore to the Song at the Sea. As we read, “Miriam the prophetess … took the tambourine in her hand; and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances…. And Miriam called to them: Sing to G‑d…”28
In Talmud Berachot it teaches, “Words emanating from the heart enter the heart.”29 Kabbalists explain that music helps banish extraneous thoughts and clears the mind, cutting away impure thoughts that envelop the soul, allowing a person to connect to the Light of the Infinite. Music is also something that can be played in circles infinitely. In fact, that is often how the prophets would reach their state of nevuah (prophecy)– a riff would be played repetitively and act as a mantra, a meditation, until the navi would enter a prophetic state.
And as we know, in the times of Mashiach, prophecy will return to the people. The music of our redemption will be realized.
Rabbi Trugman (the father-in-law of one of my best friends, Eden Pearlstein) writes, inspired by the Ramchal, in his sefer Derech Hashem, that there are a number of ways to become a fitting vessel for obtaining divine inspiration and prophetic experience. Perhaps the easiest to comprehend and use is music, because music penetrates the mind, the heart, and the soul in a manner unlike any other experience. It allows the soul to soar to heavenly heights giving people wings for their most glorious aspirations and dreams, an expression to their deepest pain and existential loneliness. Music is a cosmic language that unites the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul, universal and particular, while simultaneously transcending time and temporal space altogether. It was exactly this loftiest experience that the people of Israel achieved as they sang the song of the sea together.
Capture Your Moment
Carlebach shares such a deep Torah about the Exodus. In this parashah the word “Vayehi” is used, a word that alludes to something sad, which begs the question, why use a sad word when writing that Pharaoh let the Jewish people go? The Divrei Bina of Biala explains that there are moments when we have the opportunity to receive everything in the world, but human nature has us satisfied with much less and so we don’t receive what we could have. The night B’nei Yisrael left Egypt, Hashem would have given us anything, redemption to the world, the moshiach, but B’nei Yisrael, because of their doubt, were satisfied with just getting out of Egypt.
We often doubt ourselves when we attempt to do something that we want or need, and once we see that we are able to do what we had doubted, we too feel satisfied with reaching even the lowest level of our initial want, without realizing and pushing further past that initial stage. We don’t often realize how much we are actually capable of and that we could tap into God’s light for so much more than we could have ever dreamed possible.
As we covered last week, we are always reflecting God’s light even when we think it’s “our own”. Once we tap into that Godly energy and recognize that all our strengths and goodness come from this Godly source, we can also begin to recognize how truly powerful and capable we are, not because of our own doing, but simply because we are created by God. Which is a powerful thought when trying to renew ourselves or trying something new– if you think it’s just you, alone, it may seem insurmountable, but realizing that we are part of an eternal Oneness and a reflection of God, it becomes less challenging.
Carlebach shared a beautiful story in this regard. Reb Nachman of Horodenka (Reb Nachman of Brelov’s grandfather) was one of the greatest chassidim of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He had always told the Ba’al Shem Tov that he wished to marry someone very special. There was a young woman who would come to the Ba’al Shem Tov wishing the same. So, the next time the young woman came to him, he replied, “I have someone very special. This Reb Nachman is my highest, but he is a little bit out of this world. You must promise me that if you have any complaints, you will come and tell me.”
The two got married and a strange thing started to happen: Reb Nachman didn’t go to their new home to sleep and spend time, not even on the night of the wedding. He would come for lunch or breakfast and that was it. So, the woman went to the Ba’al Shem Tov to let him know about this odd predicament she found herself in. The Ba’al Shem Tov immediately went to Reb Nachman and said, “Nachman, what’s going on, why don’t you go home?” So he saidm “Rebbe, you know and I know, sadly enough, that it’s decreed for her to die in childbirth. I don’t want her to die so young.” So the Ba’al Shem Tov said, “Let me tell you something: why don’t you just talk to your wife straight?”
Reb Nachman of course followed his Rebbe and went home to speak to his bride and said, “I want you to know, I love you so much. The reason I’m not coming home is because I know what’s decreed in heaven, and I don’t want you to die.” She looked saddened and said to her husband, “Is the way I am living now any better? I would rather have one good year with you than live like this forever.”
They started to live together happily and that same year she had a baby. When the baby was born, she cried out to Hashem, “Ribbono shel Olam, I can’t leave like this. I carried this baby in my womb for nine months, and I won’t even see it? Ribbono shel Olam, let me live for four weeks.”
And she did. She was granted four more weeks of life, but then the saddest thing in the world happened, she passed away. They named the baby Simcha (happiness), and this Simcha is the father of Reb Nachman of Breslov.
Reb Nachman Horodenka was distraught and ran to his Rebbe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, to tell him what happened. The Ba’al Shem Tov screamed out, “Oy, don’t you know that at that moment all the gates were open for her? She could have asked G-d to stay alive forever.”
We don’t often realize the power we hold. The Jews at the brink of receiving the full revealed Light of the Infinite could have brought us to the time of Kulo Shabbat, but they were stuck in the mindset of feeling that they should perhaps go back to Egypt where food was guaranteed, so just their salvation from the Egyptians at that moment when the Egyptians meant to kill them was enough of a relief for them. Had their emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust) been unwavering, the full redemption could have come, but instead only the beginning stage towards the final redemption came. And as we know after the Egyptian exile came exiles at the hands of Babylon, Persia, and Rome. If only their faith was on the level of Moshe at that moment the full redemption would have come right then.
Carlebach’s story meant to illustrate the same lesson that the moment the gates are open, we can’t limit ourselves to something or to anything at all.30
As we read, “Then Moshe and B’nei Yisrael sang this song to Hashem. (אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽה’)”31
But as we see in verse 17, Moshe prays that the redemption will be forever and there will be no more exile, but in the next verse, B’nei Yisrael sing that “Hashem will reign forever and ever.”32 It is the will, the future tense, instead of is, the present tense, that made all the difference. Had they proclaimed it in the present, they could have ushered in the final redemption right then, but not realizing the power they had, they were satisfied with just the Egyptian exile itself.
But we have to recognize that at that moment all of Israel and Moshe had the same vision. “Az yashir Moshe u-v’nei Yisrael….“33 The Kabbalah teaches us that the sea is a symbol of concealment, as it’s a place where everything is covered by water. The sea splitting is a symbol of revelation, when that which has been hidden becomes revealed. Moshe and three million Jews are all singing. For one moment, they all had the same vision as Moshe, and they were ready to receive the absolute highest. The Zohar says whoever sings Az Yashir (the Song of the Sea, the Song of Deliverance) every day with kavanah (sincerity) will have their sins forgiven and will merit singing it together with mashiach and all of Israel in the time of our ultimate redemption.34
It’s not enough to ask for the redemption, as we already know it is coming; we must ask for it speedily at this very moment, and with that bask in the revealed Light of Infinite forever, Amen.
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Notes & Sources
- Exodus 13:17,18
- Likutey Halachot II, p. 232 – 117a
- Psalms 114:3
- Likutey Halachot II, p. 23a
- Exodus 14:19
- Ibid 14:15
- Ibid 14:15
- Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4
- Samach Tisamach, Sefer HaMaamarim 5672-5676, p. 50
- Isaiah 30:29
- Exodus 15:1-21
- Numbers 21:17-20
- Deuteronomy 32
- Joshua 10:12-13
- Judges 5
- II Samuel 22
- Psalms 30
- Exodus 15:2
- Likutey Halachot III, p. 100a
- Yeshayahu 2:2
- Isaiah 33:30
- Likkutei Sichot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shmos, p. 188
- Maamarei Admur HaEmtza, Vayikra, Vol. 1, p. 330
- Samach Tisamach, Sefer HaMaamarim 5657, p. 223ff
- Torah Or, p. 62b
- Rashi on Exodus 15:2
- Likkutei Sichot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shmos, p. 206
- Exodus 15:20-21
- Talmud Berachot 6b
- The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach p. 167-169
- Exodus 15:1
- Ibid 15:18
- Ibid 15:1
- Zohar II, 54b