Tag Archives: Song of the Sea

Commentary for Masei

25 Jul

This week’s parshah is best know for its listing of the places the Israelites have travelled to and camped in from the time they left Egypt until they reached their current location on the Eastern bank of the Jordan River, about to cross into the Promised Land. Strangely, this section, a long list of places the Israelites have been, written in the form “they set out from Here and they encamped There,” with very short references to stories that we have already read thrown in occasionally, is read with a special cantillation reminiscent of the special cantillation used for the Song of the Sea. Why should a dry list of places the Israelites have camped be infused the same special joy as a moment of spontaneous thanksgiving and rejoicing at the salvation of our entire nation?


Looking to this week’s Haftarah, we find a very different tone. This Hafatarah, the second of the three Haftarahs of admonition before Tisha B’Av, is the beginning of the prophet Jeremiah’s rebuke of the Israelites. “Thus said the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in Me that they abandoned Me and went after delusion and were deluded. They never asked themselves ‘where is the Lord, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, a land of deserts and pits, a land no man had traversed, where no human being had dwelt (Jer. 2:5 – 6)?’” Although it may seem dull and humdrum, when viewed in the terms Jeremiah puts it in, the Israelites journey through the desert is absolutely miraculous, and fully deserving of the celebratory cantillation of the Song of the Sea.


In our society we often find ourselves looking at the world with a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude, and this often carries over to our view of religion as well.   From this parshah we learn that it is important to remember all of the things that seem small and routine that are, in and of themselves, miraculous. Even the seemingly simple fact that our bodies’ function is miraculous when you think about just how complex an organism a human being is. Just like the cantillation in this week’s parshah does for the list of the Israelites journeys, we can take every little miracle and use it to fill our lives with joy.


Commentary for End of Pesach

20 Apr

On the seventh day of Passover we read the Song of the Sea, the first of the poetic, specially-formatted sections called “songs” in the Bible which record momentous Israelite victories over their foes. Rather than the standard columns of text with spacing (sometimes half a line, sometimes until the end of the line) between the paragraphs, these passages are written with spaces of set lengths coming between each phrase in a pattern. These patterns can take two forms: One has the text of each line split up into two columns with a set space in the middle of them, while the other has the text alternate lines between the first pattern and a pattern of one lone word on each side of the column with a smaller space between those words and a phrase of text set in the middle of the column.

(Tried to make an example here, but it was a pain in the butt.  Find a Chumash if you need help visualizing.

The rabbis refer to the columns as “walls” and to the phrases that make them up as “half bricks” (short phrases) and “full bricks” (longer phrases). Given the events of the story, one would assume that the Song of the Sea would be the first pattern. The imagery fits in perfectly, with what is normally one column being separated into two, creating a space in the middle, just as God did for the Israelites and the Israelites in the “space” on the scroll being surrounded by “a ‘wall’ for them, on their right and on their left” as is described in Ex. 14:22 and 28, which are the only two verses not part of the song itself which are read with the same special cantillation used for the song. Furthermore, one would think that a large, full wall of bricks would be a reminder of the bricks the Israelites were forced to make as slaves in Egypt (which we commemorate with charoset on Passover).

The Rabbis take a much different view, though. They note that the “songs” which focus on the destruction of Israel’s enemies (such as the listing of Haman’s ten sons in Esther 9:7-9 or the list of the Canaanite kings the Israelites defeat in Joshua 12:9-24) are all recorded in the first pattern. Their “walls” look like unstable towers that could be easily toppled and brought down, just as God did to the men whose names comprise the words of those weak walls.

The walls of the “songs” that focus on God’s active role in our salvation through miraculous, clearly supernatural actions like the Song of the Sea, use the second pattern, which the rabbis note looks like one strong firm wall full of bricks. If we put our faith in God, God will support us, just the bricks of this wall of the Song of the Sea support each other, and just as God supported the Israelites in their time of need.