Beshalach: Song of the Sea

Miriam Brought Tambourines

On Shabbat Shirah, “Shabbat of Song,” we chant the Song of the Sea, a jubilant ballad the Israelites sang after God parted the Red Sea for them. There are actually two songs of the sea, one sung by the men and another by the women. Only one line is common to both, and therefore this line is presumed to convey the distilled essence of the song: “I will sing to God for He is exalted above all exaltedness, a horse and its rider He heaved into the sea.” (Ex. 15:1, 15:21)

Why does the Torah cite a “horse and rider heaved into the sea” as evidence of God’s exaltedness? Why not summon a more dramatic image, like the sea’s miraculous parting or the destruction of the world’s mightiest army? The Sefas Emes (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) explains that the horse and rider are mentioned to emphasize that God runs the world. Just as a rider thinks he controls his horse, so do humans often think we are solely responsible for our successes in life (and our failures.) In reality, God controls everything, and all that happens is part of God’s plan. Both humans and animals are clay in the hands of our Molder. 

The Egyptians denied the existence of the One God, instead worshipping the human Pharaoh, who was unable to protect them from the overpowering force of the God of Israel. We are taught to emulate not the idolatrous Egyptians but the righteous Hebrew women who celebrated by the sea. Why the women specifically? Because while both the men and the women sang and danced, only the women – led by the prophetess Miriam – had musical instruments. They believed with such perfect faith that God would continue to perform miracles for them that before leaving Egypt, they grabbed their tambourines.

Image: “Miriam the Heroine of the Bible” by sculptor A. V. Loganovsky, 1849

Dedicated by Wanda Peretz in memory of Yakov Schwartz

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