Parshat Beshalach describes the trials and wonders experienced by the children of Israel in the days following their departure from Egypt. The events in the Parasha unfold rapidly.
They become aware of the complex path they must traverse to reach the land of Canaan, and the Kadosh Baruch Hu decides to guide them through the path of the Red Sea, which would seem like an insurmountable barrier, instead of taking the coastal route where they would inevitably encounter other warrior peoples, such as the Hittites.
"Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt. So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17-18)
Pharaoh, informed of the departure of the children of Israel, regrets and sends his army after them. Then the sea miraculously opens before the Hebrews, allowing them to cross on dry land, and it closes, swallowing the forces of Pharaoh.
Led by Moses and his sister Miriam, the people are allowed to burst into joy and songs of praise. In the desert, they face thirst and hunger, but at Moses' request, God comes to their aid by providing water and manna.
A first military confrontation occurs between the Israelite troops, led by Joshua bin Nun, and the Amalekites, symbolizing the eternal enemy of our people. Israel emerges victorious and continues its journey.
However, at the end of the parasha, the Israelites face an attack against their new archenemy, the Amalekites. So, how can we understand the text that explains God's plan to protect them from possible wars and the fear of returning to Egypt?
The people of Israel left Egypt for the desert, finally as a free people. The Lord guided them with a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. Faced with Egyptian persecution and the desperation of being in front of the sea, God opens the waters before them, not only demonstrating His power but also offering His support. It is then that this people strengthens and can eventually face the inevitable attacks on their journey to the Promised Land.
Among all these episodes, each of which deserves particular commentary, I want to focus on the moment that gives its name to this Shabbat: Shabbat Shira, and particularly on Miriam's Tambourine.
Miriam, the elder sister of Moses, whose name is mentioned seven times in this parasha, was born during the bitter period of slavery. The Midrash tells us that she overcame fears to confront her father and save her brother from death. Her name is composed of a pair of Hebrew words: Bitter and Sea.
Based on the Midrash, we infer that her role in the Exodus was centered on elevating and changing the taste of water, transforming the life force by the power of her faith and femininity from bitter or salty waters to sweet waters. These waters flowed from the spring that accompanied the people during their wanderings in the desert and in Miriam's life. She was to be, and was, the provider of that vital energy that is water for every human being.
Shirat HaYam is Miriam's song. She unites the entire nation. Movement, music, and feminine energy fill it with fraternal joy, optimism, and strength. She assumes her role not only by saving her brother from death and making the salvation of her entire people possible but also by lifting the spirit of the people through the power of music and song just as the divine manifestation appears before the people.
Through the power of her actions, in the language of dance that goes beyond speech, she instills the understanding that it is not the water that is bitter, but where there is no optimism and hope, people become bitter. In her expansive movement, she traces the path that turns bitterness into loud and cheerful. Courageously and tenderly, in the language of movement and the body, she shows us that bitterness is not an option.
Her attitude exudes a feminine energy that contains and heals, which is what people need in their challenging journeys through the deserts of life, on their paths to each of our "Promised Lands." This is the essence of her overwhelming and unifying dance.
Music is a language that connects people. It is a language beyond words and divisions, and the experience of singing together, with instrumental accompaniment, enhances the strength of the experience. Music is a refuge in difficult times and an outward expression of joy in times of celebration. It binds us with the simple act of sharing it, be it in prayer, the exuberance of a celebration, or a moment of sharing sorrows.
On this Shabbat Shira, let us ask the Lord to help us find in our lives women and men who, like Miriam, can, in the midst of horror, fears, and anxieties that we must endure, take a drum, a tambourine, and begin to sway, dance to the rhythm, and remind us of the memories of our people and our ancestors who crossed the sea in the midst of anguish.
May their stories and memories transform into a song and inspire us not to give up. May their song, when shared, be our song, outlining our history, actions, experiences, and memory.
Shabbat Shira Shalom,
Rabbi Gustavo Geier