B’shalach (When he let go)

Exodus 13:17 to 17:16

This week we read that the Israelites obtain the FREEDOM they have been seeking from Pharaoh. They celebrate in song – The Song of the Sea… This concept of FREEDOM, the story of Exodus, and song are also prominent in today’s Civil Rights Movement.

Exodus from Egypt“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.” (Ex. 13:17-18)

At the center of what Moses demanded of Pharaoh… and what the story of Exodus is all about… is FREEDOM. Last week I saw the movie Selma in which Reverend Martin Luther King also demands FREEDOM for his people. It is not surprising that Dr. King referred to the Exodus story so often. His goals and those of Moses were so similar… FREEDOM for an enslaved, down-trodden people.

The FREEDOM both peoples sought was for the ability to achieve the goals that were central to their core beliefs. Moses wanted to worship the God of his beliefs…. Dr. King wanted a world in which his people would have the same opportunities as those around them.

In an article on the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities website (http://www.jewishrecon.org), Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan notes that both the Israelites and the supporters of Dr. King used song as they protested… as they marched forward. The song the Israelites sang is included in this week’s parsha – The Song of the Sea. In fact, this Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shirah – Sabbath of Song.

Rabbi Pik-Nathan states; “Our Sages differ on whether the Israelites began to sing their song of redemption and praise of God’s power and strength (from which the ‘Mi Chamochah‘ prayer is taken) while still crossing the Sea or only after the crossing is complete. Though the Torah text seems to support the latter, there are Sages who said that the song began while the Israelites were still crossing….”

“The Egyptians did not sing, as far as we know. One might think that this is because they were focused on their task of obliterating the Israelites or that they were so afraid of the water closing in on them that they couldn’t sing. However, given the nature of Pharaoh and the Egyptians as portrayed up to this point, I would venture to guess that they did not sing or pray while crossing because they were sure that they would be victorious. Even after the 10 plagues, even after seeing the pillar fire that at first prevented them from entering the Sea and even after seeing the Sea itself split they were not convinced that God was more powerful than Pharaoh (who was their god).”

“This juxtaposition of the simple, formerly-enslaved Israelites singing to give them strength while caught somewhere between death and redemption while the Egyptians crossed the Sea sure that they were in the right and that they would be victorious is reminiscent of much of the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Martin Luther King and those who followed him, including prominent Jews such as King’s dear friend Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel and many others, walked from Montgomery to Selma and from the South and beyond to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial praying for freedom. As Heschel would later say, they were “praying with their feet”. And they were also singing…. And as they did so they also realized that they were walking through the Sea heading towards potential redemption all the while knowing that the walls of water might fall in upon them. And often they did. Walls of water from fire hoses sprayed on those seeking equal education and voting rights or simply the ability to use a water fountain or sit at a lunch counter…. And yet, even as the walls of water seemed to be closing in around them, the people were able to sing. And their songs gave them courage and strength in spite of the odds.”

“The bigots, white supremacists and others involved in the oppression did not sing. They did not need to. They believed that God was on their side. They believed that they were doing God’s will. They believed that they were fighting for a just cause. One can only imagine the cry that went out when they realized that their god of hatred and bigotry was being defeated by the God of love, acceptance, equality and freedom.”

“Today the struggle continues. Dr. King’s dream is still not totally a reality, even though great strides have been made. But as long as all those involved in the struggle, no matter what their race, religion or creed, continue to sing we can be sure that the walls will not fall down upon us, even though at times it may seem that they are about to. For our song gives us strength and reminds us that God is with and within us giving us the ability to bring peace and wholeness to a war-torn and fractured world.”

‘As we continue through the night of redemption, let us sing together with all the oppressed in American and throughout the world, as we work to bring ourselves closer and closer to the Promised Land of freedom, liberty and true equality, justice and mercy for all.” (Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan, Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, http://www.jewishrecon.org/resource/singing-oppressed )

Through these thoughts, we see that the words of Torah are still alive and still very relevant.

Earl Sabes

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