Rabbi Nanus's Shabbat Message - January 26, 2024

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Rabbi Nanus's Shabbat Message - January 26, 2024

Mi chamocha b’aylim, Adonai? Mi chamocha ne’dar bakodesh? Norah t’hillot oseh feleh.
“Who is like You, among the gods, Adonai? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?” (Exodus 15:11)

It’s the oldest written section in the Torah, dating back 3000 years. It is the most dramatic, the most poetic text, with its own special melody, unique calligraphy, and powerful, evocative imagery. It was written by a prophetess, danced by women, and sung by a population of incredulous, joyous, newly liberated slaves.

It is Shirat Hayam – the Song of the Sea, the song of jubilation and celebration that the Israelites sang after crossing the Red Sea to freedom and watching their enemies and enslavers sink beneath the waves.  It is part of Parshat B’Shalach, the week’s Torah portion, and is considered so important that we actually call tonight and tomorrow Shabbat Shira - the Sabbath of Song.

Biblical scholars have long debated whether or not the parting of the sea actually occurred. Is it a myth? A remnant of some exaggerated tidal phenomenon?  A metaphor to express the longings of an oppressed people to be liberated and redeemed? An actual miracle performed by God to save His downtrodden, suffering people and to prove that the one God, Adonai is more powerful than all the rest?

In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter if the story of the Song and the Sea is actual fact because it is filled with powerful truths. Truths that resonate through the centuries and still have meaning. Truths that our great Talmudic sages and teachers illuminated through beautiful midrashim – mystical, magical explanations and stories that help us understand the deeper meaning of the Torah.

Here are three such midrashim about the crossing of the sea and the song that followed and what they teach us.

One. According the one famous midrash, the sea would not part until the Israelites showed enough faith to march into the waters. Timid, uncertain and fearful, they were reluctant to do so, waiting for God to work a miracle first. Finally, one man, Nachshon, son of Amminadav of the tribe of Judah, was bold enough to take a few steps into the sea. But the waters did not budge. The Israelites began to wail in despair, knowing that the Egyptians were right behind them. But Nachshon continued to wade into the waters, up to his knees, his waist, his chest…until finally when the waters reached his nose, the sea responded to his act of faith by separating, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land. 

In other words, we cannot wait for the miracle, but must be part of the miracle. If we want our lives to change, if we want to free ourselves from the narrow places in our lives, we must be brave enough to take the first step, and even the second and third. We must face our fears and wade into unknown waters in order to bring about transformation and ultimately, liberation.

Two. Another midrash tells us that there were ten miracles that occurred at the crossing of the Red Sea in addition to the actual splitting. For example, the sea didn’t merely split, but it split into twelve different lanes in order for each tribe to cross in its own lane. The waters of the sea formed a canopy over the heads of the Jewish people and the sea walls were transparent so they could all see each other. The sea bed ground that they walked on was dry and warm, a stream of sweet drinking water was available for the people to drink while walking across the sea, and different types of fruit such as apples, oranges, and plums miraculously became available on the walls of the water for the people to take.

We are told that the entire world was able to see the miracle of the crossing of the sea as the events were reflected in the clouds. Prophecy and Godliness were everywhere. 

They walked together and yet separately. They could see each other, which gave them comfort and security, but each tribe and perhaps each person had his/her own experience. So it is with us. We are united by our common humanity, by our culture and traditions and language, and values. But we are also unique individuals who may experience the same event differently than those around us. Each experience is valuable and meaningful, and to be respected and honored. Understanding our separateness will unite us. The way we treat our differences will shape the world that we live in. This is the prophecy and Godliness of the midrash.

Three. From the day that God created the world until the moment when the Israelites sang the Song of the Sea, no one had sung praises to God. Not Adam after having been created, not Abraham after being delivered from the fiery furnace, not Isaac when he was spared the knife, not Jacob when he escaped from wrestling with an angel and from Esau. But when Israel came to the sea and it parted for them, the people lifted their voices in glorious song with tears in their eyes and joy in their hearts. And God said, “for this I have been waiting.”

Gratitude and joy, celebration and song are sacred because they bring us closer to God and to the holiness within ourselves. To be uplifted, to feel love and give love, to recognize the miracles in our lives and understand that life itself is a gift is to understand what it truly means to be a Jew.

This Shabbat, let us be brave, let us recognize our uniqueness and the uniqueness of others, and let us lift our hearts and voices in gratitude, gladness and hope for the future.

Shabbat Shalom,