In last week’s study, after the last and most devastating of the Ten Plagues (Death of the Firstborn), Pharaoh finally relented in letting the Israelites go free.
This week, however, in Parasha Beshalach, Pharaoh changes his mind and races after them to bring them back into slavery.
Thinking they are lost in the wilderness, Pharaoh seemingly traps them against the Red Sea. There is no escape.
But God miraculously splits the waters so that His people pass through on dry land, while the Egyptians drown behind them.
In relief and thankfulness to God for this amazing victory over those who wished to enslave them, Moshe (Moses) and the Israelites sing a beautiful song called Shirat HaYam (שירת הים), the Song of the Sea. Some also call it Az Yashir Moshe (then Moses sang), which are the first words of the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1).
This song is recited daily as part of the Shacharit (morning prayer service).
It is written in a unique wave or brick-like pattern in the Torah scroll and is recited in regular chant and traditional melodies.
In true humility, this song gives no glory to the leadership of Moses or praise to the people for the faith it took to walk between walls of water, but totally gives the glory and praise to the Lord.
“I will sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1)
This song of Moses is, perhaps, also mentioned in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) as a song that will be sung by those who defeat the beast in the end times. However, this time they will be singing by the sea of glass instead of the Red Sea and holding harps instead of tambourines:
“Those defeating the beast, its image and the number of its name were standing by the sea of glass, holding harps which God had given them. They were singing the song of Moshe, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: ‘Great and wonderful are the things you have done, Adonai, God of heaven’s armies!’” (Revelation 15:2–3)
Moses’ sister, Miriam, also goes out with the maidens and they dance for joy with tambourines.
Because of these songs, this week’s Parasha is also called Shabbat Shirah (Sabbath of Singing).
Besides reading the Song of the Sea and the Song of Miriam on Shabbat Shirah, some have the custom of feeding the birds, in honor of the beautiful melodies that they sing and, perhaps, the manna that was found on the ground by the Israelites in this reading.
This is, of course, unusual in that wild birds are generally not fed on the Shabbat; only domesticated birds such as geese and chickens may be fed.
The Talmud explains that the Shabbat should not be broken by feeding animals that can fend for themselves, although there is a responsibility to feed the pets and domesticated animals that are under your care.
Haftarah Reading: The Song of Deborah
Both the Torah portion and the Haftarah (prophetic portion) of this week’s study contain victory songs by God’s people.
In the Parasha, the Israelites sing the Song of the Sea extolling and honoring God for delivering them from Egypt. In the Haftarah, the Song of Deborah is sung when God gives them victory over General Sisera and the Canaanites.
“Then Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying: ‘When leaders lead in Israel, when the people willingly offer themselves, bless the LORD! Hear, O kings! Give ear, O princes! I, even I, will sing to the LORD; I will sing praise to the LORD God of Israel.’” (Judges 5:1–3)
In the Song of the Sea, only God receives praise and glory while in the Song of Deborah, the actions of valiant men and women are also praised.
There are several other connections between the Torah portion and this prophetic portion from the book of Judges.
In both accounts of Israel’s victories, their enemies had assembled against them in chariots; but God threw their enemies into a panic. Also, in both the Parasha and Haftarah, Israel’s enemies were swept away in water, and the women celebrated by singing and dancing.
Music is a beautiful, God-given gift to His people. Many in the world misuse this gift to glorify the powers of darkness with vulgarity and promiscuity or the promotion of violence and death. However, we can use the gift of song to praise Adonai for His goodness and mercy.
Our response to the victories that God brings us in our lives can be freely expressed with rejoicing with singing and dancing, just as Moses, Miriam, and Deborah did:
“Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, sing a song! Arise, Barak, and lead your captives away, O son of Abinoam!” (Judges 5:12)
The Long Way Home
The Hebrew word Beshalach (בְּשַׁלַּח), the name of this Parasha, means when he sent.
Pharaoh didn’t simply let the people go; he sent the Israelites away.
When he did, God did not lead them on the straightest, most direct route to their Promised Land, which would have taken them through Philistine territory and certain battle. Instead, He led them around and through the Red Sea or Yam Suf (literally, Sea of Reeds).