B’shalach: Exodus 13:17-17:16
This week’s Torah portion has all the traits of a great adventure novel. We ran away, but they pursued us. We took an unexpected turn that brought us to the edge of an impassable sea; and they were closing in on us fast. But at the last minute, miracle of miracles, the seas parted, allowing us to cross on dry land. And, as the last one of us barely managed to climb to safety onto the opposite shore, our pursuers—now just a few yards away— were drowned by the waters that suddenly came crashing down on them. We had won! We were delivered! Halleluyah!
What follows in Torah is what scholars believe to be the oldest text in the five books of Moses: The Song at The Sea. First sang by Moses, it is then reprised by Miriam the prophetess picking up a hand-drum and dancing with the women. The verse says: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Eternal.” [Exod.15:1] It is the word “Then” that catches our rabbis’ attention. Rarely is such a simple word pregnant with so much meaning. In the two thousand years of Jewish exile, before the creation of the State of Israel almost 65 years ago, this “Then” represented the aspirations of redemption for many generations of Jews scattered the world over, living in most precarious conditions and—not unlike the Egyptian slaves of the Exodus myth—at the mercy of the sovereigns who ruled over them. They dreamed, one day, to sing a song of redemption, delivered from the harsh labors of exile.
One of these rabbis is the Alter Rebbe of Ger, known as the S’fat Emet (Speaker of Truth), a Chassidic rabbi of 19th century Poland. The Rebbe can’t help but read into the tale of the Exodus the story and hopes of Polish Jewry in his time, living in fear of the next Pogrom. He writes:
The Egyptian bondage was an iron furnace in which [the Israelites] were made pure, to serve as proper instruments for song and hymn before God. When redemption was complete, their mouths opened and they began to sing… When Israel came forth from Egypt, they did not understand what value there had been in exile. But then, as they became God’s instruments, they came to understand.
Exile, he teaches his contemporaries, is not a mistake but a necessary passage through which we have the opportunity to learn from our suffering and transform ourselves into a better people; refining ourselves as a pathway to redemption here and now. Though we might not understand it while in the midst of it, there is value in our Egypt; to intimately know the pain and the suffering of the downtrodden and oppressed must make us even more committed to a path of compassion, love, acceptance and inclusiveness. Then, we are made pure. Then, even still in physical exile, we are redeemed; and ready to become God’s instruments for song. The Chassidic path is, indeed, one of pure joy, one of ecstatic song and dance. Even in the darkness of their Polish exile, the chassidim’s Shabbats were weekly experiences of redemption to which they sang and danced and somersaulted with their souls afire.
Of course, as Chassidic masters teachings do, the Rebbe’s works on multiple levels. For him, this Egypt is our Egypt; the necessary iron furnace of our spiritual journey, where the hold that our desires, our senses, our thoughts have over us is to be burnt up, so that we might be redeemed from them. Then, and only then, will we transform ourselves into pure channels of Divine energy. Then, and only then, will we make our voices the instruments that sing the song of the One we will finally remember ourselves to be; the One that is always already free.