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Parashat B’shalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

“Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand
and all the women went out after in dance with timbrels.” (Exodus 15:20)

Parashat B’shalach describes the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites’ escape, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. In awed gratitude, Moses leads the Israelites in Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea. It seems pretty straightforward. But the book of Psalms says, “Our ancestors in Egypt did not understand Your miracles in Egypt…” (Ps. 106:7). What’s not to understand?

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787; disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhrich, and a Chassidic master) observes that humanity mostly takes the miracle of everyday nature for granted. Only when presented with a supernatural phenomenon do we pay attention. This is echoed in the contemporary poem Miracles, by Yehuda Amichai (1924-200; Israeli poet): “From far away everything looks like a miracle/but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like one/Even a crosser of the divided Red Sea/saw only the sweating back/of the walker in front of him/and the movement of his large thighs…”

The Jewish system of b’racha, or blessing, is designed to ensure we recognize and appreciate those everyday miracles. It requires us to stop and reflect on our good fortune in experiencing something beautiful (a rainbow), something powerful (lightning and thunder), something soothing (trees), or something humbling (the open sea). Blessings remind us the world cannot be appreciated only intellectually; it also needs to be experienced emotionally. This is why Moses and the people sing after the crossing; words aren’t enough.

The Song of the Sea tells us what happened. Our job in reading it is to try to imagine how it felt to the Israelites and be grateful.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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