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

“You put out Your right hand/The earth swallowed them.” (Exodus 15:12)

Parashat B’shalach describes the parting of the Reed Sea, the Israelites’ escape, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army (not to mention the manna from heaven). It is all about God’s might and God’s miracles. But hidden in plain sight is a powerful lesson about leadership.

When the Israelites find themselves safe on the other side of the sea, Moses and Miriam celebrate by leading the people in song (Ex. 14:1-15:1). That is why this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. Rabbi Pinchas Peli (1930-1989; professor of Jewish thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) notes God approves this song, even though God scolds the angels for singing in response to the same event (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 10a). The angels aren’t entitled to rejoice with emotional song; they haven’t endured the pain of slavery so cannot feel the joy of liberation.

Reacting emotionally to the miraculous becomes a necessary ingredient for Jewish leadership. How necessary? Consider: centuries later, when God rescues the Israelites from the Assyrian army with a miracle (on the night of Pesach!), King Hezekiah doesn’t sing (II Kings 19:35). In response, God refuses to select Hezekiah to be the messiah even though Hezekiah legislates compulsory Jewish education and creates a community well-versed in Torah (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 94b).

God reveals the Torah so Moses may lead with knowledge. But Moses reveals an emotional openness (Ex. 2:12-13) so God chooses him to lead with feeling. More to the point, Moses expresses his encounter with the transcendent publically and artistically. Moses is a paradigm of holistic spiritual leadership: he leads with both mind and heart.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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