Posted by: Subway Conductor | January 29, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Beshalach

We finally get to the big event – the Exodus from Egypt. In the fourth aliyah we find a lengthy poem, or song. (It is interesting that the word in Hebrew for “poem” and “song” is the same.) This is the “Song of the Sea” which the Israelites sang after they safely crossed the sea while the Egyptians were drowned in the returning torrent. Moses led the men in the chanting of this song (responsively according to Rashi) and Miriam led the women in singing the same song, but with the accompaniment of drums and dance. This song has been incorporated into the daily liturgy. The entirety of the song, including the verses that precede it, is recited in the morning service. Moreover, the phrase which begins with the words mi chamocha – “Who is like You among the heavenly powers HaShem! Who is like You mighty in holiness!” was incorporated into the main body of the service in the blessing that come immediately after the shema, both morning and evening.

The prominence of this song raises an interesting question. There is a well-known midrash that states that the angels wanted to sing a psalm of praise after the Israelites crossed through the sea, but were prevented from doing so. G-d rebuked them saying, ‘My creatures are dying and you want to sing?’ How can you sing a song while the Egyptians are dying? The question is: why did the Israelites sing a song which is recorded in the Torah and given a prominent place in our liturgy, while the angels were rebuked for wanting to sing?

To answer this question we need to consider the nature of angels. The word for “angel” in Hebrew means “messenger.” An angel is sent to carry out a specific purpose and can only perform that one function. We see this illustrated in the story of the three visitors who came to Abraham to whom he provided hospitality. We learn that these three visitors were angels. But why were there three? Each had a different task. One came to do the mitzvah of bikur cholim – visiting the sick  – since Abraham was still recuperating from his recent circumcision. The second was sent to foretell the birth of Isaac and the third had the task of warning about the destruction of Sodom. Each one was capable of carrying out a single task and that was it. Otherwise, one angel could have handled the whole job. I think as a corollary to this single-mindedness of angels, we can also state that angels are capable of only one thought or one emotion at a time. Therefore, had the angels rejoiced at the crossing of the sea by the Israelites, they could only have felt the one emotion – sheer joy. Human beings are capable of having two thoughts in our minds and feeling two emotions at the same time. We can rejoice over our being redeemed and miraculously rescued and yet feel remorse for the suffering of others. We can be happy that we are victorious and yet have a sense of regret for the loss of life that was an inevitable result of that victory.

Judaism is not a pacifist tradition. Self-defense is not only a right, but a requirement. The rule is stated in the Talmud, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” The Torah speaks explicitly of laws that govern the ethical conduct of a war. King David, the author of the Psalms, was a successful military leader. In modern times, the Jewish People, while founding a country, found it absolutely necessary to engage in battle in order to survive. A people who had virtually no experience of combat for nearly two thousand years formed one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Certainly, we celebrate the victories of the State of Israel which has prevented attempts to annihilate the only Jewish country in the world. At the same time that we admire the military success of Israel, we also regret the suffering that these victories have imposed on others. Our rejoicing is over our success, not over the death of our enemies. We would much prefer to have survived without the conflict and its resultant misery.

The Jewish tradition is realistic about the nature of the human condition and recognizes that there are circumstances that demand a violent response, but it also imbues us with a desire for peace and requires us to be sensitive to the suffering of our adversaries. This explains why we were permitted to sing at the sea while the angels were reprimanded.

This same dual attitude is reflected at the Passover Seder where we spill a drop of wine from our cups at the mention of each of the ten plagues. Our rejoicing is decreased by the awareness that the Egyptians suffered while these miracles that were part of our redemption took place.

I am reminded of one of the famous quips of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir who is reported to have said, “I can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but I can not forgive them for making us kill their children.” This is precisely the attitude that I am trying to highlight.

Good Shabbos!


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