By Rabbi Pamela Frydman
(This dvar torah was first published in The Pluralist 2014.)
This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Shira. The Hebrew word shir means both song and poem. In truth, every Shabbat is an opportunity for songs and poetry, but Shabbat Shira is especially so because the Torah portion includes the Song of the Sea and the haftarah includes the Song of Deborah.
In the Torah portion, the Israelites leave Egypt and walk across a dry sea bed in the midst of the Sea of Reeds with walls of water hovering on either side. Pharoah and his army are in pursuit of their former slaves. As soon as the Israelites are on the far side of the sea, the protective angelic presence that was blocking the Egyptians from approaching the sea dissipates. The Egyptians come forward on horses and chariots. The walls of water fall upon them and the Egyptians and their horses drown.
When the Israelites see dead Egyptians washing up on the shore, their fear dissipates and their faith is restored. They are in awe of God and they believe in God and in Moses. Moses leads the Israelites in the Song of the Sea, a triumphalist hymn praising God for doing in their enemies. Meanwhile, Miriam the prophetess takes a tambourine in her hand. All the women follow Miriam with tambourines and dancing and Miriam sings the Song of the Sea. (Exodus, chapter 15)
The story in the haftarah takes place generations later, when Deborah the prophetess leads the Israelites in battle against the Canaanites together with the Israelite General Barak. After the battle, a woman named Yael gives refuge to Sisera, Captain of the Canaanite army. Yael invites Sisera into her tent and gives him a place to rest and milk to drink. Sisera soon falls asleep and Yael kills him by hammering a tent peg through his temples. Deborah and Barak memorialize the battle and Yael’s bravery with a song that has come to be known as the Song of Deborah. Toward the end of the Song of Deborah, the lyrics turn to Sisera’s mother who looks out the window and cries out for her son, “why is his chariot so long in coming?” (Judges, chapters 4 and 5)
There is a teaching that when the Israelites were singing the Song of the Sea, the angels began singing along, but God admonished the angels, saying, “My children are drowning, and you sing songs of praise!” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b. See also Megilla 10b)
There is also a teaching that the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is like Sisera’s mother crying out for her son as she worries about him. (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 33b) We can all understand the cry of a parent waiting for a child who was due to be a home and is still out late. The sages invite us and encourage us to plumb the anxiety of Sisera’s mother as we cry out to God about our own fate each year on Rosh Hashana.
The teaching about God admonishing the angels and the sages lifting up the suffering of Sisera’s mother remind us to have compassion for the enemy, the other, the one we do not understand and whose ways stand in the way of our own progress. Just as the sages of old urge us to empathize with Pharoah’s army and Sisera’s mother, so do our modern sages show us the ways that we can help support important causes for social justice in the modern State of Israel. How blessed we are that the Israel Religious Action Center brings the needs and sensibilities of Israeli citizens and refugees to our consciousness week after week with opportunities to cry out at injustice and offer support for progress.