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Torah Sparks

April 30, 2005 - 21 Nisan 5765

Exodus 13:17 - 15:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Maftir: Numbers 28:19-25 (Etz Hayim, p. 932; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: II Samuel: 22:1 - 51 (Etz Hayim, p. 1310; Hertz p. 1017)

Prepared by Rabbi Elyse Winick
Assistant Director, USCJ KOACH/College Outreach

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The Torah reading for the seventh day of Passover takes us back in the cycle of Torah reading to Parashat Beshallach and the crossing of the Reed Sea. We read the magnificent poetry of the Song at the Sea and the dramatic retelling of the midnight escape from Pharoah's clutches.

We begin with an explanation of the circuitous route taken by the Israelites on their journey - God ruminates on the idea that if the journey is challenging, they may seek to return to Egypt. Thus, they take a more indirect route, to make return to Egypt less likely. The Torah marks out for us the map of their encampments along the way and tells us that they are protected by God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

God compels Pharoah to send his chariots to chase after them and the Israelites lose heart. They fear that they have been brought to the desert simply to die, trapped between the sea and the advancing army. Moses raises his arm above the sea and it parts before them. The pillar of cloud shifts to the back of the caravan to delay the Egyptian advancement as the Israelites begin to cross the sea on dry ground. When the Egyptians are able to pursue, the seas close back in upon them and they are drowned, even as the Israelites have successfully crossed to the opposite coast.

Moses and the Israelites sing a song of gratitude for God's beneficence. They tell of God's might and majesty and refer to the experience of crossing the sea throughout the song. Miriam and the women follow with a song of their own, danced to the music of the timbrel.

No sooner have the Israelites experienced this great miracle, they find themselves without water to drink and once again lose heart. God instructs Moses to throw a piece of wood into the bitter waters and they become potable.

Discussion Theme 1:"The Fear of In Between"

"...till Your people cross over, O Lord, till Your people cross whom You have ransomed." (Exodus 15:16)

Derash: Study

  • "'Then:' When he saw the miracle, it arose in his heart to that he should sing a song..." (Rashi on Exodus 15:1)
  • "One who sees the corridors of the Sea should give praise and gratitude to God, as it is written: 'And the Israelites came into the midst of the Sea, on dry land.'" (Babylonian Talmud Brakhot 54a)
  • "Rabbi Yosi the Galilean expounded: When Israel came out of the sea, they gazed upward to chant their song." (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 30b)
  • "...the right moment to praise and thank God is at the end of the story of salvation: when one has emerged from the protective but menacing corridor of massed waters, one blesses and sings in gratitude." (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in The Particulars of Rapture)
  • "To stand on a threshold is to be in between, neither here nor there, and invariably to feel a certain tension. That is why many religious rituals are located precisely at threshold moments." (Neil Gillman in JTS Magazine, Fall 1996)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The repetition of the phrase "cross over" in the Song at the Sea is notable, as the repetition of any phrase in the Bible draws our attention to it. What is the significance of crossing over at this moment in Biblical time? What might the Israelites have felt as they said these words?
  2. It is striking to note that this song appears to spring forth as a natural expression, despite its length and poesy. Some commentators suggest that Moses taught it to the Israelites at that very moment. Others suggest that it was done in antiphonic, or responsive, style. How do you imagine the song comes to them at this moment? Does a miraculous moment allow for other options? Are there practical explanations which maintain a sense of awe and even magic?
  3. For many of us, the vision of the Israelites singing as they descend to and cross the Sea as portrayed by the film Prince of Egypt has become a powerful visual of the moment. When was the Song actually sung? When would it be appropriate to sing it? How does the timing of the Song influence our experience and memory of it?
  4. Consider moments in Jewish time which, to use a Yiddish phrase, are nisht a heyn, nisht a heyr, neither here nor there. Many of these moments become ritualized and sacred (the mezuzah on the doorpost of the house and havdalah to mark the conclusion of Shabbat are two examples which come to mind). How does Jewish time handle those moments which are neither here nor there? How do we grapple with them in our daily lives? What are the emotional and practical differences between singing a song of praise in the midst of transition versus when the "cross over" is complete?

Discussion Theme 2: "Sing a New Song"

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

Derash: Study

  • "They were certain that God would perform miracles and they brought their timbrels from Egypt." (Rashi on Exodus 15:20)
  • "When the Israelite women came to give birth (in Egypt), they did so in the fields, and God sent one from the highest heavens to clean and tend to them, like a midwife. So when God appeared to them at the Sea, they recognized Him first, as it is said "This is my God." (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b)
  • "'… among maidens, playing drums:' these are the women, who gave praise in the middle, as it is written, 'Then Miriam took the drum in her hand….'" (Shmot Rabbah 23:8)
  • "The question of difference in the women's Song focuses on two things: the timbrels and the actually changed text: 'Sing to God…' instead of 'I will sing to God.…'" (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in The Particulars of Rapture)
  • "In contrast to Moses' song, which expressed the strength of personality, prophecy, and poetic ability of this great leader, and which was addressed to God and perhaps to all those who would recite it in future generations, Miriam's song was addressed to her contemporaries, its strength stemming from its immediate expression of the event and the popular, rousing manner in which it was delivered." (Tovah Cohen, Bar-Ilan Parashat HaShavua Study Center)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Moses and the children of Israel have already sung the Song at the Sea. Why does Miriam now lead the women in a separate song?
  2. The Song at the Sea is a song alone. Miriam's chanting is accompanied by music and dance. In what way do these additions change our experience of the song? In what ways do we experience these differences in our own expressions of joy?
  3. Miriam's song is far briefer and more direct than that of Moses. What is the impact of this brevity? Who and what are the focus of her words? Do we imagine them as consecutive or simultaneous with the Song at the Sea and how does that influence our understanding of the moment?
  4. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know what is said by the voices which our text excludes. The midrash does its best to fill in the gaps, but the truth is that these voices remain out of our grasp. How does the illustration of this second song fill in that gap? What does it suggest about hearing the totality of voices? What steps do we take to foster inclusion, even when the need is not readily apparent?
  5. The text and context of Miriam's and Moses' songs illustrate their different qualities and strengths. What characteristics can we derive from these retellings? Are there gender specificities to their behavior? What type of synthesis would be necessary to define ideal leadership? How do they influence the songs we sing with our own lives?

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