When we sit down at our Seder tables this year, what will help us hear the words of the haggadah in new ways, face the realities of slavery and oppression with new eyes, and be stirred toward liberation, for ourselves and for those around the world? What can the Torah teach us about the transformation from slavery to freedom?
Describing the moment of liberation on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds, the Torah reads, “The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen – of Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites had marched through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
“Thus Adonai delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Holy One had wielded against the Egyptians, the people were in awe of Adonai. They had faith in Adonai and in Moses, God’s servant.”
Then the texts state, “Az yashir Moshe – Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Adonai, saying … ”
In the wake of the dramatic Exodus from Egypt, in the wake of generation after generation of body-breaking labour and soul-crushing oppression, following on the heels of a terrifying saga in which the Israelites were pinned between the Sea of Reeds in front of them and Pharaoh’s encroaching armies behind them, in the wake of the sudden and miraculous opening of the sea, a way out suddenly breaking open when it seemed there was no other way out, and finally in the face of witnessing their oppressors vanquished, actually lying dead on the shore of the sea – in the face of all of this suffering and anguish and fear, the response of the Israelites is … SONG! Organized, communal song!
I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as quite an unlikely reaction to what they have just been through. I can imagine collapsing in physical and emotional exhaustion. I can imagine weeping and shaking in the release of all that terror. I can imagine waves of grief at all that has been lost and broken. I can imagine rage – now that it is actually safe enough, now that their oppressors can no longer hurt them, I can imagine an outburst of rage.
In fact, a passage in the Talmud, the interpretive readings of our early Sages, imagines the scene in a similarly complicated and pained way. The rabbis read the verse Israel saw the Egyptians dead and the rabbis ask, “What did the children of Israel do to them?” Each man in Israel took his dog, went down and, placing his foot upon an Egyptian’s neck, said to his dog, “Eat of this hand, which used me as a slave. Eat of these bowels, which had no mercy on me.”
How harsh! The text of the Torah shows none of this bitterness or bite, but the rabbis insert it into the silence of the text. They give voice to the very human impulse toward rage, vindication, and vengeance that so often arise from persecution. We know so often those who have been oppressed become oppressors. The anger and refusal to be dehumanized has to come out somewhere. So the rabbis read backwards into ancient Israel and perhaps also imagine into their reality under Roman persecution, a moment of permitted and possible rage.
And yet the Torah states that Moses and the Israelites sang. Our medieval commentators look carefully at the phrasing ‘Az yashir Moshe – then Moses and the Israelites sang’. and they understand this to mean the singing was in call and response. Moses sang a line, the Israelites repeated. Back and forth. Why? Because the Israelites didn’t know how to sing!
It makes me think of the Von Trap family in the Sound of Music. Maria, that will-of-a-wisp, arrives at the Von Trap estate, a home that is run like the military, ordered and rigid and without feeling or real connection, and she is stunned to discover the children don’t know how to sing. She has to teach them from the very beginning, a very good place to start. Slowly she teaches them the doe-ray-me of singing and also has to teach them to play, to laugh, to care about each other, and to love. These ways of being are equally necessary in order to be able to sing.
Under slavery, the Israelites are described as having kotzer ru’ah – short or tight spirit of breath. When Moses first returns to Egypt and begins to talk about freedom, the Israelite are unable to even hear him because of kotzer ru’ah, because of the tightness of their spirits. They were so shrunken, so wrung out, they didn’t have the breath-space to listen, let alone sing. It took a couple of hundred years of slavery for the Israelites to even find the voice to cry out. Now, on the shore of the Sea, out of the narrows of Egypt, they are being taught to find their voices, they are being guided in allowing their bodies to expand, to take up space, to fill up with life-breath. If you’ve ever been truly moved by hearing singing, you have probably heard a singer who is able to sing grief or anger or loss while also giving sound to something shimmering and light. Deep song expresses both the dark and the light simultaneously. Moses is teaching the Israelites to transform the weight of slavery by meeting it with the courageous and complex fullness of melody.
And in particular, it is song sung together. Where the Israelites only saw each other as fellow slaves, now, on an experiential level, for the first time they are connected to each other in the vibration and power of shared sound, shared song.
So Moses is teaching their broken enslaved bodies to sing, but he is also training their minds to notice and speak wonder and training their hearts to feel joy. If Moses hasn’t stepped in to lead the people in song, they might have actually responded they way the Talmud imagined. They were habituated to bitterness. In putting words of amazement, gratitude, and joy in their mouths, Moses helps the Israelites actually feel amazed, feel joy, and allow it to swell. The more they sing it, the more it grows within them. The more they sing it to each other, the more it reverberates and increases. The more they sing it to God, the more they internalize the reality that they no longer serve a human master, but their devotion and joy reaches right to the root of Life.
This, Moses teaches us, is how you heal and transform oppression.
This is a teaching that Jews often struggle to absorb. We have confronted many Egypts and many Pharaohs in our history. We have been targeted for annihilation and persecution over and over. This history leaves deep wounds on the soul and the psyche. It is not surprising there are ways in which we act as oppressors – toward Palestinians, and in relation to other groups. It is not surprising that Jews can be insular, defensive, or highly vigilant when it comes to feeling safe. It is also not surprising that many Jews want nothing to do with Judaism or Israel, or feel deeply ambivalent about being Jewish, because it’s easier to disassociate or demonize than it is hold the difficult complexity of being both a victim and having power. When the wounds of oppression are not healed, individually and communally, there is no way we can find the breath and expansiveness for courageous and loving song. And we won’t be effective allies and advocates for other oppressed groups as long as these wounds remain unhealed.
And Jews need the help of those who are not Jewish to be our allies, helping to end anti-Semitism, to actively interrupt anti-Semitism, just as we all need to be allies to Muslims to end Islamophobia, just as heterosexuals need to be allies to the LGBTQ community to help end homophobia and gay oppression, just as people with resources need to help end poverty, and so on.
Standing at the edge of the Sea of Reeds with Egypt behind them, the Israelites now have the challenge of learning to remove Egypt from their hearts, to remove oppression from their hearts. So Moses and the Israelites sang. So we mirror to each other the wholeness and full humanity of our beings, so we lovingly witness each others’ places of tight-spiritedness and invite each other to expand, make it safe enough for each other to expand and in our courageous, joyous connection, we practice singing together, moving the world within us and outside us toward genuine liberation.