Rabbi's Message - May 2022

Shalom Friends,

Now that we have left Egypt and we are marching toward Mt Sinai, I want to take a brief look behind us toward the Sea of Reeds and the first song we sang altogether as a people. Being Jewish requires not just learning and action, but also a strong imagination, a holy imagination. So, I want to invite you to look deep into the soul of your Jewish memory and see with your mind’s eye that you have just left Egypt, and a pillar of cloud is leading you to the edge of the Sea of Reeds where there is no way forward. It’s the middle of the night and you can hear the thunder of Pharoah’s horses and chariots. Your heart is pounding, and you cry out to Hashem, “This can’t be how it ends! Please save us!” The pillar of cloud and fire circles behind us as Moshe holds his staff out over the sea. A mighty wind howls from the east, driving back the sea, opening the way before us.

We march on dry land through two giant walls of water and miraculously arrive safely on the other side. Pharoah’s army is chasing after us, but as the dawn arrives, we can see that their hooves and wheels are stuck in the mud and they are beginning to panic. Moshe waves his staff back over the waters and they collapse on our pursuers who are swallowed up by the sea and spit out onto the shore. And for just a moment it is totally silent as we are struck dumb by the power of G-d’s love for us and the fact that after hundreds of years of slavery, we are finally free! Now, imagine how anticlimactic it would be if the story ended there.

But instead, what happens next? Our movie goes from an action adventure into “JEWS: THE MUSICAL!” As it says, “Then Moshe sang and the children of Israel, this song to Hashem.” Now, if you were directing “JEWS: THE MUSICAL!” how would you choreograph it? Does everyone burst into song together at once? It says in the Torah that first Moshe sings (Yashir singular), and then vayomru the people sing. Rabbi Akiva explains, “Moshe sang a line and the people repeated back the opening words of each verse.” Rabbi Eliezer said, “No, actually Moshe sang a line and the people repeated back the entire verse.” Rav Nechemia said, “No no, actually it was more like how a school teacher leads the Shema, Moshe started singing the first word and they all joined in with him singing together.”

No matter how you choreograph it though, Moshe is the sage on the stage that leads them in an epically long song rich with metaphor and beautiful poetry. But somehow this was not enough, because this musical number was just getting started! “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her with drums and circle dances. And Miriam chanted to them (one line) ‘Sing to Yah, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider hurled into the sea.’”

Our sages wonder - Why did Miriam also have to have a song, and what does she add that is uniquely important? What is different about her song? If you look at the verses, you’ll notice that before the singing even begins there are drums and dancing. Also, Moshe sang in the singular “Ashira” (I sing), whereas Miriam sings in the plural “Shiru” (sing all of you). Moshe’s song is more linear – long, poetic, and rich with metaphor and we wonder if those runaway slaves were able to understand it all. Whereas Miriam’s song is a simple account of an immediate experience, and it's circular - repeating over and over so everyone can get it.

Miriam and her brother Moshe – offer Two very different approaches to Jewish leadership. We learn from this story, that when Jews gather to celebrate and praise God, it is essential that we have a variety of pathways and styles of expression. Jewish life and learning can only thrive in a community that engages the full spectrum of body, heart, mind, and spirit. And this is what I have strived to build in my time at Torat. Moshe – who met G-d on the mountain, was perhaps closer to G-d than he was to the people. Moshe engages and challenges the intellect in a top-down kind of way. Whereas Miriam who knew how to draw water up from the earth was more bottom-up – engaging the body and the heart with drums, dance, and a simple chant. Whether it is top-down or bottom-up, the Song of the Sea teaches us that being a Jewish leader and teacher is about drawing out of the people what they already have inside of them.

As your rabbi, I have tried to provide opportunities for you to experience a sense of awe and wonder, and to touch the great mystery in a way that piqued your innate curiosity. My goal as your leader has been to help you express that which has been living inside of you all along. I hope that in some small way I have succeeded in this effort and that my legacy will carry forward to the next Miriam or Moshe who will inevitably hold the staff and the drum of Torat Yisrael.

Yom Ha’atzmaut Same’ach! Happy Israeli Independence Day!

Blessings and Peace,

Rabbi Philmus


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