Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

To Sing or not to Sing — in the Parasha and at the Protests (4)

A fish swallows an Egyptian soldier in a mosaic scene depicting the splitting of the Red Sea from the Exodus story, from the fifth-century synagogue at Huqoq, in northern Israel. (Jim Haberman/University of North Carolina Chapel Hill)
A fish swallows one of Pharaoh's soldiers, a mosaic from the fifth-century synagogue at Huqoq, northern Israel. (Jim Haberman/University of North Carolina Chapel Hill)

Last Shabbat, seven people were killed and two injured in terror attacks in Jerusalem. Many Shabbat-observant Jews learned this at around 5.45pm, when Shabbat ended. The now weekly Jerusalem demonstration started outside Beit Ha’Nasi, the President’s House, at 7.30pm.

Based on reports – it’s hard to tell when you’re there – it seems that even more people came to demonstrate here in Jerusalem this past Shabbat than the previous one. But still I’m guessing that many regular demonstrators here and around the country asked themselves, for different reasons, whether it was appropriate to demonstrate after Jerusalem’s worst terror attack in many years. Demonstration organizers must have asked themselves the same question.

In Jerusalem, the speeches were short and subdued. A memorial candle was lit for each victim; with feeling and dignity, a rabbi chanted a prayer; and musicians led the assembled demonstrators in the communal singing of classic Israeli songs and prayers appropriate for the occasion. More on them below.

After a while, a small group of people standing near us tried to rouse the crowd. Yariv Levin, Yariv Levin, Israel isn’t Poland. (In Hebrew, it rhymes.) We’re not here to sing, they shouted. We’re here to demonstrate. This isn’t the time, one of the organizers responded from the stage. Families will soon be burying their dead. (Funerals in Jerusalem take place at the earliest possible moment, often within a few hours.) Immediately, the shouters fell silent.

In this week’s parasha, Beshallach, Moses holds up his arm over the Sea of Reeds, and the waters part to let the Israelites pass through on dry ground (Exod 14:21). By the time the pursuing Egyptian army reaches the shore, the waters have returned to their place. But God hurls Pharaoh’s army into the sea. Horsemen and charioteers are covered by the waves and drown (Exod 14:27-28).

To thank God for their miraculous deliverance, Moses and the Israelites break into the song of praise that gives this coming Shabbat its name: Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song.

According to a well-known post-biblical tradition, although God allowed Moses and the Israelites to praise him with a song on that day, he silenced his angels. My creatures, the Egyptians, are drowning, he said, and you are singing?

I’ve heard this midrash (creative interpretation) countless times, but I’ve never looked at its source, or wondered where those silenced angels sprang from. Now I see that I had misunderstood it.

The midrash appears twice in the Babylonian Talmud, in Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b.

And similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the one came not near the other all the night” (Exodus 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to sing their song, for the angels would sing songs to each other, as it states: ‘And they called out to each other and said’ (Isaiah 6:3), but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs? This indicates that God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked (BT Megillah 10b).

The biblical peg on which it hangs are a few mysterious verses just before Moses raises his arm.

The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. There was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell [that translation is uncertain] on the night, so that the one could not come near the other [ve’lo karav zeh el zeh] all through the night (Exod 14:19-20).

Most plausibly, in the context, the Egyptian army was prevented from coming near to the army of Israel. But the words ‘the one could not come near the other’ are open to interpretation, and indeed an interpreter stepped in. In Hebrew, those words, ve’lo karav zeh el zeh, sound much like a verse of Isaiah, ve’kara zeh el zeh, ‘and one would call to the other’.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne: and the skirts of his robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other [ve’kara zeh el zeh], Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills the earth (Isaiah 6:1-3).

In a vision, the prophet Isaiah saw the seraphs, angels, calling one to another, singing God’s praise — Holy, Holy, Holy! — as they must have every day. This, according to the midrash, is what God silenced after Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Sea of Reeds. He did not, as I had previously thought, stop the angels from singing a one-off song of praise for Israel’s miraculous deliverance, equivalent to the song of Moses and the Israelites. He interrupted their daily songs of praise.

To put it another way, God wasn’t preventing the angels from praising him specifically for destroying his creatures the Egyptians. Rather, on the day that his creatures, the Egyptians, were destroyed, God was preventing the angels from praising him at all. He interrupted their routine.  

The difference is profound, and relevant in multiple ways to our dire situation. But my interest today is the much smaller subject of interruption.

Following the Jerusalem terror attacks, the organizers of Jerusalem’s demonstration made what I, and others I know, see as the correct decision to interrupt the normal process of demonstrating. Demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem, but they did not actively demonstrate. Instead, they sang consoling prayers and comforting Israeli classic songs that many people knew by heart.

I pray, as we all do, that there will not be another attack like this. But there will be other attacks, and when they happen, we can sing these consoling and comforting songs again. Now more than ever, though, we can’t lose sight of what’s bringing us together every week, which is not the attacks of external enemies, but the grave escalation of injustice that could so easily destroy us from within. Unfortunately, we may need to learn how to mourn, console, and demonstrate at the same time.

You can join demonstrations around the country after Shabbat this coming week. The Jerusalem demonstration will meet at Beit Ha’Nasi, the President’s House, at 19.30.

In the meantime, in the spirit of last week’s mournful demonstration, and in honor of Shabbat Shira to come, here are some of the classic Israeli songs we sang in Jerusalem last week.

Shabbat Shira shalom!

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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