One of my teachers at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Michael Chernick, would often talk to us about where there was room for differing practices in Judaism, and what he thought to be core. An Orthodox rabbi himself, he once said that he wasn’t sure that God demanded observing Shabbat exactly as defined by Orthodox halakha, but that there must be Shabbat observance. He did talk to us about Jewish literacy, and thought that there were certain texts that we needed to know by heart, among them “Shirat HaYam” — the Song at the Sea, in this week’s Torah portion.
I confess that I am not very good at memorizing. I used to know a few lines from “Hiawatha,” and there are prayers I know by heart. I still remember when I was in third grade, and Cantor Davis taught us to read “V’Ahavta.” That I have committed to memory, but Cantor Davis wanted us to be able to know how to actually to read it. He told us that if we had only memorized the text, we would be in trouble if one day we froze up or got nervous.
I have never committed the Shirat HaYam to memory. My problem isn’t just my difficulty memorizing. Neither is it simply that I make a point of reading.
Most years, I pray at home on weekdays. However, because I am in a year of mourning for my mother, z”l, I am in a morning minyan almost every day (not easy to find an egalitarian morning minyan in Jerusalem). As a part of the traditional morning prayers, Shirat HaYam is recited. I stand respectfully, but I don’t read it. I often think of the well-known midrash that the angels wanted to join in with the Israelites, singing as the Egyptians drowned. God rebukes them, “The work of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would sing before Me? (Sanhedrin 39b). God does not prevent the Israelites from singing, for they have finally been freed from centuries of oppression. The angels, who have not suffered, are another matter.
We recite in the Passover Haggadah that we must see ourselves as if we were personally liberated from Egypt. Arguably, we therefore should/could sing, just as our ancestors did. I find it difficult to be joyful at the death of others, and wonder if we are removed enough that we we should not sing. I take a minute, while others recite Shirat HaYam, to gratefully reflect on God’s deliverances from Egypt, until today, and also offer a prayer that the day will come when our liberation can come without others paying a price.
We of course recite lines from Shirat HaYam in many other places. Twice a day, we recite Shema and its surrounding blessings, including Mi Khamokha. We conclude with the hatima that translates, “Blessed are You, Adonai, Redeemer of Israel.” I make two changes, reciting (in Hebrew), “Blessed are You, Adonai, Who redeems and will redeem Israel and all the world.”
I pray that the day will soon come when all will be able to joyfully celebrate liberation, singing praise and gratitude, as did our ancestors at the sea. I also pray that we do more than pray.
When the Israelites panicked because they were trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s army, Moses goes to God. God says, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:15). The well-known midrashic understanding is that the Israelites had to jump into the sea before God parted the waters. The debate is whether they had to wade in until the waters reached their necks, or their noses.