RECON-DT Digest 48
Parshat Beshalach Exodus 13:17-17:16
by Dr. Eric Mendelsohn
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Today's Parshat and Haftarah have three songs in their text - The Song of the Sea, The Song of Miriam, and The Song of Deborah. For that reason it is called Shabbat Shira or "Song Shabbat". It is of note that these are songs of triumph. Christians have no trouble with songs of triumph, "O come all ye faithful joyous and....." Jews seem to have no popular hymns of triumph.
This Biblical and prophetic narrative resounds with the joy of victory -- Adonaii Ish Milchama "Our God is a Man of War" from the song of Moses; "Horse and its charioteer He has flung into the Sea" from the song of Miriam; and from the Song of Deborah "March on my soul with courage... Bitterly curse its (Meroz's) inhabitants because they came not to the aid of the Adonaii- To the aid of 'God amongst the warriors'"
The Rabbis downplayed the military aspects of the Parshat saying "Victory is God's, not ours" and quoting Zechariah "not by might nor by power but by my spirit- said the Adonai Tsvaoth." Who among us can not quote the Midrash of God rebuking the angels, "How can you rejoice when my creatures are drowning ?"
Notice God in the Midrash never says -- I wish I did not have to drown the soldiers. He does not rebuke Miriyam and Moses for their songs -- He rebukes the angels who are sycophantically praising God. The angels were never in danger and therefore cannot be triumphant. In Zechariah "Adonai Tzvaoth," literally meaning "God of Armies" not "Lord of Hosts" is almost everywhere.
This leaves us with a conundrum. In what way is triumph godly? In what way is Man-of-War godly? Is the godliness of triple holiness that fills the whole earth the godliness of God of Armies? These answers are difficult for those who accept the ideas of predicate theology, knowing God through godliness, and finding war, victory, and triumphal song ungodly. That is the fundamental question in the choice of which songs make up Shabbat Shira. It is a simple fact and tenet of Judaism that violence in this world is sometimes necessary, and non-violence in the face of great evil is an evil itself.
The question is what is it that makes us shrink from triumph? --The answer is, its first cousin triumphalism. The difference is clear but subtle. Triumphalism deals with final solutions, triumph with interim ones.
It is a triumph for Judaism when a human being decides to go beyond the Laws of Noah and accept the God of Israel whether through Judaism, Christianity or Islam .As Maimonides says--"Jesus and the Ishmaelite served to clear the way for King Mosiach, to prepare to the whole world to worship one God with one Name." It is triumphalism when a Christian says: the only way to accept the God of Israel is through Jesus ; when a Moslem says that "Jews, Christians, and Zoastrians may live in an Islamic state as a subjugated people, for all others the choice is Islam or death; or when a Jew says that those converted to Judaism by another branch of Judaism are not Jews.
It is a triumph for Judaism when a Jew decides to enhance his or her Jewish life through Kashrut. It is triumphalism when each sect says that their kashrut is the only acceptable one-- Zechariah says 14:21" every metal pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to Adonai Tsvaot". That is, every Jew's kashrut will be respected.
It is a triumph for the relationship between God and man when a people and their God make a covenant of mutual adoption and select each other "You are my people- Adonai is our God". It is triumphalism when that people say "who has chosen us from all other people" without regard to the implications on them and other peoples.
But how does this text of triumphal songs show us that triumph is interim? The answer lies in the end of the texts. This weeks Parshat ends with "And Moshe built a slaughter-site and called its name, "Adonai is my banner." He said Hand on Yah's throne! War for Adonai against Amalek generation after generation" (Everet Fox translation). And this weeks haftarah "and the land was quieted for forty years," a generation. Each generation finds its own triumph.
May we have victory and be free to sing in triumph for our generation-- and may the next generation fight its own battles against whatever the Amelekites of its generation will be. May every generation be able to sing along with Miriam-- "Sing to Adonai for he has triumphed, yes, triumphed. The horse and its charioteer He has flung into the sea."
Dr.Eric Mendelsohn is a professor of Mathematics at University of Toronto, a past president and current member of Congregation Darchei Noam. He is very active in Jewish-Christian relations. He is married to Lillian (long may she prosper), father to two lovely young women, and the indentured servant of Mickey the Cat.
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