This Shabbat, February 6–7, we will celebrate a special Shabbat: Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. Shabbat Shirah’s name comes from the reading of the Song of the Sea, sung by Moses and the children of Israel after crossing the Red Sea, in our weekly Torah portion of Parashah B’Shallah.
Every Torah portion includes many exciting passages, yet this is the only weekly Torah portion which produces a name for the Shabbat. (The other shabbatot with special names come from either the special maftir (second) Torah reading or the haftarah). What can we learn from our tradition’s naming of the Shabbat in honor of this song?
What do we know about the Song of the Sea? This is the song that Moses and Israel sang in gratitude after the parting of the Red Sea and arriving safely on dry land on the other side, with the Egyptian army being swallowed up by the water. Our Torah relates that when Israel saw the wondrous power God had wielded against the Egyptians, the people had awe of God and believed in God’s servant Moses. It is our song of freedom, a song of military triumph. It is a song of deep, spontaneous gratitude. It is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance and survival.
We have two daily reminders in our liturgy to pay attention to this song: Every morning, in the introduction to the silent Amidah, as part of our blessing on the theme of redemption, we recall Moses and the children of Israel sang this song, and we include a short excerpt from it. And we also sing the song, in its entirety, toward the end of p’sukei d’zimra (the introductory part of our morning service). At both of these moments in our prayers, we stand.
Why do we recite it daily, and why stand? To emphasize that all is possible. To call us to have faith. To remind us that we follow in our ancestors’ footsteps for whom deliverance was possible. To affirm our faith in God’s protection. To look forward, through recalling our past, to our own future redemption.
This song is an example of spontaneous prayer. We are specifically told that Moses and the children of Israel all sang this song. This is our prayer. Most other words of Torah were said by God while Israel listened. But with this song, Israel sang and God listened. At this moment, Israel’s soul was elevated and her heart and voice became a wellspring of Torah.
What role does the Song of the Sea play in our liturgy and in our lives? It urges us to sing praise and express joy. It reminds us that miracles are possible. It asserts our faith in God. It challenges us to experience gratitude and express it. It reminds us of our role as part of the Jewish people, and our collective exodus from Egypt.
The song is introduced in the Hebrew with the words “yashir Moshe u’vnei Israel,” — “then Moses and the Israelites will sing this song.” The future tense form of the verb “to sing” has been understood differently by our commentators. One of the traditions is that this song was permanently implanted in our hearts, allowing us to sing and offer praise in all future generations.
Like many pieces of text, it is both inspiring and challenging. While, in general, I read it metaphorically as a song of triumph and survival, it also speaks of God as a military warrior and delights in the destruction of the Egyptians. It raises for us the ethical challenge of rejoicing when our victory comes at the expense of the suffering of others.
Additionally, our liturgical text seems to end its biblical excerpt before the end of the song. The book of Exodus has more verses, which describe the role of Miriam, taking a timbrel in her hand, with the women following her in dance and song. These lines are written in the Torah in the same poetic form as Moses’ song. And yet Miriam’s words are not included in most siddurim (it is included in the Israeli Conservative Movement’s siddur, V’Ani Tefilati). I wonder what is lost by not including Miriam’s words in our daily liturgy.
This Shabbat, when we come to read this song, we will be asked to stand. The song will be recited with a special melody, not the regular Torah trope, a melody that our tradition explains was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. We read Miriam’s words to this same trope, and as a way of identifying with the unabridged words of the song, I will not sit down as is customary at the end of Moses’ song, but continue to stand through the end of Miriam’s words, inspired by her song, dance, poetry and leadership.
Let us return to the principal message of this song and to the special naming of this Shabbat, and the important role of song. This Shabbat I encourage you to be inspired, to offer praise, express gratitude and sing.