Beshalach - Weekly Torah Portion

This week we get the chance to read two pieces of poetry, the Song on the Sea and Deborah’s Song. In the first song, “Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to the Lord” and they were answered by, “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing. Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea.’” In the second song, “Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying”. The first piece of poetry is all praise to the Lord, the One who rescued the Sons of Israel from slavery in Egypt. “I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; The horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation;… Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?” The other poem is certainly different, God takes part in it but he is certainly not the entire story. “In the days of Jael, the highways were deserted, And travelers went by roundabout ways... Until I, Deborah, arose, Until I arose, a mother in Israel… Most blessed of women is Jael, The wife of Heber the Kenite;… He asked for water and she gave him milk;… She reached out her hand for the tent peg,... Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head;… Where he bowed, there he fell dead.”

The Song on the Sea dates probably to the early periods of the biblical writings. The timing of Deborah’s Song is more controversial but is most likely later than that of the Song on the Sea. It seems to stand scrutiny for the fact that while the earlier poem is devoted to the praise of God and leaves humans as participants in the event, the later poem has a different God-human relationship. Moses and Miriam’s standing versus the Lord is very different from the stand of Deborah, Jael and Abinoam. If the story of the exodus of Egypt is a story of miracle where the Israelites were but owe struck bystanders, in the later story humans are an integral participants and contributors.

Truth to be said, though, there is some thread that connects between these great pieces of poetry. It does not really have to do with the poems themselves but what happened before that. The Sons of Israel stand before the sea and hear the Egyptians coming closer and surrounding them, “and they became very frightened; so the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord. Then they said to Moses, ‘Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt?’” The situation at the time of the judges was similar in many ways. “Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; and the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. The sons of Israel cried to the Lord; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years.” In both cases there were enough complaints and shouting going around. Complaints here and shouts there but very little deeds that could potentially change the situation.

Just prior to the crossing of the sea God responds to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall [i]go through the midst of the sea on dry land.” Simply said, Moses is being told that he is the leader, he has no business calling to a greater power, he needs to be the one giving the directions, leading the people so that they can follow. Deborah does a similar deed. “She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, ‘Behold, the Lord, the God of Israel, has commanded, ‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun. I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.’’” Barak, just like Moses, hesitates to lead by himself and demands, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” In response, “Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh.”

Our times are times were leaders ought to pave the way. We are in the midst of what seems to be a plague that can spread throughout the globe in the form of the coronavirus. There is much criticism of the initial handling of the affair by the Chinese leadership, the lack of immediate transparency, and the indecency by which people who pointed out to the possibility of a viral outburst were addressed. We expect leaders to tackle issues not people in effective ways. To try and silence those who contend that there may be a problem is not an answer but rather a sure way to ensure a bigger problem.

Leadership must also show empathy. The sick are not to blame of their illness. They must act accordingly so as to prevent the spreading of the disease, they are expected to help contain the problem, but they should not be singled out, pointed to, or accused for being sick. This is regardless of their race, place of origin, or what have you – anyone can get and spread the coronavirus. Therefore it is upon all of us to act responsibly while maintaining our special care of human dignity. I was proud to read about the mayor of our city Netanya, Mrs. Fairberg-Ikar, who decided to act to assist tour twin town in China, Shaiman. While noting that the donation of ten thousand masks is certainly small in comparison to the number of citizens of the town that exceeds five million, it still resonates our commitment to our friends in this twin city of ours. In this case a token of our commitment to the people of China and our prayers for their people speedy and full recovery.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 7 February 2020, 13 Shvat, 5780

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