It is tempting to see this week’s Torah portion as the hinge on which the entire story of the Exodus swings.
The process that began with a Cry—the deep, inarticulate cry of slaves so beaten down that they could not muster a protest or even a prayer—now culminates in Song. It is tempting to see this as the Big Turning Point—when we finally leave Egypt behind and step gratefully into the wilderness, our sights now steady on the Promised Land.
It would be tempting, if we didn’t know better. If we didn’t know that every passage from bondage to liberation is a complex and circuitous journey, with twists and turns, stops and starts, discouraging setbacks and unanticipated blessings—moments of possibility, hope, and renewal, just when we least expect them.
Indeed, early in this week’s portion, shortly after the Israelites have witnessed God’s signs and wonders and have survived the night of passage out of Egypt, they again find themselves in what seems, quite objectively, to be a desperate situation—caught between the pursuing Egyptian army and the sea. Believing they are trapped, they panic. “Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord.”
In a midrash on this scene, the rabbis reflect on God’s role as shome’ah tefilah, the One who hears prayer.
“In the hour that Israel prays, you do not find that everyone prays as one—but rather each and every community prays in its own way and time…and after all the congregations have finished all of their prayers, the angel appointed over all tefilot gathers up all the prayers that all of the congregations have prayed and makes out of them a crown and places it upon the head of the Holy Blessed One…A human being can’t hear a conversation of two people speaking at once; but the Holy Blessed One is not like that. Everyone is praying at the same time and God can hear and receive all of those prayers.”
In this moment of extraordinary chaos—as the people stand paralyzed in fear between the deep, seemingly impassable waters ahead and the deadly, seemingly unstoppable Egyptian army behind – we are asked to imagine a God who hears and receives the cries of each and every person – a God who wears a crown of human longing and praise.
Contrast, for a moment, this divine capacity to sustain contradiction with Pharaoh’s brutal and life-denying efforts to impose a world-view that erases all paradox and ambiguity. You are either Egyptian or Israelite, slave or master. Let us not trouble ourselves with the shared humanity that blurs those distinctions. The idea that there could be an Israelite, a Joseph, who is somehow both other and one of us, who comes from outside of us but helps save us from ourselves—this Pharaoh does not know him—cannot even imagine or permit such a possibility. You are either boy or girl, and this determines whether you will live or die. You are either safe or dangerous; little did Pharaoh understand how dangerous the women—Shifrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, his own daughter—would be, how disruptive of this world of sharp distinctions that he sought to impose.
In contrast to Pharaoh’s world of harsh distinctions we are asked to consider the divine capacity to hear and hold multiple, competing truths.
On this Shabbat Shirah—may we honor the role of poetry, prayer, and song in our lives—as languages that give voice to the paradoxes of the human heart and that carry us beyond the brittle choice of either this or that, either us or them—to the more subtle and supple truthfulness of both this and that, to the expansive ground of merchav yah—where there is room for both us and them, a more spacious we.