Parashat Beshalah

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

There are many remarkable aspects of Shirat Hayam, the “Song of the Sea”, which occurs in parashat Beshalah (Exodus 15:1-18): the way it looks on the page of the Torah scroll, the musical traditions that accompany its recitation; but probably most remarkable of all is the first verse of the Song.

Shirat Hayam is a song of praise that is recited after the Israelites have safely crossed the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds in their escape from Egyptian slavery. It recounts the story of their escape and the subsequent destruction of the Egyptians who pursued them.

For anyone reading from or looking at the Torah scroll, the visual impact of Shirat Hayam is striking. We pause when we see it, we observe the symmetrical columns on each side, with words widely spaced out between the columns.

The auditory experience is equally unique. Special trope is used for those verses that include the name of God, interwoven with the regular Torah trope. What’s more, the recitation of Shirat Hayam is antiphonal — there is a pattern of call and response between reader and congregation as they interact in the chanting of the Song. This is done in several ways: one pattern has the reader chant a phrase followed by a response from the congregation, which the reader then repeats. The congregation stands during the entire reading, adding a physical aspect to the experience. Here we have the longest act of congregational participation in a Torah reading.

These visual, auditory and physical cues all enhance our personal experience of this moment. When we pause to reflect on the first verse of the Song, Exodus 15:1, the moment becomes even more significant. “Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael et hashira hazot la’Adonai…” “Then Moses sang and the people of Israel sang this song to God….” Then MOSES sang? Then Moses SANG?

Up until now we have seen Moses act in many ways, none of which suggest that he would be willing or even able to lead the people in song. We have seen his anger against injustice, as when he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and kills the Egyptian. (Exodus 2:11) We have heard him complain, starting with that first encounter at the burning bush when God calls on him to get Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery: “But I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)  God responds by telling him, “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you shall say.” (Exodus 4:12) And indeed, most of the rest of our encounters with Moses up until Shirat Hayam involve his following out God’s instructions, peppered with complaints that he is inadequate to the task. Moses instructs, Moses argues, Moses leads, Moses obeys God’s directions. Finally, after the Israelites have crossed the sea and they realize that they are safe, we read “and the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses”. (Exodus 14:31)

In the next verse, Moses bursts into song.

It must have been a purely spontaneous response, inspired perhaps by his boosted confidence at realizing that the people believed in him. Having been God’s messenger, speaking on behalf of God, he now turns instead towards God and sings a unique, detailed and heart-filled song in praise of God, as he and the entire community retell the story of their freedom from the Egyptians. It is a moment so incongruous to the character of Moses we have known so far: his heart opens in song, and the people follow. One can only imagine the layers of emotional outpouring that must have been expressed, at the realization that the period of 430 years of slavery is over. And as the entire community of the Israelite people join in song with their leader Moses, a new collective memory is formed, a joyous memory that contrasts with the former collective nightmare of slavery which has finally ended.

What follows is a two-verse description, notable in its brevity, of how Miriam and the women pick up on the Song as they take their tambourines and dance. (Exodus 15:20-21) The tambourines must have come with them out of Egypt, suggesting that musical expression is an integral part of who they are, in obvious contrast to Moses. Some of us are more like Miriam, for whom song comes naturally; but all of us have the capacity to be like Moses, when he was inspired to move outside his known experience and sang at the shores of the Sea.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.