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Parashat Beshalah, 5778

January 25, 2018
A D’var Torah for Parashat Beshalah
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover, ’11

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah—the Shabbat of song. It is so named because it is in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallah, that the Israelites walk through the Reed Sea on dry ground, because the water is parted and piles up to their left and their right, making a path for their escape from Egypt with the Egyptian army on their heels. The water closes on the Egyptians, and the Israelites are finally free and safe! Overwhelmed with joy, they sing, the song at the sea, which includes the words we sing at every service: mi khamokha, ba-elim Adonai/ mi kamokhane’edarbakodesh? Nora t’hilot, osehfeleh! “Who is like you, Adonai, among the gods who are worshipped? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?” Miriam leads the women in dance, with their timbrels.

Some of the other words the Israelites sing are: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army/ God has cast into the sea;/ And the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds. The deeps covered them; They went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe!

They are rejoicing not only about their escape and their freedom, they are rejoicing in the death of the Egyptians pursuing them.

There is a midrash that is, I think, pretty well known. It says that when the Egyptians drowned, “In that instant the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but God rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in my presence!’” (Found, among other places, in the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b).

I have often heard this interpreted as saying we should not rejoice in the downfall of our enemies, but I interpret it in a more complicated way.

When we speak of forgiveness in Judaism, we say that the only one who can forgive us for a harm done to another person is that person. I am not authorized to forgive someone for something they’ve done to someone who isn’t me, and neither is God.

I think rejoicing in the destruction of others is similar in the following way: If you are oppressed by someone else or by another group, and that person or group is defeated, even destroyed, you have a right to rejoice in that defeat. If you are not involved and are just watching the situation, you are obligated to remember the humanity of that person or group, and not rejoice in the destruction.

In the midrash, God does not rebuke the Israelites for celebrating the defeat of the Egyptians. They are the ones whose lives were in danger, who were horribly oppressed by the Egyptians. The ministering angels were not oppressed or endangered. They were not allowed to be joyful over these deaths.

Context matters. Our role in an event has something to do with how we behave. It’s kind of like how Jews will talk about people “looking Jewish,” but we don’t like it when non-Jews characterize Jews as having big noses or curly hair. Or how we can tell jokes that disparage Jews, but non-Jews can’t. There are things it is appropriate to say or do in some contexts, but not others.

We don’t always agree on what is or isn’t appropriate in certain contexts, and that can lead to conflict and hurt. When we are rebuked for behavior someone else deems inappropriate for a specific context, we do need to examine ourselves and try to determine if the rebuke was correct or not. If it was correct, we apologize, make amends if needed, and move on. If we decide the rebuke was not correct, and that our behavior was fine, we have to decide whether we want to change our behavior in service to the relationship, doing something or refraining from doing it out of consideration for another person’s sensibilities, or if we prefer not to change our behavior, and take whatever consequences might come with that.

Relationships are complicated. In every relationship, two people bring different life experiences and national or family cultures, different ideas of what behavior is appropriate in which contexts, and often, different expectations of how to handle conflict. This is true all the more so in a community where many people are coming together in relationship.

The best we can do is to try to see each other’s humanity as much as we can. It helps me to remember that most of the time, people aren’t trying to insult me or be mean—they may just not be communicating in a way that I would prefer. The more we can trust and have compassion toward one another, the easier it will be to handle behavior that seems not to fit the context, and the easier it will be to move forward when there is a conflict that arises due to differing understandings of what is permitted in which context.

Let us strive to be sensitive to the feelings of others, but not allow our own feelings to be too easily hurt. Let us try for appropriate behavior in all of the contexts in which we find ourselves, and let us be gentle when we think others are violating behavioral norms. May we believe in the best of each other, and help each other to be our best selves. And may God guide us as we do so. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, NY. She was ordained at AJR in 2011.