Parshat B’Shalach, Shabbat Shirah
Exodus Chapter 14, verse 15 through Chapter 16, verse 10.
In this week’s Parsha—B’Shalach—we read of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and of B’nai Israel’s escape to freedom after over 400 years in Egypt. The Parsha includes Moses’s famous Song of Redemption—Az YaShir—a song, we believe, that was taken up spontaneously by every Jew on the far shore of the Sea. In fact, that experience of song might be, some commentators suggest, the first act that the Jews all do together as Jews. This song gives the Shabbat its name of Shabbat Shira.
There is so much in this well-known Parsha that one might choose to examine in more depth, but I want to focus on one event from B’Shalach:
A midrash tells us that each Jew saw lying on the shore the dead body of an Egyptian he or she had personally known during their time in Mitzrayim. Another midrash is even more specific: it has every Jew seeing the dead body of his or her taskmaster. A third midrash tells us that after the Song of the Sea the angels took up a celebratory song, at which point Hashem enjoins them to stop: God tells them, “There should be no joyous songs while My handiwork lie “dead in the Sea.”
What are we to make of these midrashim and the concepts and principles implicit in them? Imagine: here at this moment of great relief, where we Jews have finally been blessed with freedom from bondage and we have witnessed the awesome miracle of the sea’s parting and victory over the mightiest army in the world? Nothing, we are told, could have defeated those charioteers, nothing, that is, except for simple mud. How could we not burst into song?! Even the angels are moved to song! Yet Adonai does not urge singing; whatever joy He might have felt at this new phase of his people’s lives, He reminds us of the dead lying there, dead through their own bad choices and the evil they foisted upon the Israelites, but dead nonetheless.
As I think about these narratives and their relationship to the Parsha, I cannot help but think that what connects them all is not the salvation of the Jews but the deaths of the Egyptians. However many miracles they saw and warnings they heard, the Egyptians went after the fleeing Israelites. There is no doubt that, unless the Egyptians were overcome in this mighty way, there would have been no escape. But God’s caution to the angels and the Jew’s recognition of an Egyptian serve to remind us that life must not be taken away lightly—even the life of our enemy. Perhaps even more so when it comes to the life of our enemy. This is not meant to suggest any definitive solution to the complicated ethical issues of capital punishment or prosecuting a just war or even killing in self defense. Rather, I interpret this excerpt less about what we do and more about how we do it.
The Egyptian enemies were not faceless; in some way, perhaps, then, we should strive to give all of our enemies faces. The Torah tells us, we must not even uproot a fruit tree —fruit trees whose lives we also celebrate this Friday night as we commemorate Tu B’Shvat. Using the principle of Kal V’Chomer (light and heavy), it would follow that the demand on us to preserve human life whenever possible is all that much stricter. And if it is not possible to preserve human life, (for example, in a just war) then it would seem that we must not glory in life’s destruction but rather minimize suffering and celebrate the lives granted to us by God.