Judaism and Linear History

Beshallah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 22, 1994 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

Unlike most sabbaths of the year, this week’s bears a special name. It is called “Shabbat Shirah – the Sabbath of Song,” from “The Song at the Sea” which is recited to its own cantillation in this week’s parasha (Ex. 15:1-19). A specimen of archaic biblical poetry, the song recounts with gusto the deliverance of Israel, trapped between the Sea of Reeds and the Egyptian army, by yet another divine miracle. And thus in the middle of winter each year, the offspring of ancient Israel break forth in joyous song, as if the redemption had just occurred.

The crossing of the Sea comes as a dramatic postscript to the exodus. The Torah could have chosen, after all, to end its story of the Egyptian sojourn with Israel’s departure. But Pharaoh’s final change of heart brings about the ultimate and irreversible triumph of God. Pharaoh himself, the son of the Sun god Re, goes down with his troops. God has moved from smiting the first born of Egypt to the first born of Re. Israel, God’s own firstborn, survives unscathed.

Moreover, the story ends where it started, at a body of water. The drowning of Egypt’s army rings with poetic justice. At the outset, the Egyptians had sought to annihilate Israel by drowning its male children; now God destroys the symbol of their power and manhood by the very same means.

At stake in this marvelous account of redemption is not only the supreme value of human freedom, but also the repudiation of an abhorrent religious civilization. The Torah’s narrative rejects a body politic that reveres its ruler as god incarnate and rests on a system of slavery, a calendar based solely on the sun, and a religion fixated on death and the afterlife. The exodus of Israel from Egypt reflects a radical break with the values and institutions of the ancient near east.

Often overlooked in this regard is what the Torah does to the nature festivals of its surrounding cultures. These moments of communal celebration at harvest time are transformed so that they are now associated with critical events in the history of Israel. Judaism replaces nature with history as its basic category of religious experience: Passover commemorates the national renewal of Israel after a fallow period of bondage, rather than the renewal of nature after winter. Succot preserves the memory of Israel’s dependence on God’s mercy in the wilderness; and Shavuot, the revelation at Sinai. To be sure, these festivals retain an agricultural substratum, but their primary meaning is thoroughly historicized. Even Shabbat, unknown in pagan antiquity and unrelated to any cycle in nature, is justified historically as recalling the creation of the world.

The consequences of this shift from nature to history reinforce the idea of ethical monotheism. Judaism develops a linear concept of time as opposed to a cyclical one and sanctifies events rather than places. The mountain of Sinai is not holy, or even known, but the moment of revelation is. The Torah intentionally conceals from us the place where Moses is buried. Time is a medium less susceptible to idolatry or polytheism, in which God’s presence is made manifest audibly rather than visually. Time becomes for Judaism the realm in which humanity and God join to complete together the work of creation. The rite of circumcision symbolizes the state of incompleteness of the natural world. The triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.These are large and complicated thoughts, brought to mind not only on this particular Shabbat, but daily, as we recite “The Song of the Sea” in our morning prayers. Above all, the rabbis saw fit to include it because this vigorous poem celebrates a powerful instance of God’s intervention in history. The crossing of the Sea of Reeds became emblematic of God’s undiluted concern, accessibility, and compassion. The past entails assurance for the future. “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” is indeed the God of history, forever engaged in the fate of Israel, an everlasting presence.

In the darkness of Theresienstadt, Leo Baeck penned a defiant confession of faith published in 1955 as This People Israel. When he came to “The Song at the Sea,” his spirit soared above the muck of the moment:

Israel knew that beyond history and revealing itself within it, there dwells the great patience. World history has become patient justice…. Revenge is reserved for God…. The people remained faithful to this song and to this belief and with it history itself became a song. History was not only an apprehension and a narration of that which had happened here; nor was it only a possession of these who pursued this knowledge and power. It lived within the people as its certainty. History was interwoven with that day which came and which was to come. This people is in fact a singing people…. Every day desires its song; even the darkness must have it.

A song of such power is worth a closer look. Structurally it is divided into four sections. (Archaic does not mean chaotic.) Passage from one section to another is marked by the repetition of a phrase: “Your right hand, O Lord” in verse 6, “Who is like You, O Lord” in verse 11, and “Till Your people cross over” in verse 16.

In terms of content, this thanksgiving hymn provides a sweep of Israelite history in chronological order. The introduction affirms the experience of God at the Sea as a “warrior” (v. 3). The second section recounts the failure of the Egyptians to cross the Sea, while the third refers obliquely to the revelation at Sinai and the panic of the nations at the wondrous deeds of Israel’s God, Who shepherds Israel through the wilderness. The final section ends triumphantly with Israel ensconced on God’s holy mountain in a sanctuary built by God.

This is a drama with but a single actor, bespeaking an overwhelming sense of God’s active, steadfast presence. God orchestrated the emergence of Israel as a nation to form an alternative social order. But history proved to be recalcitrant and exile became the locus of Jewish life. Accordingly, when the rabbis integrated “The Song at the Sea” into the prayerbook, they doubled verse 18, as if it were another transition, and added three messianic verses from elsewhere in Scripture (Psalm 22:29, Obadiah 1:21, and Zechariah 14:9) holding out the promise of eventual redemption. Such muted messianism fortified and frustrated Jews as they endured the imperfections of their historical experience.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’shallah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.