I have never had trouble understanding the Song at the Sea. To the contrary: For a nation emerging from slavery, the spontaneous explosion of song feels like the most natural reaction, even the only appropriate thing to do at that moment in time. The vision of the Egyptian army disappearing beneath the crash of a newly fluid Red Sea put a final exclamation point on the sojourn in that country, in a way that even the unspeakable tenth plague – the death of every Egyptian first born – could not. The definitive end of our captivity came with a deafening certainty that rings painfully true to the modern ear: Never again would we fear the Egyptian whip.
And yet, during our study for your bar mitzvah you noted the irony in the Song: Instead of celebrating freedom, the Song at the Sea largely celebrates the Egyptian downfall. We learned together the famous midrash – “the lowliest maidservant achieved a higher level of prophecy at the Red Sea than even the great prophet Ezekiel” – but we struggled with the implication of the parable. Here, on the cusp of Jewish history, the best we could manage was to jab the Egyptians once again and to raise a toast to this latest episode in the Egyptians’ suffering and humiliation?
On the other hand, the Song at the Sea is essentially a prayerful vision for the future, a moment at which the Jewish People, and the entirety of Creation celebrate the Godly ideas of freedom, justice. Az Yashir Moshe U’vnei Yisrael, the day will come when Moses and the Jewish People will sing this song to God. Many classical commentators note the Torah’s use of the future tense: The exodus from Egypt introduced the idea of freedom to the world and the birth of the Jewish People. But that is not the final goal: Our nation was born with a promise. We are commanded to become a people of destiny, a light unto the nations. Ultimately, we are called to the task of Tikkun Olam, of perfecting this broken world, of creating and ensuring justice. The use of the future tense points to a time that those lofty goals will have been accomplished, when it will truly be said that the Torah spills forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
My son, as you celebrate your bar mitzvah and mark your entry into Jewish adulthood, I suggest five lessons from this special Torah portion to guide your path.
- Break into song. Give yourself the inner freedom to fully celebrate the positive things that happen in your life. Sing, dance, smile, savor the moment.
- Believe in the future, and in your ability to shape it. Dream big, and think creatively about ways you can turn your dreams into reality.
- Connect with and celebrate God’s presence in the world. The splitting of the sea was a critical moment in our history, but it shouldn’t take Grade A miracles to inspire you. Strive to maintain your childish curiosity, your ability to laugh easily, your innate understanding that people are good and that the world is a good place. Learn to identify the right path for you, in Torah study and in all areas of life, and learn to use your many God-given talents to succeed. Most of all, take care to be thankful for the gifts you receive.
- Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Your bar mitzvah portion is filled with triumph and celebration at the Red Sea, but also with the pain and failure of life in the desert: No sooner had the Egyptians perished than we found ourselves in the desert, thirsty, hungry and scared. Be creative and determined, believe that the impossible can occur – even drawing water out of a rock.
- Believe that at the end of the day, justice and right will prevail in the world, and work towards bringing about that exalted day. Egypt had the upper hand on the Jews for 210 years, but the Hebrew slaves eventually paraded out of slavery in grand fashion. This can be a tough call – we live in a world where injustice is allowed to flourish, and where the righteous often face insurmountable difficulties. If you believe, however, that tzedek – justice – will ultimately prevail, your faith will give you strength and conviction to work hard towards creating a world where that is so.
Idan, you stand today like the Jewish People on the far side of the the Red Sea – looking forward towards a life of possibility and promise. May God grant you not only success, but also the ability to celebrate the journey of life itself. Go forth, my boy. Let the Song at the Sea inspire you to create a life of song, of wonder, a life of passion and love and challenges and fulfilment.