Shabbat Shira

Yesterday marked Shabbat Shira (Hebrew for ‘song’), which is the customary name of the Sabbath on which we read about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The tale of the exodus is written in the book of Exodus 13:17–17:16, which Jews refer to as the portion of Beshalach (פרשת בשלח ). It is called Shabbat Shira in memory of the song that Moses sang after the parting of Red Sea, during which the Hebrews successfully outmaneuvered the Egyptians who drowned in the sea. After finally ridding themselves of their vicious captors Moses, his system Miriam and the entire nation rejoiced with song and praise to the Almighty their savior.

Not many Sabbaths have a special name like Shabbat Shira. The only other such Sabbaths are: Shabbat Tshuva (the Sabbath immediately preceding Yom Kippur), Shabbat Chazon (the Sabbath immediately preceding the fast of Tisha B’Av), Shabbat Nachamu (the Sabbath immediately following the fast of Tisha B’Av), Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath immediately preceding Purim) and Shabbat Hagadol (the Sabbath immediately preceding Passover). What makes Shabbat Shira even more special is that it is the only specially-named Sabbath which is not linked to any official holy day. The Song of the Sea, Shirat Hayam, is indeed so special that it is recited by observant Jews every day of the year without exception.

One of my favorite commentaries on this Sabbath reading is on Exodus 14:15. And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward. We learn from this that Moses was praying to the Lord that he save Israel. In return, the Lord says to Moses: now, when Israel is in perilous danger, is not the time for praying. Now is the time for action! Tell the Israelites to move forward into the sea!

Now think about this for a moment: you are standing on the shore of a vast sea. You don’t know how to swim. At the rear, a heavily-armed militia is closing in. You can hear the arrows whizzing by, you can hear the hoofs of the horse-led chariots in fast pursuit. Praying is not going to help. But is jumping into a sea any better? Both options spell death.

Later on in the portion we read about the Manna which was the bread that the Israelites ate in their desert sojourn. The Manna is really a code name for making a living. Some of us are fortunate to make a good living, where the money is on the floor. Just bend down and pick it up. Other people are not so lucky and must toil with the sweat of their brow for their daily sustenance. Here too, just like at the shore of the Red Sea, we are confronted with dangers. Prayers alone will not cut it. Action is needed. People need to do their best to make a living. Prayers are always good but must be backed with hard work.

At the end of the portion in Shabbat Shira, the newly liberated nation of Israel faces their first war against the nation of Amalek. Moses appoints Joshua as the joint chief of staff and dispatches him to wage war against the enemy forces. But Moses does not rely solely on military might. Instead, he oversees the military operation on top of a hill, with his arms thrust towards heaven in faithful prayer. The war was won by a combination of strength and belief in the Lord’s capacity for salvation.

Prayer and deeds, belief and action. Arguably a good practice in any situation.

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