And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Eternal One, for God is highly exalted: the horse and rider has God thrown into the sea.”
It is one of the iconic moments of the Torah; the Israelites cross a parted sea to freedom, escaping the Egyptians and slavery. It is, in many ways, the beginning of the rest of our history, our rituals and our memory as Jews. But as Miriam sings, leading the people’s exaltation of the Eternal One, behind her many people and their horses drowned. It is not just us, with our modern sensitivity, who are uncomfortable with the sense of triumphalism at this moment.
Indeed, our ancient commentary places that discomfort into the mouth of God, as the Talmud tells us: “My children lie drowned in the sea, and you would sing?”
It is also for this reason that tradition tells us to spill drops of wine at the seder, to remind us that, while we travelled the road to freedom, others suffered and perished.
What this highlights is that there are, within our texts and modern lives, difficult behaviours and theologies with which we struggle to reconcile about how we like to see ourselves, God, our ancestors and our beliefs.
Those of us who believe in God, and those of us who ask questions of our beliefs, have to struggle with and learn from such complexities.
We often hold someone up as a hero and try hard to ignore other sides to their character for which they need to be held to account, because it does not match the way we want to see the narrative.
The best way, for me, to look at this text is that it underlines our eternal struggle; to look a situation in the face and see its complex truth.
- Rabbi Charley Baginsky is Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships