This Shabbat features songs that were offered on separate times after Israel was delivered from a persistent enemy, reminding us that our salvation came not just from prayer but also from resolute leaders who acted with full faith that God would bless their actions with success.
Prayer to God is a classic response in times of trouble. But is prayer alone always the answer? If prayer alone is not the answer, what else is needed?
The questions come after reading this week’s Torah portion (B’Shalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16) and its accompanying Haftorah (Judges, chapters 4-5). This is “Shabbat Shira” — the “Sabbath of Song” and both feature a song of praise and faith offered after Israel is delivered from a persistent enemy.
We read the backstory to the Song of Moses each Passover at the Seder table. Our ancestors had just left Egypt and were being pursued by Pharaoh and his army. Their backs were to the sea. In despair, they cried out to God and complained to Moses. God’s reply to Moses is short and to the point: “Now is not the time for prayer,” God tells Moses, “it is the time for action.”
As the Midrash describes, Moses raised his staff over the sea and Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, in an act of faith, jumped in. The sea parted, and the Israelites traveled across on dry land. On Moses’ signal, the sea returned to its course, catching the pursuing Egyptians in the mud and swirling waters, drowning them all. Then, once this immediate danger was behind them, Moses and his sister, Miriam, led the people in songs of rejoicing.
The story behind the Song of Devorah is less well known. It occurred in northern Israel in the days of the Judges at a time when political leadership was in the hands of Devorah the Prophetess and military leadership in the hands of her husband, Barak. The nation had been oppressed by their Canaanite enemies for 20 years and was now threatened with annihilation by the Canaanite army. The people cried out to God while Devorah called for action.
Barak hesitated until Devorah agreed to join him in leading the Israelite army into battle and to take responsibility for the results. She did. In the ensuing battle, the Canaanite army was vanquished. The fleeing Canaanite general was killed by the quick thinking of Yael, wife of Chever the Kenite, thus ending the threat to the Israelite community. After the threat was over, Devorah memorialized the victory with her song in praise of God and, we are told, “the Children of Israel lived in peace for forty years.”
Perhaps the songs of Moses and Miriam and the Song of Devorah are presented together on Shabbat Shira because of the themes that they share. Both acknowledge that salvation for the Jewish people comes from God and thank God for that mercy. Both are offered after the fact and both acknowledge that God’s mercy is bestowed when the Jewish people act on their own behalf and assume responsibility for their actions, as Moses and Nachshon did at the sea and as Devorah did in face of the Canaanite threat.
In each of these times of trouble, prayer alone was not sufficient.We were saved from the design of our enemies because we were led into action by resolute leaders and acted with full faith that God would bless our action with success.
Moses, Miriam, Devorah and Barak all lived in dangerous times. As the Torah testifies, the people of their days were quick to cry out in despair but reluctant to act. Their test as leaders and teachers was to inspire their people to act, as necessary, with the faith that God would bless their acts. Their triumphs have been sung about ever since.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva.