D’var for January 29, 2021

Be-shallah: Shirat HaChisun – The Song of the Vaccine


In parashat Be-shallach, we find one of the greatest visuals in the entire Torah, the parting of the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds. So great is the visual that the Shirat HaMayim, The Song of the Sea, which is sung after the Israelites pass through the parted waters, is depicted in the Torah in a unique fashion. This is only one of two Torah sections of Torah that is not depicted in simple columns, the other being HaAzinu, which occurs near the end of Deuteronomy. Here in the Torah the text is in a special symmetrical or brick pattern indicating that there is a song to be sung. Hence in many communities it is common to dedicate Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, where we read from Be-shallach, to special melodies and musical inclusions in the worship experience. 


However, something happens in Be-shallach shortly after this great miracle where the Israelites were not only redeemed, but also witnessed their enemies vanquished. When the Israelites reached the wilderness of Sin, which is described as an area between Elim and Mt. Sinai, “the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron” (Exodus 16:2). What was the source of their complaint? The Israelites feared that they had been brought out of Egypt only to starve in the wilderness. The answer to this fear, as we later learn, was the miracle of manna. However, it does raise an interesting point, the Israelites just witnessed one of the most powerful miracles in the Torah. They even sang a song about it. Then after witnessing this dramatic liberation, it is as if, they had already forgotten it and the ten plagues that proceeded the parting of the sea.


In the words of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Arston in The Bedside Torah, “The Bible seems to indicate that miracles don’t work. People marvel at them when they take place, and then forget about them the moment they are finished.” 


It is very much human form to return to a baseline nature even after the most incredible of circumstances. Others may view this as a negative, but Torah is actually providing us here with a profound insight into the human condition. It is reminding us that real change rarely comes about because of a transformational moment. Real change requires hard work, dedication, reflection, and effort. This is why, in part, so many New Year’s resolutions fail. Just because there is a date change does not simply mean there is a behavioral or psychological change, it only means that the calendar is reminding us of an opportunity to begin those journeys.


As we read through the rest of the Torah, the Israelites really struggle with transforming themselves from a people who were enslaved, to a people in control of their own destiny. They challenge, Moses, Aaron, and God over and over again. Only after a new generation arose, were they finally able and willing to take on to their shoulders the mantle of being a people responsible for their own destiny.


So too it is with us. We have all witnessed a modern miracle of not one but several vaccines created in a time frame never before witnessed in human history. However, as we are also learning, until we reach the point of herd immunity, we cannot let our guard down, even for one moment. Sadly, like the Israelites, who were slow to change, so too, many of us want to immediately get back to the way things were before the pandemic. 


The truth is, we cannot simply return to our lives as they were. We have to be slow and deliberate. We have to be cautious and thoughtful. Redemption will come, of that we can be assured, but it will come in its own time, not necessarily in a time of our desire or choosing.


Until that day, we continue to rejoice and sing of the miracles both past and present. Then, as the Torah reminds us, we must get back to the hard work of personal, communal and societal transformation. For true redemption is not something we can simply wait to happen to us, but instead it is something we have to work steadfastly to bring about. This includes making sure that everyone who can, receives the vaccine. And when our redemption does come, may we all find the melody to sing in one voice of the Shirat HaYam and the Shirat HaChisun (the song of the vaccine). 


Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff

The Reform Temple of Rockland 

Upper Nyack, NY