Like many couples, my wife and I have a song. When the song (Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”) comes on the radio, I always pause to give reflection on the liminal moments in our lives where that song helped relieve a stressful moment for us as a married couple or served as a reminder of the initial days of courtship on my part. At that moment, I am reminded of the expression that something can be “music to my ears.”
As we exit Egypt this week, we recite “Shirat Hayam,” a Torah passage which is one of the few sections with its own distinct poetic format in the scroll and its own distinctive melody.
Why does this particular passage merit these special modifications?
Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in a biblical passage that we recite early in the Shabbat morning service. In Psalm 136, we recite the words, “l’gozer yam suf leegzarim, ki l’olam chasdo” – “for the God who split the sea into parts, God’s kindness lasts forever.” A close reader of this verse would ask why it suggests that God divided the Sea of Reeds into multiple sections (g’zarim) when we famously understand it to have been divided in half.
The midrashic works Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer and the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan interpret that the plural gzarim, sections, refers to the division of the Sea of Reeds into 12 distinct sections corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel. Through this midrash, we can imagine an incredible moving moment as each family finds a distinct path across the dry ground, singing in gratitude and joy, recalling as a tribe their ancestors’ initial beginnings and travels as they revel in being rescued from the hands of the pursuing Egyptians.
Rashi questions the order of events in the story. Why does God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites to direct them to move on, and only then is Moses told to raise his hand over the sea in order to split it? Shouldn’t the command that the Israelites move follow the splitting of the sea?
Rashi’s answer is that the Israelites were commanded to proceed because the sea could not stand in their way. The merit of their ancestors was sufficient to divide the sea. Therefore Rashi brings the “12 pathway” midrash in order to imagine that the individual tribes needed to march as one in order to recall how each of them and their ancestry was essential to the process of survival, freedom, and redemption.
This Shabbat, as we hear the recitation of Shirat Hayam and participate in the communal reading, let each of us imagine how our ancestors set forth a path for our survival and freedom and how we will in their merit continue to ensure that our community in a united fashion will proliferate through the experience of liminal moments of holiness together. That would certainly be music to all our ears!