A sermon presented at Canadian Memorial United Church, February 12, 2017, in video, with text version following.
Song of the Sea, Exodus chapter 15, sung by Moses, Miriam and the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea from slavery to freedom.
A song of jubilation and victory. Vengeance and gratitude. Devastation and power. Fear and awe.
I have not had such mixed feelings since I was about ten years old. At the summer camp my brother and I attended, a week long color war was one of the summer’s highlights. The whole camp would be divided into two teams and we would compete in sports, knowledge quizzes, arts, song, and even cabin cleaning. One summer, my beloved younger brother and I were placed on opposite teams. That year, my team won and my brother’s team lost. I couldn’t deal with feeling so happy and sad at the same time. So I cried for hours.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I haven’t had such mixed feelings since my mother died. I was glad her pain ended, but devastated that mine began. I had such a hard time dealing with relief and grief at the same time, I cried every day for a year.
It’s not easy to deal with this Biblical text, this great poem that some call “the Song of the Sea.” As it moves between jubilation and vengeance, it evokes all the beauty and all the terror associated with a huge body of water. I’d like to just stand here and cry but that would not be helpful.
I am not the first person to be moved in conflicting directions by this poem. So, to deepen my understanding of the poem, it helps me to turn to midrash, the body of interpretation and legend developed over centuries of Jewish tradition. Midrash means “deep inquiry.” Some stories in midrash are as old as the Biblical text itself, and some are newer stories that respond to questions about the text. In synagogue and in Hebrew school, we learn Midrash along with Torah (Hebrew Bible). I’ll share with you three wonderful legends: one about unity, one about enmity, and one about hope.
Towards the beginning of the Song of the Sea, Moses and all the Israelites declare, “This is MY God and I will praise God.” Think about it: in every other Biblical story, these people are contentious in their faith. They lack faith in one another and in God. How could they suddenly declare their faith in unison?
Because, says the midrash, it wasn’t quite “in unison.” Actually, everyone saw something different. Some people saw a warrior God who defeated a enemy army. Some people saw a Mother God, who drew them into new life through the watery birthing canal of the Red Sea.
This story simply amplifies the Biblical text itself, which describes the crossing of the Sea in at least four different ways – acknowledging that people had very different experiences. (1) Moses spoke to, that is, reasoned with the Israelites and they walked into the water. (2) Moses the skilled magician, the one who knew physics and many specialized laws of energy-matter connections, used his knowledge to split the sea. (3) God blew a puff through the divine nostrils to help a particular group of people in mortal danger. (4) Luckily, the weather cooperated that day, and the Israelites took advantage of the east wind rearranging the waters.
Our midrash tells us: It doesn’t matter what the people saw! Some were theists, some agnostics, some atheists, some skeptics; some were militarists, some feminists, some scientists. But everyone agreed: something amazing has happened. Everyone said: I see the power of MY God, and instead of dividing the people, it brought them together. They were united in awe and gratitude and joy – and that put all the old divisions into new perspective. At that moment, as they moved from death to life, everything they used to argue about was simply unimportant. And they all knew it.
The rejoicing is beautiful. But it also seems misplaced. Moses and the people say, I will sing to God, because he has thrown Pharaoh’s horse and rider into the sea. But really — how can they rejoice? Surely they know, as we readers know, that all the Egyptians, including Pharaoh’s closest advisors, supported the freeing of the slaves. No one agreed with Pharaoh’s orders to bring them back. The soldiers who drowned were likely very young men, reluctantly following their orders. How could the people really rejoice at their drowning? Shouldn’t they feel sorrow for the young men whose lives Pharaoh threw away?
Yes – and no — says our midrash. Legend tells us that the angels in God’s heavenly court see the Israelites singing in praise of God at the sea. So they join in the song – after all, it’s in their job description to praise God all the time. But this particular time, God does not want their praise; instead, God scolds the angels. What are you, God asks, human beings? It’s understandable that humans rejoice when their enemies die. Humans have bodies, and when those bodies are threatened they are under terrible stress. And if they overcome the threat, they rejoice. But you? You don’t have bodies to worry about. You are purely spiritual creatures. You should understand that I value all of my creatures equally. That when any creature dies, I do not rejoice. It hurts me that humans do rejoice. But perhaps one day they will evolve beyond their fears, and live fully into their spiritual nature.
When will that happen? A third midrash tells us. This is a newer midrash, only 1500 years old, that responds to the Biblical text as we have it. The Song of the Sea begins with the words “Then Moses and the Israelites sang.” In Hebrew, the words for “then they sang” are az yashir. In the grammar of Biblical Hebrew, yashir is a past tense verb, and “they sang” is a correct translation of az yashir. But in ordinary spoken Hebrew, yashir is a future tense verb, and az yashir would mean Moses and the Israelites WILL sing. So, midrashic thinkers spun a legend around that. When will we sing this song again?
We will sing it when Messianic time is established. Not when a teacher comes to announce Messianic time, but when it is fully realized. When people know that most of the divisions and differences that cause social strife and unimportant. When people let go of knee-jerk reactions of fear towards one another, and connect in a shared spirit. When enmity gives way to unity. When we begin to see as the angels see.
You all know the Jewish description of this Messianic time, articulated by the great prophet Isaiah: The lion will lie down with the lamb, the cow and the bear will graze together, the calf and the lion cub will play together, and a little child will lead them. The animals represent the inner conflicts within every human being and they represent the conflicted nations of the world. Some of our inner conflicts, as well as the conflicts that divide nations, are laid out so well in the Song of the Sea. But, the Midrash teaches, one day we will learn to move past these conflicts and heal psychologically, interpersonally and internationally.
Our task for this day is to make use of our spiritual and educational resources, and begin to learn how. Those resources are not far from us. In the language of the midrash, they are not really in heaven. From the world’s oldest wisdom traditions to the newest sociological knowledge about conflict resolution, the resources are closely available. And our task is to grab hold of them and learn how to live into the messianic unity.
Image: Simon de Vos, The Israelites After Crossing the Red Sea.