Parshat Beshalach: The Sea Shanty That Took The World By Storm

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

For more about Artist Kate Lenkowsky:

For more about Rabbi David Evan Markus, esq.:

Piece Description, Kate Lenkowsky, “Miriam’s Song”:

Miriam’s Song is an embroidered and quilted textile depicting the crossing of the Sea of Reeds by the Israelites. We see them moving forward through mud left by the parted waters, leaving behind a dark and bitter past, and emerging into the light of G-d’s presence. The art highlights the faith and confidence of Miriam at whose urging the women brought timbrels to celebrate the victory over Pharoah with song and dance. The well reminds us of the midrash which says that during the long years in the wilderness, whenever the Israelites thirsted, a well appeared -- so long as Miriam lived. The gradual change in attire of those crossing the sea alludes to later generations of Jews who took risks just as great to be free.

Discussion Questions:
1. Miriam’s Song is an embroidered textile. What are features of this medium that stand out to you? In what ways is this medium uniquely suited to be in conversation with the story of Beshalach?

2. Look at the backs of the different figures crossing the Sea of Reeds. What do you notice about what they are carrying, their dress, their emotional states and their postures? Who do you think these individuals represent and what relationship do they have with those who have made it to the other side?

3. In different areas, Kate Lenkowsky, deliberately inserts a distinct patch from those around it. Some have a corresponding pair found elsewhere in the piece. What were the thoughts behind these artistic choices? Notice her choice of colours. What connotations do the colors of these distinguished patches have in your own life?

4. The contrast between the dark cerulean depths and the ocean floor mud with the the cyan sky and untouched white sand can be interpreted as different paradigms of growth trajectories. Whether they describe fixed vs. unbounded, humanity vs. divine, internal vs. external, individual vs. planetary, physical vs. mental, healing vs. elevation, subterranean trauma vs. overt healing… Which of these growth trajectories (or others that you have discovered) resonate with you. Where do you see yourself on this growth trajectory? Where do you aspire to be by the end of the year?

Rabbi David Evan Markus, “Moving Through”:
“Move through and don’t turn back!”

If the ivrim (“moving through” people, the “Hebrews”) received that name for their pre-slavery nomadic culture, maybe we kept the name for our spiritual ancestors’ dramatic “moving through” the Sea of Reeds – from slavery to freedom at last.

This Biblical moment, in this week’s Parashat Beshallah, is the high noon of spirituality’s battle to liberate humanity from inhumanity. It’s the climax of miraculous signs and wonders, the apotheosis of impenetrable barriers felled by a holy puff, the rousing of ancestral courage to face the unfaceable. To midrash, the scene at the Sea of Reeds calls us to walk into the raging waters of our lives – even up to our faces, at risk of drowning – and by sheer persistence and faith manifest holy power to part those waters.

The scene is so pivotal to Jewish identity, Western monotheism and liberation theology that we’ve been talking about it ever since. Jewish tradition’s liturgy revisits it every morning and every evening. Passover’s Dayeinu praises it. Movies dramatize it. African-American spirituals channel it. Comics tease it. (Ever see The Far Side cartoon of a restaurant-patron Moses parting a bowl of soup? How about a divinely inspired Jim Carrey doing the same in the movie Bruce Almighty?)

But “moving through” is serious business. We’re named for it, and our core identity as descendants of slaves calls us to keep liberating humanity from inhumanity, to keep “moving through” – for we know the stranger’s heart, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. That’s why our eponymous “moving through” isn’t in the past tense, some “one and done” moment in spiritual history to place on the museum shelf of memory. Our “moving through” is in the present tense – every day, this moment, these waters.

Easier said than done, of course. It makes sense that we’d languish, or fear, or tire, or even feel the impulse to turn back. Today’s Sea of Reeds might be a raging pandemic, the churning of global climate change, the torrent of gun violence, the tidal waves of political storms, or the over-wash of systemic racism. Today’s Sea of Reeds might be any collective force, structure or system seemingly too big to control, too vast to move through, too deep even to see clearly.

But learning to see, even move forward when we can’t yet see, might be the spiritual purpose of the journey. Torah records that our fleeing ancestors camped at Pi-Hahirot, linguistically linked to “mouth of freedom,” before Baal-Tzafon, literally “master of hiddenness” (Ex. 14:9). It was precisely there that Egyptian forces caught up to them, seeming to trap them at the Sea’s edge. Only there could all come to see what had been hidden – the power to part the waters, a way forward to freedom.

And as they moved forward to freedom, our spiritual ancestors saw dry ground perhaps never before exposed to light. Sunlight usually penetrates only the topmost layer of sea water – a few inches to some feet. The depth remains invisible from above, and darkness reigns below. But when the Sea of Reeds split, the retreating waters revealed the sea bottom, as never seen before. And as our spiritual ancestors moved through, even the most concealed depth radiated with light – and so did they, enlightened by the prophetic power to foretell and make a future of freedom.

As for our spiritual ancestors then, so for us now. The depths of today’s seas – and the way through them – surely are not fully visible to us. Storms churn the waters, limiting visibility even more. We camp before the “master of hiddenness,” not yet seeing our way forward, perhaps even feeling trapped. But we can remember who we are – the ivrim, the “moving through” people, descendants of prophets with ancestral resilience coursing through our veins.

“Move through and don’t turn back!”

And as we do, even with fear, not letting our imperfect visibility stop us, together we can find the way. Even up to our faces, at risk of drowning, our collective persistence and faith can manifest the holy power to part waters we imagined were impenetrable, to walk in light even in the deepest dark. Every liberation and every social movement of consequence did exactly that – and so can we. We must: we’re named for it.

And if we do, if we dare, there will be dancing on the other side (Exodus 15:20-21). We’ll be reminded how to dance again. We’ll celebrate not that our journey is done, for there always will be seas to part. Rather, we’ll dance in soul joy that we moved through, that we again held timbrels in our hands, that we lived up to our names, that we forged again the way to freedom.