Why did we sing when the Egyptians drowned?

The angels were stopped from singing about the Crossing of the Red Sea but not the Israelites


With each of the Ten Plagues, God escalated the attack on Pharaoh, but it was the Splitting of the Red Sea which finally finished off the Egyptian menace. This occurred seven days after leaving Egypt, so we now read this story annually on the seventh day of Pesach. But why did Pharaoh and his army all have to drown? A heaven-sent “pillar of cloud” (Exodus 14:19) was already holding back the Egyptian chariots so that the Israelites could pass through the divided sea, so why could it not have kept them at bay a little while longer, until the waters had returned?

To make matters worse, Moses and the Israelites sang a triumphant song of gratitude to God for annihilating their enemies: “God is a Man of War [Ish Milchamah]” (Exodus 15:3). The Bible does not get any more masculine and militaristic than that. Why is this Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea) so violent and unforgiving? Where is God’s compassion and mercy? There are two sides to this story.

Our traditional commentaries were sensitive to the ethics of the event. On seeing the drowning Egyptians the angels were about to break into song when God silenced them declaring, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b). But if God stopped the angels from singing, why were our ancestors allowed? Maybe because they needed to give voice to the huge relief of finally being redeemed.

On the other hand, the Talmud also teaches that our personal elation should never make us forget the misfortunes afflicting others (Berachot 31a). The medieval commentary of Tosafot gives this as the source for the custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. And that is why we spill out drops of wine on Seder night, to remind us that our cup of deliverance and celebration cannot be full when others have to suffer.

Then again, the medieval commentator Rashi translates Ish Milchamah as a “Master of War”, indicating that God is an expert warmonger, only to backtrack when he explains the second half of the verse “and God is His Name” (Exodus 15:3), which implies — by use of the four-letter intimate name for God — that God retains pity and mercy for the rest of life even while destroying wrongdoers.

When DreamWorks made the Prince of Egypt film in 1998, they realised that it was not politically correct to have the Israelites singing for joy at the death of their foes so they had them begin singing this Shirah as soon as they left Egypt. When You believe became a hit single.

The movie version of the song had a few select Hebrew lines from the original, which conveniently avoided any mention of violence. Instead we hear of God’s power, “Who is like You, God, among the mighty” (Exodus 15:11), and kindness, “In Your lovingkindness, You led the people You redeemed” (ibid 15:13).

So it seems that our tradition is in two minds about all this. King Solomon himself wrote in his book of Proverbs, “When the wicked perish there is singing” (11:10), but later remarked, “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice” (24:17).

We have to live with this dichotomy. If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough, but if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened, “As I live, says God, I do not wish for the death of the wicked, but for the wicked to repent of their way, so that they may live” (Ezekiel 33:11).

Thus, in the rabbinic reading of the sea-splitting story, Pharaoh did not die but fled and eventually became the king of Nineveh. When the prophet Jonah showed up, Pharaoh immediately lead a national repentance movement (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, based on Exodus 14:28). Thus Pharaoh becomes the paradigm of change that we read about and learn from every Yom Kippur.

Maybe the dramatic image of the sea splitting is the actual metaphor for this dichotomy. The two shores of the sea represent the two sides of the story. And we must pass through the middle, preserving and valuing life, yet not drowning in war and hate. The middle path between justice and mercy is a difficult one to tread and at any moment we can be washed away.

I think we are meant to follow the path of the Israelites, in God’s Hands, into the sea. They “walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea; with the waters like a wall to the right and left of them” (Exodus 14:29). Maimonides called this middle path, “the path of the wise” (Hilchot Deot 1:4). Tread carefully and try not to get to wet.

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