By Reb David
Among the many awesome images of Exodus, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds in this week’s Torah portion (Beshallach) is perhaps the grandest. Stuff of movie fame, the miraculous crossing into freedom is such a potent symbol of divine help that it became a keystone of Jewish liturgy. Twice daily, the liturgy brings us back to the Sea of Reeds, unable to cross on our own, to re-live our liberation — and with good reason. This week’s Torah portion instructs not only that we did cross, but that we’re still crossing even now.
Fittingly for the Israelites’ crossing of the sea, they sang a Song of the Sea at their redemption. All of them sang, and the women picked up their timbrels and danced. The scene was jubilant — freed from hopeless bondage and then seemingly certain death, now to a future with no murderous army or taskmaster’s lash. The heart of the Song of the Sea is familiar today as liturgy’s Mi Chamocha. Praising God for their miraculous liberation, the freed slaves sang (Ex. 15:11):
מִי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם ה׳ מִי כָּמֹכָה נֶאְדָּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ נוֹרָא תְהִלֹּת עֹשֵׂה פֶלֶא
Who is like You, YHWH, among the mighty? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, awesome in praise, doing wonders?
While liturgy omits the Song of the Sea’s next words, they reveal that the task of liberation is not yet done (Ex. 15:12-16):
You put out Your right hand,
The earth swallowed [our pursuers].
In Your love You lead the people You redeemed;
In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode…
Until Your people cross over, YHWH,
Until Your people cross whom You ransomed.
There is textual evidence that the Song of the Sea was not original to the Exodus and instead was written much later. After all, how could newly freed slaves know that they were being led to God’s “holy abode”? Other parts of the Song allude to Sinai (which came later) and the Temple in Jerusalem (which came much later). These and other textual clues suggest that the Song was written long after our forebears crossed the sea, then placed in their mouths back in time. Or, instead, we may believe that the scene of liberation was so awesome that time split along with the sea, and the people had a collective vision of the future. (Torah has plenty of those moments, too.)
Whether the Song of the Sea dates to the Exodus or later, how amazing to assert that the crossing isn’t yet fulfilled: עַד יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ ה׳, עַד יַעֲבֹר עַם-זוּ קָנִיתָ / “Until Your people cross over, YHWH; Until Your people cross whom You ransomed” (Ex. 15:16). How amazing that slaves just freed across the water would say that their crossing isn’t done. In the Song’s closing words, the crossing would be complete only when —
“You bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, the place, YHWH, which You made for Yourself to dwell in, the sanctuary, YHWH, which Your hands [will] have established. God will reign forever and ever” (Ex. 15:17-18).
We can understand these words to say that our crossing will end at a specific time and place — when Israel receives the Ten Commandments at the “mountain of [God’s] inheritance,” and when there is the Sanctuary in Jerusalem. Or, we can receive these words as symbolic. When descendants of all slaves live securely, when we all know divinity to dwell among and within us, when we experience holiness to “reign forever and ever” in daily life, when the waters part for all — only then will our crossing be complete.
Until then, we’re still crossing. We’re still pursued by hate, fear and bondage. The sea still divides, and a Power far beyond us beckons us forward. Knowing that we cannot cross alone, we enter the waters to be re-birthed into a new life — not as slaves but as spiritual beings called to choose a life of holiness. That miracle continues, every day, “until Your people cross over.” We keep crossing so that someday we all can be free — it’s on us to help bring that day.
And when that new day is born, when all truly are free, then all will sing and lift their timbrels, and none will be afraid.