Parashat Beshallach

Two Minutes of Torah with Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky

“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously…”

—Exodus 15:1

Previews began today in London for The Prince of Egypt, a new musical based on the 1998 DreamWorks film. The trailers and press releases for the show include the cast singing the award-winning song “There Can Be Miracles;” which features Hebrew verses found in this week’s Torah portion. At one point, a cast member stands and sings “Ashira l’Adonai, ki ga-oh, ga-ah.” This proclamation of singing to God, praising God’s glorious triumph, is joined by more cast members, their voices singing the ancient Hebrew verses, powerful and clear.

The history of this production is not without some controversy. An event at a community theater in New York, early in the show’s development, was cancelled due to criticism of a lack of diversity in the cast. Two thirds of the cast members were white, which was problematic for a show set in Africa. The cast of the London production is diverse, reflecting both modern society and the ancient Israelites. It challenges how many people think about the biblical narratives, the images we conjure of familiar characters and stories.

Our Torah portion for this week reminds us of the power of faith, using the Song of the Sea as an anthem. It gives this Shabbat its special name, Shabbat Shira, Shabbat of Song. Music is a powerful tool here, used by Miriam to praise God for bringing the Israelites across the sea. The Song of the Sea is part of the morning liturgy, a daily reminder of God’s strength and the Israelite’s strong will.

Seeing Black and Brown women in the Prince of Egypt musical performing one of my favorite verses in the Torah gave me chills and brought me to tears. The song is about freedom and celebrating the power of faith in a tremendously scary time. It is a fitting way to begin Black History Month, recognizing the power that the Exodus story has for both the Jewish community and the African American community. For it is faith, and particularly its expression through song, that has sustained both peoples at some of the most painful moments in our respective histories.