September 24, 2018

Exodus As Performance Art?

Most of the stories in the Bible are written using a traditional storytelling narrative format. It reads like a book. There is one glaring exception to this structural conformity in the Exodus story.

Immediately following the 10 miraculous plagues and their dramatic escape from Egyptian servitude, the Israelites are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. On one side, the Egyptian legions are in hot pursuit of their coveted slaves, while on the other, the raging waters of the Sea of Reeds impede the path of the fleeing Israelites. On God’s command, Moses stretches his arm over the sea and with a Harry Potter-esque flick of his staff, the waters recede. The Israelites dash across the channel to their freedom and the waters crash down upon the Egyptian hordes.

Here the Bible inserts its first, and only, musical number into the narrative. Inspired and awakened by their newfound freedom, Moses and his sister, Miriam, lead the people in the Song at the Sea — a spontaneous ballad offering thanksgiving to God. “I sing a song to the LORD for the LORD is highly exalted … The LORD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”

To me, nothing in the Bible requires a greater suspension of disbelief than this moment. Seconds earlier, the Israelites were rescued from certain death by the slimmest of margins. Sure, they felt great relief, but real people in real life do not spontaneously burst into song. That happens only in musicals.

The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text of the Exodus story. It is ready for Broadway.

When I want to say thank you in real life, I make a phone call. I write an email or send a text. I definitely do not grab a microphone, strike up the band lying in wait just in case I need to serenade somebody and sing a song of gratitude. But that does describe the Song at the Sea. The Israelites are saved, Miriam picks up a tambourine and Moses starts singing. It is such a cliche. A classic trope of musical theater or film — singing a wordy song instead of speaking like people do in real life.

I had this epiphany while watching NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on NBC on Easter Sunday, along with 10 million other viewers. There are no songs in the original text of the Jesus story, so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a musical version. But the Exodus story actually includes a “musical episode.” The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text. It is ready for Broadway.

Music possesses an extraordinary power to convey emotion more efficiently and effectively than words. Art does not always attempt to impart facts or historical truth. Rather, it moves us, inspires us, nourishes our souls.

In many places, the Torah is more like art than like real life. Torah is a collection of stories, ideas, rules and wisdom for improving ourselves and the world. Torah should move us, inspire us and nourish our soul. Sometimes performance art — even Torah — needs a shortcut like music to get us there.

The emotional peak of the Exodus is the moment our forefathers set foot on the other side of the sea and turned their heads to witness the entire Egyptian fleet drowning. In order to feel that moment, we need a shortcut. We need a song. At this point, we might even need an entire musical.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.