This special Shabbat is named Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of song, because tomorrow our Torah reading describes the mythic parting of the sea that allows the Israelites to pass through and escape their pursuers. This is recounted in a poetic passage called Shirat haYam, the Song of the Sea. The haftarah, the prophetic reading tomorrow is from the Shirat Devorah, Song of Deborah found in the Book of Judges. Both Biblical songs are odes of triumph, similar in style and content to poetry of ancient Mesopotamia and the Ugarit culture that flourished in what is now western Syria. Both songs include violent images of ancient warfare. Scholars tell us these songs are possibly some of the oldest material of the Hebrew Bible, dating perhaps to the 10th century Before the Common Era, 3,000 years ago.
We come to this special Shabbat at a tragic time following the death of Father Eric Freed. I had the good fortune to become friends with Father Eric through several years of collaboration on the faculty of the Religious Studies Department at Humboldt State University. According to Jewish custom, we mourn intensely for seven days after burial, and our mourning draws to a close after a month, as we read in the Torah: The Children of Israel bewailed Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the days of tearful mourning for Moses came to an end.” (Dev. 34:8) Though we are encouraged to grieve long and deeply, Jewish custom also dictates that mourning is suspended on Shabbat, the Sabbath, which is given to us as a day of renewal and joy. And so on Shabbat we reign in our sorrow, but we are permitted to weep tears of tenderness and love. On Shabbat we also refrain from offering eulogies, extensive praise for the departed. Therefore tonight you won’t hear me speak about what an exceptional person Father Eric. I will not expound on how greatly he enriched the lives of those who knew him as teacher, colleague, priest or friend. Nor will I elaborate on his sparkling intellect, his humble, affable demeanor, his passionate nature, and his compassionate heart.
But I am permitted to mention causes that Father Eric held dear: protecting the rights of the marginalized, freeing the oppressed, and establishing the foundations of a peaceful society. In his memory may we all work to strengthen our social institutions, and to support those members of our community who devote their lives to urgent issues of public health, those who strive to improve the lives of the impoverished and the homeless, and those who daily risk their lives for the sake of peace.
This Shabbat Shira also falls at a critical juncture as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have returned to work. In Father Eric’s memory let us help create what Secretary of State John Kerry has called “the great constituency of peace,” the up-swelling of opinion and commitment, especially here in the United States, that is essential to bring about a lasting peace in the Middle East. When all of humanity has made a safe journey out of oppression to freedom, then we will write new songs that will resonate across the universe.