The Shabbat on which we read the Torah portion of Beshalach is traditionally known as Shabbat Shirah or the Shabbat of Song. In Beshalach, we read the story of our ancient Israelite ancestors standing on the banks of the Red Sea. They had just left Egypt after hundreds of years of slavery, but Pharaoh had changed his mind about freeing them and chased after them with his entire cavalry.
The Israelites are stuck between the sea on one side and Pharaoh’s chariots on the other. Their situation looks dire until God splits the sea and they walk through on dry land. As the Egyptian army follows, the walls of water on either side collapse back into place and the army is drowned.
Standing on the other side, the Israelites realize that they are finally truly free of Egypt and they react in joyful singing. Their song is recorded in the Torah and has become part of our daily prayers. Because of the connection between this Shabbat and song, many communities have special musical services or programs in commemoration of the earliest recorded instance of Jewish music.
I am not a particularly musical person. My ear is very poor and I can’t keep a rhythm, but music has still played an important part of my Jewish life and researching certain types of Jewish music is something of an avocation for me.
There is a midrash about the Israelite’s song that teaches that Moses acted like a teacher and taught the words and melody to the people phrase by phrase and they would sing it back to him. Whenever I read this story, I think back on the countless hours my father spent teaching me how to daven for the amud (lead prayer services) in the proper music modes. He too would sing a phrase over and over again until I could repeat it back to him.
This was a foundational part of my Jewish education as leading services not only made me feel comfortable in any synagogue, but was also the activity that gave me the confidence to stand on a stage or pulpit in front of people.
There is another midrash about the Song at the Sea that is both somewhat humorous, but very powerful.
Rabbi Yossi the Galilean taught that even the infants being held by their parents, sang the song. Rabbi Meir trumps his colleague and says that even the fetuses in their mother’s wombs sang along.
Good music has the incredible power of bringing together people of different generations. It affects us in a way that is deeper than our intellect and goes straight to our neshamas (souls).
The next time that you are in shul and hear a melody that you may have heard many times, close your eyes and just listen to the people around you singing. You will hear old voices and you will hear young voices. Some will be very refined and some will be rough, but the sound of the melody being sung together has a power that can’t be replicated.
As we celebrate Shabbat Shirah this year, let us appreciate the beauty that music has brought to our tradition. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was “no one walks out of services humming the rabbi’s sermon.”
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Shabbat candles should be lit on Fridays, January 22 at 5:36 p.m., January 29 at 5:44 p.m., February 5 at 5:52 p.m., February 12 at 5:59 p.m., February 19 at 6:07 p.m. and February 26 at 6:14 p.m.
Editor’s note: Rabbi Michael Wolk, the rabbi of Keneseth Israel Congregation (Conservative), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.