Unfortunately as of the beginning of 2010, the synagogue that I belong to here in Salt Lake City, Congregation Kol Ami, has found itself without a Rabbi. Of course this is due to politics and such which seems to be unavoidable in most religious organizations these days. Because of this, the synagogue has been finding people to help lead services from within the congregation. I have been asked to help out on a number of occasions, which I am happy to do. I enjoy leading services and I am happy to help out where I can.
So I am leading Kabalat Shabbat services on Friday evening, January 29. In addition to leading services I have also been asked if I could prepare a D’var Torah, which, for those who are not familiar with Jewish traditions, is a small speech/discussion about the weeks Torah portion. This is a special shabbat as it is Shabbat Shira (Shabbos of Song) which falls before Tu B’Shvat. So, my portion is Beshalah (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16) which starts with the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, the salvation of the Israelites and the destruction of the Egyptian army. It is kind of a heavy portion and I have been trying to find a way into it that I can relate to. I have only started my research, but I have already found some very interesting readings and ideas. So I am going to toss around some ideas while I work on this, and I certainly would enjoy input.
One of the most interesting things that I have discovered about Parashat Beshalah is that this is the first time that there is any documented singing in the Torah. In this parasha we read Shirat Hayam, The Song of the Sea, sung by Moshe and the Israelites. Shirat Hayam is the first song that is sung in the Torah. It is a song of rejoicing and it really solidifies the fact that the Israelites are Hashem’s “chosen people.” Then, immediately following this song, Miriam led the women in song and dance, further praising Hashem for the destruction of the Egyptian army.
Songs hold a very important place in Jewish tradition. In fact, singing and music is one of the most powerful forms of prayer that we have. There are many midrashim that teach the power of song as prayer. One of the most famous is usually told around the High Holidays about a boy and his flute. The boy doesn’t know any of the prayers but wants to something to participate in the services. Finally the boy end up blowing one long loud note in the middle of the service leaving the congregation in stunned silence. The Rabbi then says that the one note from the flute was more powerful than all the prayers that the congregation had said, and hopefully that one note would open Hashem’s ears to their prayers.
Almost every service and many of the texts that we read from have some for of songs or melodies that go with them. Many of these melodies are nearly universal throughout all walks of Judaism. Even the books of the Tanakh are meant to be read with a melody. One of the Rabbis that I studied under when I was a camper at Camp Yavneh used to say that even if you were a Jew who lived on Mars, if you cam to visit Earth you would know if it was Shabbat or not by the tunes that were used in the Amidah. We even have prayers and psalms that speak of the importance of music and song. Look at psalm 150, Hallelujah, which talks of praising Hashem with various instruments and dance.
While trying to find a way into talking about Parashat Beshalah I came across a lesser known midrash, Perek Shira. Perek Shira, at it’s most basic is a collection of passages talking about how everything in the world has a song that it sings for Hashem. Every aspect of creation, every person, plant, and animal has a song. Discovering that song may be akin to finding one’s purpose in this world.
The Tzfat Emet teaches that “Each creature has a song of praise to Hashem, but all of nature did not sing out loud until this moment of human inspiration, when the hidden became revealed.” This of course begs the question that many great Rebbes have asked: “What is so special about the crossing of the Red Sea that allowed all of creation to begin to sing?”
To answer this question I found two ideas. The First comes from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He explored the difference between Shira (song) and Hallel (praise). Hallel, he says, is a form of ritual, an expression of gratitude for historical events. On the other hand, Shira is a “spontaneous eruption of existential song.” So, I had to ask myself: “what does this mean?” Rav Soloveitchik’s definition of Hallel is pretty straightforward, but what about Shirah? Moshe and the Israelites were so in awe with relief and amazement that they spontaneously burst into song. This is the highest form of praise that one can offer to Hashem. To be filled to brim and burst out in song is the ultimate cathartic moment and one of the most meaningful spiritual experiences.
This still leaves part of the question unanswered, what is it about the sea that caused all of creation to sing? The MaHaRa’L of Prague wrote that the sea differs from lakes and rivers because “the sea is not a specific thing, for there are no two seas on the world like there are multiple rivers.” What does this mean? Rivers and lakes are individual bodies of water, they are distinct and unique. However, despite the fact that we have given names to different seas and oceans, they are all connected as one united body of water. If we then look back to Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) we see that Hashem created everything by separating the waters of the heaves from the waters of the Earth. So the parting and reuniting of the Red Sea is symbolic of the parting of the waters of creation. Water, and the union of the waters can be seen as a symbol of the unity of all of creation, and the act of reuniting the Red Sea united the Israelites once and for all as a people and reunited all of Hashem’s creations which caused all of creation to sing.
So, that is what I have come up with so far. It was pretty much stream of thought with help from my research. I suppose now I have to do some editing and refining. I probably also need a way to wrap it all up and it might be nice to end with a song or niggun. I would love to hear thoughts and reactions!