There were about a hundred of us standing around in a room, the same room we had been in since early morning. Only now it was evening. We had spent the day listening and learning about the significance of life. At that moment, we were about to become a chorus of voices singing a song, a song to Kimberly, a child we didn't know. What we did know was that Kimberly was terminally ill, and we were singing a song written just for her, a song of love to Kimberly. It was to be recorded and then presented to her -- a special, sacred gift.
At first, everyone seemed tired. After all, it had been a long day. Then we began to sing, and as we did, bodies started to sway, feet began to tap, and faces began to change. All the sadness was removed from the faces of those in the room, and instead there was true joy, a liberation of the spirit.
Shabbat Shirah provides that same kind of experience. Each year in the middle of winter, we are called upon to hear the singing voices of liberation, the voices of our ancestors who stood at the shore of the sea. After generations of sadness and depression, of what seemed like a certain death of the spirit, the Israelites suddenly broke forth in song and renewed their spiritual quest for meaning and significance.
Shabbat Shirah is one of only a few Shabbatot that have a specific name. In Parashat B'shalach, it is the Shirah (the Song) that gets top billing because the rabbis recognized that song is the most liberating of all activities. Song is the medium that uplifts the soul from the mundane to the holy.
A colleague of mine once told me that "he who sings prays twice." It's true. Those who sing do pray twice -- first, to express a yearning to be free; and a second time, to celebrate the freedom that has been attained. That is why we sing the words of the "Song at the Sea" (Exodus 15) each and every time we pray. We remember our ancestors, who yearned to be free, and we celebrate their liberation and ours. Rabbi Pinchas Peli tells us that "our prayers consist mostly not of petition and supplication but of hymns and praises." The Chasidim understood this, as demonstrated by the niggunimthey developed, and the great composers of our tradition understood this, as is evident in the masterful works that they created.
When reading the "Song at the Sea," every Jew should ask himself or herself: Am I a member of that chorus of Israelites who passed through the sea? Can I sing a song of liberation based on my life's experiences and accomplishments? What melody courses through my body as I undertake my life's journey and learn from my people's dramatic history?
No song has greater meaning and significance for us as Jews than this one. And no experience is a greater gift than the liberation of the soul from slavery to freedom. Celebrate this gift of Shabbat Shirah, which is a song of love from the people of Israel to our God of redemption, liberation, and freedom.
Bennet F. Miller is senior rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, NJ.