- “And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Eternal had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Eternal; they had faith in the Eternal and in God’s servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang [yashir] this song [shirah] to the Eternal. They said:
I will sing [ashirah] to the Eternal, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
- Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them [vataan lahem]:
Sing [shiru] to the Eternal, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
Exhausted and elated, awestruck and muddy, they arrived on the other shore and wondered: “What just happened?” “Did we really make it across?” “Are we all here?” “Where are we going?” Vayaaminu b’Adonai uv’Mosheh avdo, “they had faith in the Eternal and in God’s servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). And in the midst of the muddy exhaustion, what is the first that thing they do together on the other shore? Az yashir Mosheh uv’nei Yisrael et hashirah hazot, “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Eternal” (Exodus 15:1). They sing. They express their faith in God and give thanks for their miraculous escape through song. What a powerful statement that is, and what an inspiring example it is for twenty-first century rationalists like us.
It won’t surprise you that as a cantor, I feel drawn to the songs in Parashat B’shalach. But in reading the parashah,I wonder, who exactly sang what? How is that relevant for us today? And what melodies did they sing?
Az yashir literally means “and he will sing” or “he sang,” in the singular. Vayomru leimor means, “They said, saying.” And the actual song begins with the words Ashirah l’Adonai, “I will sing to the Eternal” (Exodus 15:1). How do we know who did the singing? Were the Israelites actually involved in singing, or did they just listen?
In M’chilta Shirita we read that “Moses and the Israelites” means that Moses sang the song on behalf of all the Israelites. In Mishnah Sotah 5:4, Rabbi Akiva explains: “‘Vayomru leimor.’ This teaches that the Israelites would repeat each and every thing that Moses said, as those who recite the Hallel.” The same Mishnaic passage includes the following from Rabbi Nehemiah: “As those who recite the Sh’ma [all together], and not as those who recite the Hallel[responsively].” These diverse interpretations of the roles of Moses and Israel have a variety of implications for our models of worship.
Do we need to sing our own songs, or is it okay for someone else to sing on our behalf? Do we need to know the words and the melody so we can all sing together at the same time, or is it okay to hear the song first and then to repeat it after the leader?
M’chilta Shirita highlights the model of a worship leader who expresses prayer on behalf of the community. We can infer that Moses’s leadership model causes him to sing on behalf of his people. Following Rabbi Nehemiah’s thinking, only those who already know the song would be able to sing it simultaneously with the leader. On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva implies that we do not need to know the song in order to participate; even those who do not (yet) have the words themselves can find a way to connect if given the words. Expressing yet another point of view is Ibn Ezra, who states, “It was Moses who composed the song and then taught it to Israel, so everyone would respond, ‘I will sing to Adonai.’” From this, we understand that even songs that are composed by others and taught to us by our leaders still need our individual responses so that we can each say Zeh Eli, “This is my God” (Exodus 15:2).
At the end of the Song of the Sea, is a brief mention of a second song, the Song of Miriam: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them [vataan lahem]: “Sing [shiru] to the Eternal, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
Vataan lahem can also be read as “she answered them.” That puts a different spin on Miriam’s leadership style. She responds to an energy that is already present among the women who are dancing and playing hand-drums. And her response is, “Sing [shiru],” a command in the plural form. This is the first time in Torah that we hear this specific “command” to sing, using the word shiru. In Prophets and Psalms, we will continue to hear the command shiru, often followed by l’Adonai shir chadash: “Sing to the Eternal a new song!”
As we read the Song of the Sea, we are given models for the first time on how to sing our worship songs. Whether we learn them from someone else or write our own, whether we play them on instruments or dance them with our bodies, may we each find a way to sing our own songs of worship.
BY THE WAY
lord, let my soul
soar above my room
let her dance on walls
to songs of violins
to pages of poetry
an orange, a horse
a mountain, a breeze
let her transcend all limits
of my small life
(Elaine Starkman, in Women Speak to God: The Prayers and Poems of Jewish Women, ed. Marcia Cohn Spiegel and Deborah Lipton Kremsdorf [San Diego, CA: Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education, 1987], p. 73)
A song on a day
some building contractor
cheated me. A psalm.
Plaster falling from the ceiling,
the wall is sick, paint cracks the lips.
The vines I’ve sat under, the fig tree,
all are words. The rustling of leaves
gives an illusion of God and of justice.
I dip my dry look
like bread into the softening death
that is always on the table before me.
Already my life has turned
my life into a revolving door.
I think of those who, in happiness and success,
have left me behind, those
who like pampered and brilliant grapes
are carried for show between two
and those who are also carried
between two and they are wounded or dead. A psalm.
When I was a child I sang in the synagogue choir,
I sang until my voice broke. I sang
first voice and second voice. I’ll sing
until my heart breaks, first heart and second heart.
(Yehudah Amichai, translated by Harold Schimmel in Shirei Yerushalayim/Poems of Jerusalem [Tel Aviv: Schocken Books, 1987], pp. 158–59)
The word shirah means “poetry” as well as “song.” How do these two poems express and connect to the idea of prayer and song?
What place do you think “song” has in Yehudah Amichai’s life?
How might singing and dancing help us transcend the limits of our daily lives?
Cantor Josée Wolff is director of student placement and an adjunct faculty at the School of Sacred Music, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, New York.