This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah and is named for the “Song of the Sea” sung by Moses and the Israelites after they experienced the redemption at the splitting of the Red Sea.
What was it, the rabbis asked, that evoked shirah, song, at this point and not earlier when they actually left Egypt? What propels the song to burst forth from their lips? When are we motivated to truly sing the song in our hearts?
I remember a powerful insight from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav that a dear colleague shared years ago. Every person, Rabbi Nachman believed, has his or her own niggun, a wordless melody that is like a key that opens up our Neshamah, our soul. The task of our lives, he continues, is to find that melody that opens us up. Just as each lock has a different key, each person has to find his or her own special melody.
The ancient Israelites found their niggun, their melody, at that moment when they were saved from the Egyptians. The text teaches, “On that day, the Lord delivered Israel from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power, which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord” (Exodus 14:30-15:1).
There is a Chasidic teaching that believes: “Ha’ke’riayah M’orair Ha’zman.” The designated Torah reading on Shabbat wakes up a dormant yearning within us.
When we chant “Shirat Hayam” from the Torah, we can actually use the energy of the day to find our personal niggun and to open our hearts. Our song, however, is often hidden from us, buried by the routines in our busy lives, unknown and never used. Also, our true song is not only about “joy” but is about sadness and loss, yearning and hope, faith and despair. We often do not want to experience all these feelings, and cannot sing.
Avivah Zorenberg, in her Torah commentary, understood that the power of Shabbat Shirah is recognizing that a song is not simply an explosion of jubilant gratitude. The Song, she states, “is a complex set of emotions and points to life and death … justice and mercy.” The moment the Israelites sang was an opening that “transcends a simple split between ‘us’ and ‘them.'” The song emerged from that moment of tension: remembering their overwhelming physical suffering on the one hand, and experiencing the joy of God’s salvation on the other.
The Israelites’ song sprang from a deep place of knowing that no one is exempt from human torment and no one is always safe. It is for those precious moments when we are saved and jubilant, and understand how sacred these moments are, that we are able to sing.
The Sfat Emet, the renowned 19th century Chasidic rabbi, taught that the “Song of the Sea” was implanted in the Jewish soul forever. It was only after the miracle of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea that the Israelites were able to call it forth. They had to first witness the salvation, understand God’s awesome power and experience emunah, abiding faith, and not until then could they sing.
Rabbi Gedaliah Shorr, in his commentary, teaches that songs are like wings of birds because just like a wing lifts a bird off the ground, so, too, a song lifts us off the ground. When we sing, he explains, we are lifted out of our worldly concerns to reveal the hidden parts of God in all things.
Medieval commentator Rashi explained that when Moses saw the miracle of the splitting sea, he had to wait a few minutes until his heart told him he should sing. It was only when he was aroused and inspired, that the song emerged.
When we sing our inspired song, we are revealing heaven on earth. When we sing our true song, we gain perspective and know we can praise God in times of pain and sorrow, as well as in times of joy.
May we all be inspired to open our hearts to life’s possibilities, to the Divine within, and sing our songs.
Toba August, rabbi of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Acts of Faith