HaShirah haZot - This Song
Sermon Parashat Beshallach 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
‘Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael et hashirah hazot’ – ‘then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song.’
Thus opens chapter 15 of the Book of Exodus, otherwise known as the Song of the Sea, the oldest Biblical text of our entire canon.
Many of us will be familiar with the ‘Shirat haYam’, the Song of the Sea. Despite its ancient, convoluted, poetic Hebrew, we are familiar with threads of it, woven into the tapestry of the liturgy. ‘Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vayehi li lishuah’ – ‘the Eternal is my strength and might, he is my deliverance’ is a staple of summer camps and spiritual gatherings where its well-known contemporary melody makes for beautiful harmonies. ‘Adonai yimloch le’olam va’ed’ – ‘the Eternal shall reign forever’ is a theological proclamation that is seeded across our liturgy. ‘Mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ – ‘who is like You, among the gods?’ is sung with gusto by congregations just before the evening and morning Amidot. In prayer, we re-enact these moments of redemption, where Moses and Miriam lead the People, timbrels in their hands.
We know what a rich musical tradition Judaism has, across the denominations and ages, from Miriam’s song, to the Levites in the Temple, from the Chassidim at their tish to invested Cantors in classical Reform synagogues.
Some of us know the well-worn melodies of the Shema and Ma Nishtanah which we learnt at our family’s tables, our grandparents’ knees or our parents’ bedsides. Some of us were delighted to learn these tunes as adults as we built our own ‘musical memory bank’ as we aligned our souls with the songs of our People. Yet, there is a different kind of knowing too: not of repetition or rote learning (though those are important skills) but through intuitive learning, through opening ourselves up to mystery and possibility in a way that only music can.
‘One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain’, the contemporary prophet Bob Marley sang. What does it mean for us to be hit or struck by music? To push pause on our rationalist, left-brain thoughts, to alert us and transform us? To call to us in ways where prayer fails? A synagogue and a service can mean many things to many people; a place of contemplation, a sanctuary of solace, a house of learning, a center for the pursuit of justice. Still, many of us struggle with what prayer is and what it is supposed to do and Who it is supposed to address. Although intellectual arguments about the validity of Judaism in the contemporary world are important and edifying, it is often song that opens the heart in unexplained and undeniable ways.
‘Hashirah hazot’ – this song.
The Midrash explores what this means, focusing on the word ‘hazot’ – this. Which song is this? Are there other songs? Deuteronomy teaches us that the entire Torah is one song: ‘v’atah, kitvu lachem et hashirah hazot, v’lamdah et b’nei Yisrael’ – ‘and now, Moses, write this song for you, and teach it to the Children of Israel.’ (Deut. 31:19)
The Midrash symbolically identifies ten songs that were sung throughout Jewish history, each one powerful and transformative: in Egypt, at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, at the life-giving well in the wilderness sojourning, at the ending of Moses’ life, a battle hymn sung by Joshua, another by Barak and Deborah, the myriad songs by King David, of course, a song of dedication by Solomon when the first Temple was built, and during the reign of the beloved and devout king, Jehoshaphat. (Midrash Mechilta d’Shirah, 1).
Isn’t this a powerful idea, that all of Jewish history, all of Jewish experience and learning is song? That the singer that lives in all of us is the alchemist of the soul, transmuting the base metals of our experiences into something pure, untainted and golden? Could we argue that it may have been the impulses and instincts of Moses, Miriam and the Children of Israel to sing of victory rather than to boast of it? There is the famous Midrash often cited in Haggadat where God chides the ministering angels for singing as the Egyptians drown in the sea collapsing around them. Perhaps the angels sang in arrogance, but we sang in humanity?
What would it be like to respond to the key moments in our lives through song? To meet anger and disappointment, victory and joy – in song? To transform a moment of conflict into joy?
Song has always been important to me personally. I’ve always had a tune running through my head. I come – oh irony – from an decidedly non-musical background yet taught myself basic guitar skills at age 19 and had (badly) written my first song three weeks later. Song opened me up and carried me through on a complex and winding personal journey of faith, questioning, and discovery. Music way my healer and redeemer. Sharing song as a rabbi is one of the great joys and privileges of my work. Sitting at the feet of highly skilled cantors, composers and song-leaders is one of the things that continues to excite me professionally. Song took me to places – physically as well as metaphorically – that I never could have imagined. It is no coincidence that Leonard Cohen, in his seminal ‘Hallelujah’, refers to the Holy One of Blessing as the ‘Lord of Song’. I often feel God’s presence most keenly in song.
I hope we will continue to sing and grow in song as a congregation as well as individuals. ‘Hashirah hazot’ – find your own song. Find the one that brings you joy, that takes you out of the narrow places, that opens your soul to expansiveness, that gives you the courage to hope and to take emotional risks. Each of us has a song dwelling within us; uncover it and cherish it.
And oh – the Midrashic listing of the ten songs of our People doesn’t end here. I purposely only listed nine. The tenth one is Psalm 150: ‘kol haneshama tehallel Yah’ – ‘may all that breathes praise Yah’. It is the song of Redemption.
May we continue searching and singing.