What does music add to verses from the Torah?
Table for Five: Beshalach
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they said, I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider He cast into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song, He is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him, the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.
Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi, Businessman, Mashpia
Shirat Ha-Yam, the “The Song of the Sea”, was sung by Moses and the Israelites to celebrate the miraculous drowning of the pursuing Egyptian army in the Sea of Reeds. Freed from slavery in Egypt where they had been for 210 years, the last 86 under harsh enslavement, they now anticipated becoming one people under God at Sinai, where they would receive the Torah six weeks hence.
One verse in the “Song of the Sea” is: “This is my God, and I will glorify Him; the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.” The two halves of the verse parallel each other, the distinction being whether it’s my God or my father’s God, and, correspondingly, whether I glorify or exalt Him.
Glorify, as in praise or adore, connotes a personal, intimate relationship. Exalt, to revere and hold in high regard, connotes a respectful but distant relationship.
Each generation transmits its beliefs and values to the next. We—you and I—are the critical nexus. By the way we live, we transmit to the next generation what is vital to us. If my relationship with God is such that He is my personal and intimate God, I will adore and glorify Him. That is a vibrant legacy I can transmit. If God is only the God of my father, but I have no personal, intimate relationship with Him, then I can only exalt Him from a respectful distance, leaving the next generation wanting.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University
Why do people sing songs about an event rather than just describe it in prose form? Put more abstractly, what does music add to the words?
Music, for one thing, makes it easier to remember the words. Whether it is the rhythm or beat of the music or some other aspect, many people remember prayers and other words that they have learned to sing much better than words they have been taught only to say.
Music also adds immensely to the emotional impact of the words. Words sung triumphantly, for example, gives them power well beyond what the words themselves can convey (think of the Star Spangled Banner, for example). Words sung slowly and quietly, on the other hand, can calm the spirits of their singers and listeners more deeply than even the most beautiful poetry can. Words sung to a marked rhythm can get us up on our feet to move to the words.
Music can also affect the very meaning of the words. That is one reason why the varying modes of music that accompany the same words in our liturgy at different times during the week and year have such power. Kaddish is sung to nineteen different melodies during the liturgical year!
May this Shabbat and every Shabbat thereafter be enhanced by the music you hear – and sing! – during worship and around your Shabbat table.
Rabbi Lori Shapiro, Founder/ Open Temple
The Song of the Sea is the Birth Canal of Creativity, a liminal space of creation where we convert our trauma into transcendence. So significant is this ancient narrative that it is visually preserved in a Sefer Torah. This moment bears primacy and transforms the linear columns into a pictograph literally splitting the scroll apart.
This image is a clue into our spiritual journey – how do we carry ourselves through trauma? Do we experience a rebirth or do we perish? The Egyptians “cast into the sea” provides a creative tension – we all face tragedy in our lives. Will it destroy us or inspire us? Exile us or cultivate a relationship with holiness?
Torah does not deliver liberation through a moment of recitation of the law, nor a protest; not an internal reflection recapitulating our trauma, nor as a passive spectator; rather, it is a call to becoming through creativity, a call to exorcise the horrors of our past through a dramatic illustration of the enduring potential of the natural world. Inspiration compels us to dance amongst The Creator with transcendent reverie and absorb the Sound Waves of Song.
This Divine Song is the cry of the newborn; the gasp of rapture; it is the sound that emits from us when we apprehend the Divine in our Presence. It appears to us in our Agony and in our Ecstasy and implores us to apprehend the Divine with every tone of this broken-hearted world, returning us to the Source of Life.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Chaplain & Spiritual Care Guide, Kaiser Medical Center, Panorama City
Every July fourth, conductor Wilkins leads The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in a medley of themes for our nation’s armed forces. Veterans of the respective branches rise as the ensemble swells in their honor. The crowd applauds and I have a lump in my throat. My dad z’’l along with thousands, was liberated from Ebensee labor camp in Austria by US forces. I wouldn’t be here if not for General Omar Bradley’s troops. The rousing ditty at The Bowl doesn’t appeal to me because of triumphant militarism but flows instead from reverence and sincere gratitude. The medley is an opportunity to meditate, to have presence and awe; the power of evil, the ascendancy of justice, and The Sacred suffused in all of it—in all of us.
Moshe leads the Israelite nation in a burst of song upon witnessing the demise of their oppressors. We pay homage to this euphoric rush in our daily liturgy, and yet who does not at once feel conflicted about this mirth over death? Our rabbis ensure that we temper our revelry, citing Megillah 10b “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands, (the Egyptians), are drowning at sea, and you wish to sing songs?” God does not rejoice at the downfall of the wicked. We imitate The Divine and reduce our joy when recounting the plagues at the seder, by diminishing the volume of our glass. We extol a merciful God over liberation, not to wallow in the churning gore.
Ben Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Speech Writer at Mitzvahspeeches.com
The first words, Az Yashir, are puzzling. Az denotes the past while Yashir is future tense. They did will sing? Some Rabbis rectify it by translating the verse to read, “they then chose to sing.” What could be so significant about choosing to sing?
Song is one of the most powerful tools of expression at our disposal. It blends art with communication. Find the most tear-jerking movie you can think of. Would that heartbreaking climax be so moving without the score? Similarly, when we really get into singing, I’m talking karaoke, 3 drinks in, and Livin’ On a Prayer comes up… That’s when you’re in a whole new stratosphere. Praising God has a profound effect. Not for Him, God doesn’t need our Praise. It’s for us.
Praising God fosters gratitude, strengthens faith, reminds us not to be so arrogant, and reassures us that we are not in this alone. But that’s all intellectual. If you really want to be moved, you sing. And not just like some 5th grader who was forced to take a choir class. You throw yourself into it. Passionately and with some soul. That’s what the Children of Israel chose to do when they witnessed the sea split.
With thanks to Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Lori Shapiro, Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, and Ben Elterman
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