What is your favorite song? What is it about the piece that makes it so special to/for you? … the music? … the lyric? … an event that is associated with your hearing it?
Though we often find ourselves humming the first song we hear on the radio for the rest of that entire day, many also have that one track which means much more than the literal meaning of the music or the message. As true as that is for us as individuals, so is it even more so for us as a people. And for all the songs that are so much a part of our tradition there is one that is far and above “The Song” that defines us as the people that we are … a/the song that is the centerpiece of the Torah Portion for this Shabbat.
Embedded in this week’s Torah Portion is a piece that we refer to as: SHIRAT HaYAM – “The Song of the Sea.” Exodus 15:1-19 is a song that celebrates the triumph of our people over our enslavement in Egypt … God’s victory over Pharaoh and the evils that he represented. It is read formally on this SHABBAT (as it emerges in the regular cycle of Torah Readings), and on the Seventh Day of Passover (reflecting the theme of that very day). However, it is also an essential element in the preliminary service we recite each and every day … it is that first song that we are to hear each and every day so that it stays on our lips, and in our hearts and minds, throughout the rest of each and every one of our days.
Why is it so important? What does it say? What would it have us be saying as we “sing” it outside of the liturgical context in which it is found?
Literally, the verses describe the form and function … the power … of The Holy One Who Is To Be Blessed: God. We are told in no uncertain terms what God can (has done!) and will continue to do to ensure that we will have safe passage in and through this world. Justice will be served against those who would oppress us, in no uncertain terms.
However, as “brutal” as the depiction might be to our 21st century sensibilities, there is a softer undertone to the text that is often missed. One of the most important take-aways from the verses is that God cares for and about us … that God (and I know that we often attribute these kind of thoughts to other traditions – but they had to get it from some place ) loves us.
The Etz Hayim Torah Commentary (published by the Conservative Movement – page 407) reminds us that in the Mishnah (Sotah 5:4):
Nehemiah suggests that Moses and the Israelites all sang the song together. Akiva suggests that Moses sang it line by line, with the people repeating each line. Their disagreement might be understood as follows: Nehemiah would welcome only those who know the words of prayer. Akiva, on the other hand, maintained the position that people who want to connect with God in the good or the bad moments of their lives but don’t know how, can be given the words to recite along with those who know.
What that passage teaches us is that God’s love for us is there: It is unconditional. And, especially at those times when we may think otherwise, it is especially open and embracing. All we need to do is “hum a few notes” and all the rest will fall into place.
It is not by accident that we are so often taught to whistle while we work … that music can make even the most mundane task that much more enjoyable. For it is the same with life. Depending on the rhythm with which we approach the way we live our lives from moment to moment, so will they (we!) be defined. Is not the best way to start a day to begin with the reassurance that God loves us? … that we and what we do matter?
It is not uncommon for the first song we hear in the morning to follow us throughout the entire day. Why not let that first song be the one our tradition would have us hear and sing for ourselves … SHIRAT HaYAM? It can make our days (each and every one) become “that much more.”
Moses sang it … our people at the moment of the Exodus from Egypt sang it … we can too. And, as we do, so will we find a little piece of peace as well.
I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously … The Lord is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance … Till Your people cross over, O Lord … You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain.