Shabbat – Pesach 5778
“The Song at the Sea” and the power of communal singing”
The Torah reading for the seventh day of Passover (Exodus 13:17-15:26), which we are going to read this Friday morning, consists of the description of the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews, and the song “Shirat Hayam,” “The Song at the Sea,” which they sang, rejoicing at the miracle of having been saved.
Why do we read this portion of the Torah on the Seventh day of Pesach? Because, according to our tradition, the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea happened on the seventh day, after the children of Israel left Egypt.
After the splitting of the sea, all fear of danger ended, and they experienced true freedom. For this reason, they celebrated with singing and dancing. It was a true expression of thanksgiving and praise, produced from their own hearts through their movement and voices. After suffering so much fear and uncertainty, they were saved. The song “Shirat Hayam,” “The Song at the Sea” was a true hymn to life and happiness.
That moment must have been a sacred, powerful, and unique occasion, where all the children of Israel were singing and dancing with joy. After years of slavery, suffering, and tiredness—that moment should have been a genuine relief for them.
Usually the sages highlight the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai as the most important event of Jewish history, where all the children of Israel received the Torah from God and became a people with rules and values to follow as a group. However, I believe that the singing of the “The Song at the Sea” is a comparable event. That singing and dancing at the shore of the sea was their first act of freedom and the first step that helped them to become a people. All the sounds of their voices intertwined in one song would have united them and empowered them as a group.
We may say that it was a spontaneous act, coming from their hearts. It was their first initiative as a people without God’s intervention. It must have been a pure, noble, moving, and spiritual event. They thanked God. Then God, maybe because of their attitude, gave the Children of Israel the Torah as a gift and as a covenant of love. The children of Israel directed their prayers to God and God gave them the Torah. Therefore, we may affirm that the singing of “The Song at the Sea” and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai were two important and indivisible acts, which formed the people of Israel as a group.
Despite their hurry, worry, and anxiety, they stopped to sing together. We should follow their example and stop from our daily worries and rush and sing together. This Sunday, April 8, at 2:00 p.m., our good friend, Rabbi Geoffrey Goldberg, will be offering a talk at Temple Beth El on “The Development of Congregational Singing in the American Conservative Synagogue,” such an appropriate topic for this week! I hope you will attend.
Jonathan L. Friedmann, who is a Professor of Jewish music history, states in his book, Music in the Hebrew Bible: Understanding References in the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim (2013):
“Music – especially singing – helps strengthen bonds between congregants and stimulate a palpable collective energy.”
Singing helped our people on the shore of the sea to strengthen bonds among them and stimulate a palpable collective energy. Singing together, as a congregation, may also help us to strengthen bonds between congregants and stimulate a palpable collective energy. Every time we sing in our prayers we should remember the spirit of our ancestors and try to include it in our singing.
Friedmann also affirms in his book: “Congregants often leave services feeling uplifted, largely because they have engaged in a good amount of singing. The deep breathing they experience reinvigorates their entire being. This gives added meaning to the biblical concept of ‘nishmat Chayim’, the breath of life.”
While we read the Reading of the Torah for the Seventh day of Passover, may we reflect and try to follow the lesson of our ancestors and include power, energy, and joy in our communal prayers. May we be able to leave our services feeling uplifted because we have engaged, all together, in singing throughout our services.
Chag Pesach Sameach!