Parashat Beshallach – Shabbat Shirah
In memoriam Deborah Lyn Friedman z’l (1951-2011)
We have been singing to God for at least 3,200 years if the song in this week’s Torah portion is anything to go by. From the earliest times, music has been an integral form of Hebrew and Jewish worship exclaiming God’s power and majesty and expressing the human desire for transcendence and meaning. At the crucial moment of deliverance from the Egyptians pursuing them, the Israelites first led by Moses and then by Miriam break out in song in thankfulness and joy. Moses’ song (Exodus 15: 1-19), though scholars think now written by Miriam, is full of military victory and triumph reflecting a theology of the one God battling and overcoming an Egyptian god: No God can be like our God who can do such miraculous things. We take this line of poetry repeated in biblical parallelism ‘Mi chamocha…’ and incorporate it into our shacharit prayers. Noting that the song is sung in the 1st person singular, some pause before reciting it to recall those personal obstacles overcome through the week to be followed by this song of gratitude. Moses’ song is then followed by Miriam the Prophetess taking up her timbrel and dancing with the women. V’ta’an lahem Miriam (Exodus 15: 21) Miriam chants on their behalf expressing the praise for God that all feel at this moment of redemption.
Our Haftarah carries on this theme again with an ancient song ascribed to Deborah the Prophetess (Judges 5:1-31) who together with Barak sings aloud for the redemption of the People and in praise of a delivering God. It is not surprising that this Shabbat is named Shabbat Shirah. Tragically it is the week in which our world renowned Reform Jewish composer and singer Debbie Friedman died at the age of 59 with much more of her music still within her. Debbie’s compositions however have touched generations of Reform and Liberal Jews in all corners of the globe. She was able with her guitar to express praise to God through her melodies and Hebrew and English words many of which were poetic interpretations of biblical verses and liturgical prayers. Whether it is Miriam’s song or the Angels’ song or Mi Sheberach, her attempts to contemporise ancient expressions of exaltation and jubilation enable all of us today to sing again a new song to God.
It is no coincidence that the ancient women who led us in song are described as prophetesses. The rabbis ask, what is it that Miriam prophesied while Deborah is noted for her judgements rather than her prophecy. For some, Debbie Friedman was ‘just’ a singer. What we learn from our parasha and haftarah is that redemption is sealed with our songs of praise. Too often the People complain or fear the miracles or the Revelation in the wilderness but the moment of true appreciation, true understanding of God’s role in history is when music enables the souls to reach pure exaltation and transcend body and mind. Prophets lead us in identifying and marking those moments for us as individuals and for us as a People. Maimonides understood prophecy as the ability to discern the divine elements in the universe distinct from the ‘noise’ of the everyday. The ‘noise’ is random and chaotic but music joins sounds together in patterns creating harmony and beauty that resonates with the soul’s vibrations.
The prophetesses of Israel including Miriam, Deborah and Debbie Friedman singing to God and encouraging and enabling us to sing our ancient words with new meaning bring us to an encounter with the Divine. The meaning we make of our lives is the work of redemption in order that we can affirm God’s purpose for us and dedicate ourselves anew to the daily and weekly tasks of improving and repairing our world.
It is with a song that the world will be redeemed.
And the women dancing with their timbrels,
followed Miriam as she sang her song,
sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted,
Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long
And Miriam was a weaver of unique variety
the tapestry she wove was one which sang our history.
With every strand and every thread she crafted her delight!
A woman touched with spirit, she dances toward the light
When Miriam stood upon the shores and gazed across the sea
the wonder of this miracle she soon came to believe.
Whoever thought the sea would part with an outstretched hand
and we would pass to freedom and march to the promised land!
And Miriam the prophet took her timbrel in her hand,
and all the women followed her just as she had planned,
and Miriam raised her voice in song-
She sang with praise and might
We’ve just lived through a miracle: We’re going to dance tonight!!
(From the album Songs Of The Spirit: The Debbie Friedman Anthology)
Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.