What is there to sing about this Shabbat Shirah? I am writing this in the wake of the knowledge that Israel may be shifting so far to the right that a two-state solution will be squeezed out of our Jewish political discourse; there are on going investigations here and elsewhere, Stamford Hill and India, into abuse and violence against children and women; there is still religious and ethnic tension in many (all?) parts of the world, despite the legacy of Martin Luther King, whose birthday was commemorated on Monday; and the trees whose new year is celebrated this Shabbat are diminishing along with many other aspects of the natural world. I imagine many of you feel as I do at times, that you want to draw in the boundaries of your world and keep yourself safe and sane. How can we bear the sadness of the loss of things, and the pain of the unmended? We are stunned into silence.
But how can we not sing? As b’nai Yisrael stood at the edge of the sea, they sang, of their anger and of their praise, of the triumph and of the destruction. Most commentators herald the song as a moment of pure joy and harmony, but ein mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah, there is no ‘before’ nor any ‘after’ in the Torah, and yet to come is so much grief, suffering, hunger, rebellion, and death. The moment at the sea is a brief respite in between the harshness of slavery and the bleakness of the midbar, the wilderness. In the face of their past of persecution, and the uncertainty of the freedom that lay ahead, the song is powerful, defiant, voice lifted up against the known degradation of slavery, and the unknown insecurity of freedom. Az yashir Moshe, Az yashir Miriam, thus Moses and Miriam sang.
Thus, too, did yiden who were caught up in the horror of the Holocaust sing. They sang songs of comfort for their children:
S’iz dayn vigl vus geshtanen
Oysgeflokhtn fun glik
Un dayn mame, oy dayn mame
Kumt shoyn keyn mol nit tsurik
Lyu-lyu, lyu-lyu, lyu
Here your cradle had its dwelling
Laced with happiness,
And your mother, oh, your mother,
Will return no more.
Lu-lu, lu-lu, lu.
They sang in defiance:
Efnt tir un efnt toyer
Shoyn genug, genug der troyer…
Fun di bunkes, fun di lekher
Shtaygn veln mir alts hekher
Vayl mir zogn, Am Yisroel Khay!
Open door and open portal
It’s enough, enough the sorrow…
From the bunkers, from the tunnels
We climb ever higher,
As we sing, the people Israel survives!
And they sang to God:
Ani mamin be’emuno shleymo
Veal al pi sheyismameya
Im kol ze ani mamin
I believe with complete faith
In the coming of the moshiach
Even if he delays
Nonetheless, I believe.
Those marching with Dr. Martin Luther King also sang their protests, their rebelliousness, and their hope. We Shall Overcome was the song he chose to quote in what would be his last sermon before he was assassinated in 1968 – We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Like Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites, King and his followers chose to express in song their belief in God as the guarantor of the triumph of justice and their passion for freedom.
Trees may not sing, but there is song and sound all through our natural world. Someone gave me their bird feeding paraphernalia, and I have become a bird watcher and tender of a group of otherwise diminishing hedge sparrows. I have one of the last hedges in my neighbourhood, and watch with dismay as more and more people chop down, pave and otherwise remove that which protects other creatures in our country, for the convenience of those of us humans who do not wish to mow, tend and reap. Joni Mitchell’s protest song, “they pave paradise” hums in my mind. Birds may not sing with purpose, but theirs is song nonetheless, and as they sit of a morning, urging me, willing me, to put out the seeds and the worms, I know that I am responsible for their song.
Songs accompany our protests and our pain, but also our joy and our prayers. Singing may be one of the most beautiful and transformative of all our human abilities. It gives us a language more stirring than words, and it carries our words even higher. And so, despite the sad events of the world, through music, we can create new meanings, beauty, and solidarity. This week is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of the song of the sea. Az nashir. Let’s sing.
Rabbi Barbara Borts
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1981
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.