Saturday, January 11, 2014

Singing our Songs of Triumph and Celebration - D'var Torah for Beshallach and Torah dedication - January 10, 2014

    Tonight we dedicate this Torah that has come to us from Congregation Ner Tamid of the Suburban Jewish Center in North Syracuse, New York.   As his congregation was closing, the brother of one of our members thought of our congregation as a place to send their long-used scroll.
   We are grateful for the transfer of a Torah to Temple Beth-El, demonstrating both community and continuity.
  As the Torah arrives here, it is a time of dedication and celebration, and, perhaps, even the triumph of the Jewish spirit.  This Torah scroll will continue to be a source of inspiration and learning for us in our vibrant congregation that we sustain every day.
   It is fitting that the first portion we will recite from this newly-arrived scroll is the Song at the Sea, Shirat Hayam.   The words of jubilation in Exodus Chapter 15 are thought to be among the oldest in the Torah.  
    Preceding the song, Exodus Chapter 14 focused on the scene with which we are so familiar.   The Israelites were at the edge of the Sea of Reeds. The Chariots of Pharaoh’s army were approaching in the distance.  The waters parted miraculously as an angel of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, moved into position and Moses raised his arms so that dry ground would appear.  The Israelites crossed, and then, once they were safely on the opposite shore, Moses again raised his arms so the waters would return to their normal state, covering the approaching chariots and horses and the Egyptian horsemen.
   The song, in chapter 15, didn’t mention Moses, or the angel or the pillar of cloud and fire.  It focused on God’s role in a wondrous victory over the former oppressors of the Israelites.
    According to one midrash, it was such a moment of emotional outpouring that the angels in heaven wanted to join the Israelites in singing from the start in this first instance in the Torah of a song of praise offered to God.  Rabbi David of Kotzk explained that God stopped the angels for just a moment, telling them, “Wait, and let the Israelites sing first.  Human beings are able to praise only when they are inspired.  If we don’t give them the chance, their desire to praise will pass.”    So the Israelites began the song on their own.
      That comment about human inspiration is appropriate for tonight, as we dedicate this Torah.  
    We read from the Torah and discuss its contents every Shabbat in one way or another.  We take the Torah from the ark with special songs that enable us to accept this scroll as ours, reliving the story of Sinai, if just for a moment.   Tonight, I will chant several of the verses of the Song at the Sea with a traditional melody that has been passed down to us over the centuries. 
    We might be tempted to view our weekly Shabbat worship and reading from the Torah as routine, to the point where the sanctity of these rituals is lost on us.   We might think of our gathering as a community for prayer as normal, rather than as a special opportunity to unite our voices in praise, thanks, and hope.  
    The inspiration of which Rabbi David of Kotzk spoke comes from being open every moment to the possibility that a word, a tune or a thought could take us to a different place.    The Israelites’ spontaneous praise of God followed an experience of salvation and triumph which moved them to song.    Participating in prayer and hearing the sacred words of the Torah and our heritage can move us if we let our minds and hearts uncover the depth of meaning of what is right in front of us.   And beyond this holy space, outside these walls, there are countless opportunities to discover something sacred that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

     The Song at the Sea, Shirat Hayam, offers us an example of how to sing or talk about our own victories in life, times when we have made it through a difficult passage or succeeded when we thought we might fail.   The Torah says that “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Eternal One.”  All of the people  – men, women, and children – and Moses, their leader, were partners in that experience of relief and triumph. They shared in that moment of inspiration that led them to sing out to express their joy at finally being free.      This passage reminds us that we are partners, too, and that we can sing together of our triumphs of the past and our hopes for the days to come.  So may we do and let us say Amen.

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