On this Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, the Torah reading includes the chanting of the song the Israelites sang after crossing the sea and escaping the Egyptians who were pursuing them. The Haftarah reading contains the song intoned by inspired leader and judge, Deborah, celebrating a later victory. The Psalms, including “Hinei Mah Tov” and the lyrics and music that opened our service, were likely sung with musical accompaniment going back to ancient times.
What is the role of music in a community? In “One Light Above: The Larry Karol Songbook,” I explained that “music has the potential to illuminate the ideas, emotions and lessons embodied in Jewish texts….Favorite Jewish songs become a part of congregational culture and a foundation for personal spirituality.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century leader of Orthodox Judaism, defined song as "an inspired or rapturous expression of what some external event has revealed to the inner self, that which the physical eye cannot see, but what has become clear to the mind's eye".
I would add to Rabbi Hirsch’s statement, “what has become clear to the ‘eye of the soul.’” Song emerges from an overflow of emotion and a resulting interplay of words, rhythm and melody as well as chords and harmony. Song might seem to emerge “out of nowhere” and rapidly reach completion. It also might be the final expression of thoughts and feelings that took days, months or years to come together in just the right way.
These definitions and reflections of music apply not only to the songs we sing during worship but to any music that we prefer and enjoy. Chances are that we like some music based on the old “American Bandstand” standard of “it’s has a good beat and you can dance to it!” Otherwise, it may be that we hear an echo of our own souls and our own lives in the lyrics and melodies to which we listen the most, whether on the radio, on vintage vinyl records, on CDs, on digital music players or on our computers.
The rabbis wondered why the women happened to have timbrels with them by the sea so that they could break into song and dance, led by Moses’ sister Miriam, as recounted towards the end of Exodus Chapter 15. They explained that the women had faith that miracles, such as gaining their freedom, awaited them, so that they would have a reason to celebrate. They were totally ready for something good to happen!
Hopefully, that is how we can approach every day of our lives, waiting for something good to happen rather than expecting the other shoe to drop. With that kind of optimism, we can add a special spirit to our community. Our own personal song will come from a place of hope and love that will enrich the melody of the entire community. And the music that we hear will, in turn, nourish our souls. Throughout every week, may we find the melodic inspiration we need that will enable us to easily find reasons to celebrate along the path of life!