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Posts Tagged ‘singing styles in the Torah’

The Song by the Sea, sung by Moses and the Israelites just after crossing the Sea of Reeds, completely escaping the Egyptian army, is without question among the highlights of the entire Torah.  One of its lines is chanted or sung during every morning or evening service throughout Judaism:

מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהוָ֔ה מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

Mi chamocha ba’eilim Adonai, mi kamocha ne’edar bakodesh, nora t’hillot oseh feleh.

“Who is like unto You O God, among the mighty?  Who is like unto You, glorious in holiness awesome in splendor, working wonders?”This is a song of redemption, the first in the history of the people of Israel, setting a precedent for a series of redemption songs throughout our history.

In today’s world there are countless versions of music for these words, ways to sing or chant.  The variance in styles of music present in Mi Chamocha reflects the variance in feelings represented and transmitted by each service.  There are moments of sadness, moments of happiness.  There are moments of anger, moments of joy.  There are moments of frustration, moments of celebration.  Yet in all the variables of prayer emotions conveyed through Mi Chamocha,the recognition of redemption, achieved by a combination of God and the Israelite people, links all of the emotions together.

The variance of how the Song by the Sea was sung by the Israelites is a subject of discussion in the Talmud, Sotah 30b.  Three versions are presented.  The first, by Rabbi Akiba, says that Moses would sing a line and the people would affirm by singing the first line Moses sang again and again.  Here is the example:

Moses:  “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God”

Moses:  “for God is highly exalted.”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God.”

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosse puts it a bit differently.  He says the Israelites repeat each line after Moses sings it. Here is the example:

Moses: “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God”

Moses:  “for God is highly exalted”

Israelites:  “for God is highly exalted”

The third method is the Israelites singing what Moses did then completing each phrase with what is considered their own words.

Moses:  “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “for God is highly exalted.”  (created by the people in response)

Let’s consider what each version of the singing style might represent.  The first one, in which the people repeat again and again the first phrase that Moses sang, can be seen as an affirmation of his leadership.  They are only following the leader, which is represented by singing no words of their own. The second can be seen as admiring the leader enough to model what he is doing (singing).  The third can be interpreted as the people learning from the leader enough to create something new.  The result is the leader and the people working together in order to move everyone forward in the most meaningful way.

In modern times it is easy to see how each version can be interpreted and applied in today’s politics.  The first might be seen as authoritarianism, the second as being obsessed with a celebrity and the third as the only correct version of a relationship between a leader and his/her people.  This kind of interpretation, however, misrepresents what rabbinic tradition is trying to convey by pointing out each version of the song.  It is not about determining which is appropriate, but recognizing that there are moments of need for all three.  In other words, life is way too complicated to focus on only one approach.  More important is how all aspects of life are properly balanced.

I would suggest that what is fully relevant for life today is not any of the means in which the song Moses begins and sings to, for, or with the Israelites. It is what comes immediately after the end of the Song by the Sea.  Here is that verse 15:21:

מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם

Vata’an lahem Miriam, shiru L’Adonai ki go’ah ga’ah, soos v’rochvo ramah vayam.

Here is a common translation, “And Miriam sang unto them, sing to Adonai for God is highly exalted, the horse and his rider God threw into the sea.” However the most accurate translation of the very first word, vata’anwould be “and she answered.”

What Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s prophetic sister, did was to answer the feelings of the people of Israel.  What Moses did was to use the song to establish some version of his leadership. There was nothing wrong with what Moses did.   It was just incomplete.  Miriam, however, was not focused on her role, but on providing an answer to the Israelite people.  It is clear that Miriam’s role is admired by our tradition through the Torah’s presentation of her death and the midrash on its result.

What is the relevant teaching about Miriam for today’s world?  Perhaps we can conclude that leadership filled only by men cannot possibly be complete.  We need women to provide leadership as well; for their perspective is the best way to balance the how men lead.  Indeed, given what we are learning about the reality of genders in today’s world, perhaps what we need is true gender diversity providing societal leadership. The name of this week’s parashahis Beshalach, which means “it came to pass.”  May it come to pass that we improve the content and quality of our leadership through diversity.  That will evolve our culture in a very positive way.

 

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