>Music has a tremendous power to move us emotionally and to bring memories and feelings flooding back. Debbie Friedman (z”l)’s Shema has that power over me. No matter where I hear it, and in what context, if I close my eyes, I am sitting in a field, somewhere in Britain, on an RSY-Netzer (Shemesh) summer camp. I’ve sung this prayer all over the world, but it always transports me back to Shemesh, and the wonderful weeks of summer spent with friends.
The music that accompanies our prayers has a special power both for us, and according to Hasidism, for God. According to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady; ‘There are gates in heaven that cannot be opened except by melody and song’. When we sing our prayers, we don’t just elevate our own souls, but we reach up to God in a way which words on their own cannot.
In this week’s Torah portion we journey back to our people’s original song; when the entire Israelite community united in song with Moses and Miriam after the crossing of the Reed Sea. One can imagine the joy which gripped the Israelites as they realised that they were truly free from their Egyptian taskmasters. As the waters settled, the Israelites could believe that the land of their oppression was finally behind them.
This was the moment of redemption from Egyptian slavery and it was a moment to be remembered, and experienced, throughout the generations. ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Adonai freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’.
After reciting the Shema, both in the morning and evening, we recite a prayer which asserts the truth of God’s sovereignty and power. And in the midst of this prayer, as we remember our redemption and delivery from Egypt we recite: Mi chamocha baelim Adonai, mi kamocha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot oseh feleh – ‘God, who is like You among the gods people worship! Who, like You, is majestic in holiness, awesome in praise, working wonders!’ (Exodus 15:11).
When the Rabbis were developing our liturgy, they wanted to make sure that twice a day we would transport ourselves in song to that time when we first sang together the line of Mi Chamocha in praise of God. Although this prayer is generally read, when we come to this line, in almost every community with whom I’ve prayed, the congregation joins together in song, just as we did the first time it was recited.
When we consider the communal power of song, I have always been struck by the contrast between the song of Moses and the song of Miriam. When Moses and the Israelites began their song, they started: ‘I will sing to Adonai, for God has triumphed gloriously’ (Exodus 15:1). Despite the communal nature of the entire community singing, each person sang as an individual, ashira – I will sing. In contrast when Miriam began her song with the women she responded: ‘Sing to Adonai, for God has triumphed gloriously’ (Exodus 15:21). She called on all the women to join together, with the Hebrew word for ‘sing’, shiru, the plural imperative form. This was not an individual prayer; this was a communal prayer to be sung as a community. This was Miriam’s moment. It was at this point that Miriam assumed her position as a leader of the Israelite community. She became our first song leader, the person who guided us and supported us to give voice to the song of our hearts and the words of praise for God.
This week, we lost our generation’s foremost song leader, Debbie Friedman. She led a generation to sing, and through her music brought people closer to Judaism and to God. She was a worthy heir to the legacy of Miriam as she too helped us join together in song. They both helped people find their voices so that they could join together in song and in prayer. And they provided us with words and melodies to elevate our prayers and reach ever closer to God. Debbie and Miriam both called us to shiru l’Adonai – to sing unto God.
This Shabbat as we read Parashat Beshallach, when we come to the Song at the Sea we will be asked to stand. As we stand in our synagogues across the world, it will be as though we are once again standing on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. The special melody for the Song at the Sea will further help to transport us out of the synagogue to that moment of redemption. The music will elevate us in that special way which only song can.
While the tradition asserts that we all experienced the Exodus firsthand, none of us actually have personal memories from which to draw. But on this Shabbat, we can remember our movement’s own spiritual leader, our prophetess of song, Debbie Friedman, who helped us find our voices, to find our melodies and to sing unto God; she helped lead us from silence to song. The Song at the Sea teaches us that music has a power which survives long after the words and tunes were originally recited. Music is a special gift that we receive, and on this Shabbat, we can celebrate the gift received from Moses, from Miriam and from Debbie.