(sing) I wanna sing sing sing I wanna shout shout shout I wanna sing I wanna shout, praise the lord!
Praising the Lord, giving thanks to God, this is a paramount liturgical theme in our liturgy. We thank God for allowing us to wake up, for giving us the miracles of daily life. We give praise for health, for jobs, for friendship, for love. The rabbis teach us that we are to thank God at least 100 times a day – 100 blessings. Whether it be the the thankfulness we feel when we break bread at a meal or the exuberant joy at a wedding, Jews are commanded to show gratitude. Our Talmud teaches this when it asks, Who is wise? The answer to this rhetorical question teaches gratitude. Who is wise? He that is happy with his lot. And so we learn that happiness stems from thankfulness. To notice. To take stock. And we do that through song.
Next week, we will celebrate our Exodus from Egypt. After 420 years of slavery, God performed ten plagues – ten miracles, and Pharoah finally let them go. With Moses as their guide, they walked out of Egypt. But there was a problem; Pharoah changed his mind and sent his strongest men and fastest horses after them. The Egyptian army was close behind them, and in front of them wasthe imposing obstacle of the Red Sea. At the last possible moment, making for drama of the highest order, God splits the Red Sea, the Isrealites walk through.
As they march through the sea, Miream starts singing. And suddenly, all the Israelites were singing in unison: Mi Chamocha BaElim Adonai – Who is like YOU god?
At every fixed prayer service in the Jewish liturgical calendar, we sing this song – the same words that we sang thousands of years ago. The song brings us back to a specific moment, reminding us of the miracle of the Red sea, certainly, but also the miracles of our daily lives. It focuses our thoughts and intentions. And that is the power of song.
You hear a song on the radio and think of your high school graduation, your first kiss, your wedding, your job, your children, a dance, a deceased relative. Song helps us remember. Music acts as a soulful mnemonic device – a means to forever hold a moment in our brain, and our heart.
Interestingly, the splitting of the Red Sea is not the only story in our Bible regarding God's separating mighty waters.
In this other story, the Israelites were also standing in front of a large body of water. Enemies were also behind them, closing in fast. God also splits the sea. And the ISraelites also march toward freedom.
This story takes place in a different part of the Bible, in the book of Joshua. But whereas the crossing of the Red Sea is embedden within our daily liturgy, our Passover celebration and our collective memory, the Joshua tale is relegated mostly to text study and adult education classes. But Why?! These two stories, the narratives, are exactly the same.
One might argue that the incident from Joshua must pale in comparison to what happened at the Dead Sea. Except if anything, the story in Joshua is more powerful! It occurs as the Israelites are on the cusp of reaching the promised land, Israel. In terms of historical significance, there is nothing as powerful as gaining entrance to the promised land, something that was first promised to Abraham so many generations earlier.
On this Shabbat of music, I argue that the only difference between the two stories is that of song – in the Joshua story, as the miracle happened, there was not a self-realization of that miracle – there was no song. And so, the song at the Red Sea did not just commemorate a historical event, it also helped to create one. The act of singing helped to create not only gratefulness, but memory.
Lawrence Kushner, a Reform Rabbi, tells this story: When the Red Sea parted; everyone was running through the Red Sea, celebrating, dancing, hugging. But there were two guys in back who just didn’t get it. They were complaining. They were walking through the river and were complaining about the smell, wondering when it would be lunch time. After a few minutes, one of their friends said, Guys! Look up! It was then that they NOTICED the walls of the Red Sea, surrounding them in comfort, in freedom, and in community. And then started singing.
Singing causes us to stop and observe the “walls” that are around us in our lives. Singing requires intention and effort, thoughtfulness and energy, passion and excitement.
This Song of the Sea – it was snug in a certain place, at a certain point in history, and by certain group of people. Whereas the song is particular, its message is universal - each of our lives gives us all manner of opportunities, all sorts of miracles, if we dare to see them. We can choose to walk through life so that we smell the dead fish, complaining of hunger and exhaustion, or we can look up, hold hands with our brothers and sisters and gleefully and thankfully exclaim -
(sing) I wanna sing sing sing I wanna shout shout shout I wanna sing I wanna shout praise the Lord!