“Something’s off,” the junior high school music teacher declared. “Let’s start the song from the beginning.” He walked up and down the aisles of our classroom listening intently. It was next to me that he paused.
“You,” he stopped the song and pointed his bony finger at me, “are off-key. I want everyone to start over again and this time you,” he pointed at me again, “mouth the words.”
I did as told. As the song ended the music instructor sighed with pleasure. “Much better!”
Truthfully, I have exaggerated this encounter, but it was traumatic. That was the point in my life that I truly understood I did not have a beautiful singing voice. I realized that no one would ever offer me a contact to star in a Broadway musical. Despite my disillusionment I did not stop singing all together. I was just very selective about when and where I sang.
Then, when I was in my first year of university, I was invited along with other students to experience a full Shabbat with an Orthodox rabbi’s family. That Shabbat really impressed me. People are drawn to observing Shabbat for many different reasons. For some it is the cholent. Others appreciate the tranquility of the day. For me, I think the singing around the Shabbat table played an important part, even if I did little singing myself.
Song is a central part of serving HaShem. This week is Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat we read the Torah portion, Beshalach. This is the Torah portion in which we hear how the Jewish people crossed the Sea of Reeds safely while the Egyptians pursuing them drowned. Once on the other side of the sea Moshe led the Jewish nation in the Song of the Sea, praising HaShem for the deliverance He had given His people. Hence, we have the name of the Shabbat, The Sabbath of Song.
This Song of the Sea is central to Judaism. We recite it twice daily in our prayers and it teaches us many lessons. It was at the sea that The Children of Israel understood that all their suffering in Egypt was indeed part of a Divine Plan. They were able to recognize the hand of HaShem in everything. And all the men sang together, each contributing to the harmony of the song.
There are some detractors of Orthodox Judaism who would like us to believe that the mehitza, the divider in the synagogue that separates the men worshippers from the women ones, was an invention of chauvinistic rabbis from the Middle Ages. That is simply not true and the proof is in this week’s Torah portion. Once Moshe finished the Song of the Sea Miriam, the prophetess, Aharon’s sister took the drum in her hand and led the women after her with drums and dancing. (Exodus, Chapter 15, verse 20) Volumes have been written about this one verse. Rabbis maintain that along with the drums and dancing was singing, singing separate from the men. It was the women, not the men, who had drums. This is because they were so confident that there would be miracles to celebrate they had taken the instruments with them when they left Egypt.
With all of the explanations about this one verse I have not seen one commentary that Miriam told anyone to mouth the words of the song. Through the years I have learned how important music is when serving HaShem. Praying alone in my home I raise my voice and sing my heart out. When in the synagogue I take pity on my neighbors sitting around me and sing quietly. They do not hear me but my heart does and it soars with the songs to HaShem.
I wish to thank Rabbi Aba Wagensberg and Shira Smiles for their inspiring Torah classes which helped me write this article.