An Evolution of Jewish Song: Shabbat Shirah 2009, February 6

Had it not been for one particularly long excerpt that I should have shortened significantly, I would have been slightly happier with this Devar Torah, but I think it’s an okay one. Posted below, unformatted! Thanks by the way go out to Joseph Schwartz for encouraging me to deliver this Davar!

Shabbat shalom,
On Friday morning, January 23, 2009, David Weltman and I left minyan at the Jewish Theological Seminary to return to the dormitory as per usual; however, along the way, we stopped at the Appletree Supermarket to purchase assorted goods. Though I truly enjoy Appletree Supermarket and though I have no reason to believe that David dislikes Appletree, our morning shopping was unexpectedly disturbed as our ears took sudden notice of Cyndi Lauper’s international #1 hit song “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” playing over the radio of Appletree. Although the Zi- onist fervor in my heart should have reassured me that it was o- kay—because this song actually charted higher in Israel than in the United States—and although the song contains such inspir- ing lyrics as “Girls just want to have fun” and “Girls just want to have fun,” David and I looked at each other and agreed, “It’s too early in the morning for this song.”
Looking back on that unfortunate event in our lives, I won- der dispassionately if it really was too early in the morning for that song. After all, David and I had already been up for about an hour—a good chunk of that time being in morning minyan actually (where there certainly was singing). But why do we sing in minyan? After all, we’re often pretty tired at the morning minyan. In fact, I’m personally pretty tired at the evening min- yan too. I’m actually really tired right now.1 So, why do I sing at all? I’m not sure that being a musician qualifies me as the best person to answer this question, but the fact that it is Shabbat Shi- rah, the Sabbath of Song, and that I’m giving a Devar Torah right now means that either I’m going to answer the question now or I’m going to move on to another topic.
I’m going to try and answer the question.
But, I want to backtrack and go over some fundamentals. Shabbat Shirah, which is often celebrated with something more musically elaborate than usual in services, is called Shabbat Shi- rah because it is the Shabbat when we include the reading of Shirat Hayyam, the song of the Sea: which Mosheh (Moses) and the Children of Israel sang during Keri`at Yam Suf, when God split the Sea of Reeds so that the nation could miraculously es- cape Egyptian servitude, even by means of traversing a natural geographic border. Shirat Hayyam, the song that Israel sang when crossing the sea, is not only referred to in Exodus Chapter 15, Verse 1 directly as a Shirah (a song or poem) but it is also the first time that the Torah ever speaks directly of any sort of Shirah or even uses a word with a Hebrew root related to Shirah (song, or poetry). Yet it is not the first time that music or poetic language appears in the Torah. In Genesis Chapter 4, Verse 21, we read:
יוּבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י כׇּל־תֹּפֵ֥שׂ כִּנּ֖וֹר וְעוּגָֽב:
Yuval was the father of all those who play the kinnor [the lyre2] and the ugav [an ancient wind instrument3].
So, Yuval, the first musician was the father of all musicians: kind of like how Ray Charles was the “father of soul music.” And, speaking of fathers, our forefather Ya’akov (Jacob)—a.k.a. Yisra’el (Israel)—offered a substantial poetic blessing of some length to his offspring in Genesis Chapter 49. And, loosely speaking of course, there’s plenty of poetic and literary language interspersed in the narratives of Genesis and Exodus preceding Shirat Hayyam. But the word “Shirah” is not used until now, and Judaism’s earliest rabbis saw Shirat Hayyam as a different kind of song altogether, as if Shirat Hayyam marches to its own drum, so to speak. Shemot Rabbah, a Midrash-based exegetical and tangential commentary on Shemot (Exodus)—compiled a- round the ninth century—is so impressed by Shirat Hayyam that, in Chapter 23, Passage 4, it actually envisions God waiting for the song with:
דבר אחר אז ישיר משה, הדא דכתיב:
Another interpretation on “Then Mosheh will sing” in Exodus Chapter 15, Verse 1, keeping in mind what is written in Pro- verbs 31:26,
פִּ֭יהָ פָּֽתְחָ֣ה בְחׇכְמָ֑ה וְתֽוֹרַת־חֶ֝֗סֶד עַל־לְשׁוֹנָֽהּ:
“Her mouth opened with wisdom, and a Torah or lovingkind- ness was in her language.”
מיּוֹם שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את העולם ועד שעמדו ישראל על הים,
From the day that the Holy Blessed One made the world, until the day Yisra’el stood by the sea,
לא מצינו אדם שאמר שירה לקדוש ברוך הוא
We hadn’t seen a single form of humanity sing a song to the Ho- ly Blessed One
אלא ישראל.
Except for Yisra’el.
ברא אדם הראשון ולא אמר שירה,
God made the first human, but he didn’t sing a song.
הציל אברהם מכִּבְשַׁן הָאשׁ וּמן הַמְּלָכִים וְלא אמר שירה
God saved Avraham from the fire4 and from the kings, but he didn’t sing a song.
וכן יצחק מן המאכלת ולא אמר שירה
So too, God saved Yitzhak (Isaac) from the sacrificial knife, but Yitzhak didn’t sing a song.
וכן יעקב מן המלאך ומן עשו ומן אנשי שכם ולא אמר שירה,
Similarly, God saved Ya’akov from the wrestling angel, and from Esav (Esau), and from Shekhem’s people, but he didn’t sing a song!
כיון שבאו ישראל לַיָּם ונִקרע להם
But when Yisra’el came to the sea, and it was split for them,
מיּד אמרו שירה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא
Immediately they sang a song for the Holy Blessed One(!)
שנאמר ”אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל,“
As it says, “Then, Mosheh will sing and the Children of Yisra- ’el.”
והוי פִּ֭יהָ פָּֽתְחָ֣ה בְחׇכְמָ֑ה.
Thereby, Yisra’el’s mouth had opened with wisdom.
The Rabbis tell us that there is a certain wisdom inherent in song. Song, by its very nature, takes time and sound, and turns them into a sacred aesthetic experience. And like all sacred mat- ters in Judaism, the sanctity of song can be removed from its na- tural state. A sacred matter should take place through its ideal means, for its ideal purpose and at its ideal time. I have no doubt that Yuval, the first musician, understood the beauty of music. But it seems that he took something with so much sacred poten- tial and never figured out that it could ever be used for a holy purpose. Personally, I don’t blame him. I don’t know what his relationship with the Divine was like, and, if he lived over 4000 years ago, chances are that whatever language skills he had were pretty limited anyway. Also, if Yuval was the first musician, then there probably wasn’t much fine culture surrounding him. He probably had no major theologians or philosophers to talk to, so I think Yuval must have been intellectually on his own. His inability to bring his own music to a sacred purpose was not intentional; it was accidental. And it was only by the means of an intellectual evolution and an artistic revolution that would take place over time that would eventually allow the Israelites to be the first mortal entity to sing a song for God.
But, when the Israelites sang for God, they sang for yet an- other high and holy purpose: to unify the Israelites as a commu- nity. Or Hahayyim, written in 1742 by the Moroccan Kabbalist Hayyim ben Mosheh ibn Attar says, regarding Exodus Chapter 15, Verse 1’s words “וַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה” (“They said, ‘I will sing…’”):
פרוש: אמרו זה לזה לֵאמֹ֑ר
Here’s an explanation: they said to one another
שיאמרו שירה יחד בלא בחינת השתנוּת והפרדה עד שיהיו כאיש אחד.
That they’ll sing a song together with discerning and differences or separation among them, so that will be like one person.
הגם היותם רבים,
Indeed, they were really many persons,
ונתכוְּנוּ יחד ועשׂוּ כן ואמרו ”אָשִׁ֤ירָה“ (לשון יחיד) כאלּוּ הם איש אחד
But they planned together and performed accordingly and said, “I will sing,” a singular phrasing, as if they were one person.
שזולת זה היו אומרים נשירה
If they hadn’t done so, then they would have sung, “We will sing…”
Holy music can praise God and bring people together, but our Israelite ancestors were very lucky to have a compassionate God to pray to. God actually cared so much for us that God actually told the angels that God would prefer to hear the music of the Israelites rather than the music of the angels. We read in Shemot Rabbah, Chapter 23, Passage 7:5
דבר אחר: אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩, הדא הוא דכתיב
Another thought about these words: “Then, Moses will sing.” It’s written in Psalm 68, Verse 26:
קִדְּמ֣וּ שָׁ֭רִים אַחַ֣ר נֹגְנִ֑ים בְּ֖ת֥וֹךְ עֲלָמ֣וֹת תּוֹפֵפֽוֹת:
The singers precede; then come instrumentalists; amidst them are drumming maidens.
אמר ר‘ יוחנן
Rabbi Yohanan said:
בִּקְּשׁוּ המלאכים לומר שירה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא באותו הלילה שעברו ישראל את הים
The angels requested to sing a song to the Holy Blessed One the same night that Yisra’el traversed the Sea.
ולא הניחן הקדוש ברוך הוא
The Holy Blessed One did not let them though.
אמר להם,
God said to them,
”לִגְיוֹנוֹתַי מְתוּנִין בְּצָרָה, וְאַתֶּם אומרים לְפָנַי שירה?“
“My legions are tarrying in danger, and you want to sing me a song?”
וכיון שֶׁיָּצְאוּ ישראל מן היּם
So when Israel escaped from the Sea,
באו המלאכים להקדים שירה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא
The angels came first to sing a song to the Holy Blessed One.
אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא יקַדְּמוּ בנַי תְחִלָּה
The Holy Blessed One said to them, “My children are going first.”
הדא הוא דכתיב
Just as it says in Exodus 15:1,
”אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩“
“Then, Mosheh will sing!”
”אָ֣ז שׁר“ לא נאמר, אלא ”אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר“
It doesn’t say “Then Mosheh sang…” It says “Then Mosheh will sing!”
שהקדוש ברוך הוא אמר ”יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל תְחִלָּה.“
For the Holy Blessed One said, “Mosheh and the Israelites will sing first.”
וכן דוד הוא אומר ”קִדְּמ֣וּ שָׁ֭רִים”
Likewise, David (David)6 in the Psalm, says “the ‘singers’ pro- ceed first.”
אֵלּוּ ישראל שעמדו על הים
These “singers” are Yisra’el, who stood upon the sea,
דכתיב ”אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩.“
For it says, “Then Mosheh will sing.”
”אַחַ֣ר נֹגְנִ֑ים.“ אֵֽלּוּ המלאכים.
“After that, the instrumentalists!” These are the angels.
And why this order?
כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למלאכים,
This is what the Holy Blessed One said to the Angels:
לא מפני שאני משפיל אתכם אני אומר שיקדמו תחלה
It’s not so I can humiliate you that I am saying that they’ll go first,
אלא מפני שבשר וָדָם יאמרו תחלה עד שלא ימות אחד מהם
Rather, it’s that I’m letting the human flesh speak first since they might die.
אבל אתם כל זמן שאתם חיים וקימים
But you angels: you’re always lively and around.
משָׁל לְמלך שֶׁנִּשְׁבָּה בנוֹ והלך וְהִצִּילוֹ
It’s like a king whose son gets kidnapped, so he goes and saves him.
וְהָלְכוּ בני הפלטין מבקשִׁין לְקַלֵּס לַמֶּֽלֶךְ, ובנו מבקש לְקַלְּסוֹ.
So, all the persons of his palace ask to praise the king, but the son also requests to praise him!
אמרו לו, ”אדונינו, מי יְקַלֶּסְךָ תְחִלָּה?“
They say to him, “Our master, who gets to praise you first?”
אמר להם, ”בְּנִי. מִכַּאן וְאילך מי שרוצה לקלסני יקלסני.“
The king says to them, “My son. Him first, then whoever wants to praise me gets to praise me.”
כשיצאו ישראל ממצרים וקרע להם הקדוש ברוך הוא את הים והיו המלאכים מבקשים לומר שירה,
When Yisra’el escaped from Egypt and the Holy Blessed One split the sea, and the angels requested to sing a song,
אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא, ”אָ֣ז יָֽשִׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל תְּחִלָּה,
The Holy Blessed One said, “Then, Mosheh and the Children of Yisra’el will sing first.
ואחר כך אתם!“
And afterwards, you angels, get to sing!”
הוי ”קִדְּמ֣וּ שָׁ֭רִים“ אלו ישראל
The preceding singers: these are Yisra’el.
”אַחַ֣ר נֹגְנִ֑ים“ אלּוּ המּלאכים
Then, the instrumentalists: these are the angels.
”בְּ֖ת֥וֹךְ עֲלָמ֣וֹת תּוֹפֵפֽוֹת,“
Amidst them are drumming maidens,
אלו הנּשים שֶׁהן קִלְּסוּ באמצא כדכתיב
And these are the women who praised God in the center as is written in Exodus Chapter 15, Verse 20:
וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַֽהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כׇל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַֽחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת:
Miryam (Miriam) the prophetess, the sister of Aharon (Aaron), took the tambourine in her hand, and she went out with all the women behind her with tambourines and dances.
So, why do we sing when we pray? For starters, we pray with words as we recognize that God has the opportunity to list- en to the angels forever, but our time is limited and we should make the most of God’s time with us. The words we say when we pray should be sung though because, though we may know how to speak to God, we also must know how to show God how we have evolved culturally: that we are not Yuval, and we under- stand how to create something holy out of a historically refined art. And the reason that we sing together is to keep us together. The arts which we create as a Jewish community show God that we observe Hiddur Mitzvah: the beautification of a Divine com- mand. We show God that, not only do we know that God created us, but we, in God’s image, create something beautiful for God in return.
Shabbat shalom.


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