Parshat B'shalach is called Shabbat Shira.
It is interesting that when we think of song in prayer, often we think of the mizmorai tehillim from Ketuvim. There are two psalms which are unique in their opening formulation of “song.”
Mizmor shir l’yom HaShabbat, which is the psalm of the day for Shabbat and Mizmor shir Chanukat haBayit l’David which we say everyday before Baruch she-amar and is the psalm for every day of Chanukah. Each starts with the phrase, Mizmor shir - a psalm, a song…Merging the psalm and song to have this ultimate expression of gratitude and appreciation to God.
Although Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbat is the mizmor explicity associated with Shabbat, the verses themselves, do not mention Yom HaSh’vii – the seventh day. It does not seem to relate to either creation, the Menucha - resting of Shabbat or even Yetziat Mitzraim – the Exodus from Egypt. This k’pit’l tehillim speaks about the difficulty of understanding God’s ways especially when there seems to be a flowering of evil. The psalmist tries to rejoice in the knowledge and belief that ultimately the righteous will prevail and evil will be destroyed. The menucha, the rest and the kedusha, the holiness of Shabbat on the particular day of Shabbat, is predicated on this deep belief that evil will be vanquished and the righteous will flourish. This understanding of God’s ultimate plan as experienced by the removal of the bewilderment which can sometimes face us when we look at a difficult world frees us to connect to God on a deeper level.
The Mishna at the end of Maseket Tamid explicitly points to the Shabbat’s resemblance to the world to come as the basis for this association with Shabbat. It explains that this chapter is identified as the song of Shabbat because it is a song that points us to the future. It is a “psalm, a song for the future for the day that is entirely Shabbat and rest for all eternity.”
Just as Shabbat is an experience of holiness and time, the Beit HaMikdash is an experience of holiness and place. The psalm Mizmor shir Channukat haBayit l’David inaugurates the temple service. But even more, it serves to emphasize that God rescues us even from the most hopeless of circumstances.
Rav Hirsch explains that this psalm was used to inaugurate the temple because the purpose of the Beit Hamikdash is best achieved when each person recognizes God’s presence and help in his personal life. King David, who composes this psalm, did not lose faith in God throughout many difficult years and life threatening experiences. This is perhaps the reason that the psalm mentions David and not Shlomo, David’s son, who actually built the temple. Shlomo had a relative life of peace, both personally and in his reign over Am Yisrael. The power of one’s connection to God, through the Beit Hamikdash is based on the faith and hope that God will bring us up when we are in the depths. This understanding in the psalm relates much more to Melech David’s life than to Melech Shlomo’s life. David had experienced anguish in his life to understand what it would mean to be free from that torment. He was the one who could sing the shira, the song when the temple would be built (even in his absence) to truly appreciate this opportunity of reconnecting with the Divine spirit when the obstacles of suffering have been removed.
This Psalm captures the feeling of gratitude towards the Master of the Universe by concluding "that my soul might sing to You, and not be stilled; Hashem, my G-d, forever will I thank You."
The shira here is important because after the removal of the difficulties, there is a freedom of sorts to allow one’s voice to soar in appreciation of God and our relationship with the Divine.
In both these mizmorim, the removal of evil or obstacles frees us to bond with Hashem in a more profound way. This is expressed through song – shirah.
When we look throughout the stories of Tanach, whenever there is a Shira, a song of appreciation, it seems to arrive after some struggle, evil or oppression which inhibits an unobstructed connection with God. When obstacles have been overcome, what materializes is a reconnection to the path of religious observance and freedom of spirit.
The very first communal Shira is expressed in this week’s parsha with Bnei Yisrael crossing the Red sea –enabling Bnai Yisrael’s survival against the Egyptians.
This "shira" (song), is the response to the experience of salvation. Following the miraculous deliverance of "keriyat Yam Suf", the entire nation reacted spontaneously, bursting out in song and praise ("Az yashir Moshe u-venei Yisrael"), thus expressing their amazement and gratitude. Based on this experience, the Brisker Rav, in Hilkhot Chanuka suggested that whenever the entire nation of Israel is redeemed, we incur the obligation of shira. Regarding this obligation, the primary aspect is the human reaction and experience. The Netziv (Ha-amek She'eila she'ilta 26) claims that there is a biblical obligation to recite Hallel or a Shira as an immediate and spontaneous reaction to redemption.
This Shira – this song of the future of the nation could not be actualized until there was complete removal of the knowledge of oppression of evil the people experienced.
After, Moshe begins the Shira and N’vuah, prophecy. Then Bnai Yisrael sing and are free to look toward their future. Miriam and the women celebrate with a Shirah as well, for the continuation of the Jewish people and the continuation of the nation – no oppression, no having their children taken from them.
The haftorah – the shirat Devorah is a song which also speaks about overcoming hardship. The Jewish people suffered from the dominion of Yavin, the king of Canaan and the cruelty of the evil general Sisra who tormented the Jewish people for 20 years. After the victory over Sisrah, Devorah sings her shirah. This song represents not only a new beginning but the creation of something extraordinary for the nation. In the absence of evil or oppression or any kind of obstacle of worship to God, the Shirah, the song of praise allows for a future for the people.
Going back to the Torah, the end of Sefer D’varim, after Bnai Yisrael overcome forty years of both internal and external obstacles while traveling in the desert, Moshe Rabbeinu concludes with the song of Haazinu. The children of Israel have overcome that which originally preventing them from entering the land promised to them since Avraham. They have broken through the shackles of both physical and mental enslavement and they are ready to enter the land. Once they have learned from their mistakes and are free from their own limitations, Moshe sings the shirah – the Jewish people are prepared to move ahead, refocused and reborn.
Think about the tefillah of Chana – Tefillat Chana – Shmuel’s mother. At the end of Shoftim it says: Bayamim hahaim ain melech b’Yisrael Ish haYashar b’ainav yaaseh” – In those days there was no king in Israel; every person did what was right in one’s own eyes.
There was no order, no hope and the Jewish people needed a sense of a future – a leader. We begin Shmuel Aleph with the story of Chana. She is married to a man, Elkanah, who has children with another wife, Penina, but loves Chana most of all. But Chana is barren. We are told in the text and further explained by our Sages and later commentators how Penina oppressed Chana and mocked her because she did not have children.
Chana lived with personal and national oppression. But, she prays to God for a child. A child who would enable her to fulfill her wish of becoming a mother. But also, she prays for a child for Am Yisrael. She first laments and prays:
...וַתֹּאמַר, יְקוָק צְבָאוֹת אִם-רָאֹה תִרְאֶה בָּעֳנִי אֲמָתֶךָ וּזְכַרְתַּנִי וְלֹא-תִשְׁכַּח אֶת-אֲמָתֶךָ, וְנָתַתָּה לַאֲמָתְךָ, זֶרַע אֲנָשִׁים--וּנְתַתִּיו לַיקוק כָּל-יְמֵי חַיָּיו...
“O Lord of Hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give to your maidservant a child, then I will give him to Hashem all the days of his life…”
She recognizes God as the All Powerful.
God gives her a son. When he reaches the appropriate age, she brings her son Shmuel to the Mishkan. It is here where she sings her shirah. At this pivotal moment in her life and the life of the nation of Israel, she declares,
וְיִתֶּן-עֹז לְמַלְכּוֹ, וְיָרֵם קֶרֶן מְשִׁיחוֹ.
“And He shall give strength to his king and exalt the horn of His anointed”.(2:10)
This, says the Gemara in Megilla demonstrates that Channah was one of the neviot. She knows her son will rise to give strength, chizzuk, to all of Israel and he will appoint a king.
Her shirah comes after she is able to experience the freedom from oppression. Her shirah is redemptive and allows her to reconnect with Hashem in a much a deeper way.
Hence, shirah’s hodayah, thankgiving is more than appreciation, it represents that our tefillah has ascended to a higher level by virtue of this freedom of expression.
Hence, shirah is the quintessential prayer. When we are able to move beyond oppression and what blocks our expression, we sing.
This Shabbat weekend, we have much to celebrate and commemorate. Of course it is Shabbat Shira and Tu b’Shvat. But, we are also celebrating the Kehilah of Riverdale’s 3rd anniversary. With all this in mind, we still anticipate a time where we can sing the shira of our people unified, respecting and valuing each other. To exist free without oppression, racism and hatred. Where the true values of Torah, morality, appreciation of Hashem’s creations and dignity for all is inplace to enable our people to continue to move in a positive direction. It begins now, with us, into the next generation.
On TuB’shvat, we can highlight the concern for our environment and the world that God created. Let us allow ourselves to care about our environment and be influenced by those within our community, like Jessica Haller, who has the integrity and deep dedication to safeguard and care for the world Hashem gave us. We turn to those who labor to keep us informed and ensure that our level of obligation for the world for which we are stewards remains one of our highest
As we celebrate our 3rd anniversary at the Kehilah, I thank you – our membership. You are true to what it means to be an Orthodox congregation in our world. You are dedicated to creating a serious and meaningful tefilah for our Kehilah. You are committed to learning Torah and living by its values and you see to promote individual and communal acts of chesed. You move beyond the negativity and make room for the halikha of halakha – so critical to our halkhic system. You make sure to make room for those who are vulnerable and make sure that everyone is welcome and valued and not being pushed outside. We were all freed from Egypt as one people and we all stated Naase’h v’Nishmah when we accepted the Torah. The state of our people is a better one when every person has a place in it.
As this is National Black History Month, we remind ourselves of the teachings of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He taught us that when we look at the individual irrespective of color, religion and gender we become people who are free to grow and connect in ways we never thought possible. Educating boys and girls, women and men to respect and appreciate each others’ talents in learning and recognize the need of knowledgable individuals to be a part of the perpetuation of learning is of paramount importance.
Thank you for making it possible for women to not only be a part of this rich tradition of education and leadership. But, by re-establishing and re-claiming the place of spiritual and lay leadership irrespective of gender. Like Devorah, women can be the autonomous leader in our community. Not because she is a woman, but, because the community recognizes her as their leader. It is imperative that we expose our boys and girls to different halakhic role models. Society at large still faces the challenge of empowering women to leadership positions and truly feel that she as an individual suited for the position. The Kehilah has certainly served as the model for Klal Yisrael to follow.
Each of the important themes which we are thinking about and commemorating on Shabbat morning comes with their own challenges and obligations. It is only recently that the majority of people have recognized the importance of actively working to preserve our environment. We take the opportunity on Tu b'shvat to consider the ways in which our actions impact the environment and what commitment we can make to change our behavior to ensure a positive future for the global environment.
The dedication of this month, is a time to recognize the central role of African Americans in US History. It is a time to reinsert into our narrative an appreciation for all the contributions, scholarship and dedication to our country. This came to be as a result of initiative and sacrifice – for the path was not always easy. We realize the impact that every individual can have a necessary impact on society: To make it more just and compassionate and that we must continue to work for change.
This is a very exciting time for our Kehilah. We come together now to daven and meet the challenges that face us. We learn from the lesson of Shabbat Shira to sing together, celebrating the many obstacles which we have overcome to get us to this point even as we understand that there is more that we must do. This Shabbat Shira, please join us at The Kehilah. But, beyond what we read in the parsha, while we sing Mizmore shir l'yom haShabbat and Mizmor shir chanukat habayit l’David, we celebarate and give thanks to Hashem for all that we have surmounted to get to this exceptional moment. We stand proud, strong and hopeful.