Beshalach: Singing

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

When singing appears for the first time in the Torah, it is something that does not happen.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob works as an indentured servant for his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan, for twenty years.  Then while Lavan is out of town, Jacob flees with his own wives, children, servants, herds, and flocks.  Lavan catches up with Jacob on the road and says:

Why did you hide and run away? And you robbed me and you did not tell me—and I would have sent you off with gladness, and with shirim, with tambourine, and with lyre. (Genesis 31:27)

shirim (שִׁרִים) = songs.  (Singular: shirah, שִׁירָה)

Although I think Lavan is lying, this first reference to song does tell us that musical celebrations of departure were customary in ancient Aram.

The first singing that does happen in the Torah is in this week’s portion, Beshalach (“When he sent out”).  God splits the Reed Sea, the Israelites cross over on the damp sea-bottom, the Egyptian army pursues them, and the wheels of their chariots get stuck in the mud.  As soon as all the Israelites and their fellow-travelers are safe on the other side, God makes the waters return and drown all the Egyptians.  The Israelites see the dead bodies of the soldiers on the shore, and start to sing.

"Moses Crossing the Red Sea", Dura Europas Synagogue, 245 C.E.
“Moses Crossing the Red Sea”, Dura Europas Synagogue, 245 C.E.

This is when Moses yashir, along with the children of Israel, this shirah to Y-H-V-H; and they said, saying:

Ashirah to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;

horse and its rider He threw into the sea!  (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)

yashir (יָשִׁיר) = he sings.

ashirah (אָשִׁירָה) = I sing, I will sing, let me sing.

(I am using “He” to translate the pronoun prefixes and suffixes in the “Song of the Sea’, since later lines in this hymn picture God as a “man of war”, i.e., warrior.  For the name of God indicated by Y-H-V-H, see my blog post Va-eira: The Right Name.)

The hymn continues:

My strength and zimrat Yah, it is my salvation;

 this is my god, and I extol Him;

the god of my father, and I exalt Him. (Exodus 15:2)

God is man of war; Y-H-V-H is His name. (Exodus 15:3)

zimrat (זִמְרָת) = the song of, the melody of, the praising-song of.

Yah (יָהּ) = a name for God, possibly an abbreviation of Y-H-V-H.

Since God has single-handedly defeated and killed the enemy, the Israelites sing a hymn celebrating God as the ultimate warrior.

(The Song of the Sea continues for 16 more verses, using a more archaic Hebrew than the text surrounding it. Modern scholars agree that whoever compiled and wrote down the first version of the book of Exodus, some time after 900 B.C.E., inserted a much older hymn here and attributed it to Moses.)

At the end of the “Song of the Sea”, the women sing and dance. Miriams-Song 1909

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with tambourines and with circle-dances. And Miriam ta-an to them:

            Shiru to Y-H-V-H, for He rises up in triumph;

horse and its rider He threw into the sea!  (Exodus 15:20-21)

ta-an (תַּעַן) = she sang call-and-response; she answered, she responded (from the root anah, ענה).

Shiru (שִׁירוּ) = Sing!

Miriam appears to be leading singing, dancing, and percussion at the same time!

The next time the Torah reports singing is in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when it inserts a short archaic song in honor of a well of water into a list of places the Israelites traveled through.

This is when Israel yashir this shirah:

Rise up, well! Enu for it!

The well that captains dug,

That donors of the people excavated,

With a scepter, with their walking stick. (Numbers 21:17-18)

Enu (עֱנוּ) = let us sing call-and-response (also from the root anah, ענה).

The only other reference to singing in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible precedes a long hymn inserted into the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. To introduce this song, God tells Moses:

And now, write for yourselves this shirah, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, so that this shirah will be a witness for me against the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19)

Although the hymn inserted at this point does praise God, it also criticizes the people for backsliding, and warns them about God’s vengeance.  The overall message is that the Israelites do not appreciate everything God has done for them, and they had better behave, or else. The purpose of the song, according to the Torah, is to make this message easy to remember.

King David is the first professional musician named in the Bible. In the second book of Samuel, he composes and sings not only another hymn praising God, but also the first two dirges in the Bible, one for Saul and Jonathan, and one for Avner. Both dirges are introduced by a new verb, va-yekonein (וַיְקֹנֵן) = and he sung a lamentation.

Besides songs of celebration and lamentation, the Bible contains many references to hymns addressed to God; and all 150 psalms are the lyrics of hymns.  There are psalms of praise and of thanksgiving.  The majority of the psalms plead with God: to reward those who worship God and do good, and punish the wicked; to rescue God’s followers from poverty or enemies; to grant us long life and to kill our enemies; to teach us how to do good; and—a plea that moves me today—to stop being silent and remote, to answer and prove that our God exists.

"The Concert Singer", by Thomas Eakins, 1892
“The Concert Singer”, by Thomas Eakins, 1892

I remember that when I was I small child, I sang spontaneously whenever  happiness came over me, making up melodies and nonsense words as I went along.  When I was in elementary school, I learned a variety of songs, and sang both to entertain myself, and to have fun with other people.  I was singing when it was the custom, and when I wanted to celebrate—like the singers in the first part of the Hebrew Bible.

I admit that as a young teenager, I sang “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” when I was consumed with frustration over someone who seemed to be my enemy.  I did not know that many psalms also begged God to kill the singer’s enemies.

After that, I learned that when I was feeling down, singing sad songs lifted my spirits.  I had discovered the equivalent of the Biblical dirge.  When I needed to vent my romantic frustrations and thwarted physical desires, singing certain popular songs gave my feelings an outlet.

When I was over 30, and searching for God, none of the popular songs I once loved met my needs.  Then I stumbled upon a Jewish Renewal congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, that supplied me with all the songs I wanted.  Finally, I could sing to express the yearning of my soul for both a good direction in life and a connection with the divine.  And many of those songs and chants come from the book of psalms.

Recently, I was singing a chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold using two lines that appear in the Song of the Sea in today’s Torah portion, and are so evocative the Torah repeats them in Isaiah and Psalms:

Ozi ve-zimrat Yah, vayehi li liyshuah (עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה). Or in English:

My strength and the praising-song of Yah, it is my salvation. (Exodus 15:2, Isaiah 12:3, Psalm 118:14)

At this stage of my life, what saves my spirit is my own strength (which is a divine gift), combined with the ability to sing my own songs (both literally and figuratively) in praise of Yah, of the divine as I know it.

May we all be blessed with such music in our lives.

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