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Freedom to Choose in the Absence of Alternatives


Although I was born the week of Parshas Bo, not Beshalach, I always felt a particularly strong kinship with my biblical as well as familial namesakes. I am named after my maternal great-grandmother Miriam Devorah a”h, a woman who, I’m told, was loving, witty, passionate, and opinionated, a tall order for someone of her diminutive stature. It is noteworthy that both Miriam and Devorah were modest yet assertive female Jewish leaders, whose deep understanding of the people (specifically, the men) in their lives paved the way for tremendous blessing and redemption of the Jewish people in their time. More than their individual character traits, however, there is one glaringly obvious connection between these two women, and that is their relationship with song. 

This Shabbos is also known as Shabbos Shira, the Sabbath of Song, because we read the song of Az Yashir, which the Jewish people sang at the edge of the Yam Suf after witnessing the miraculous splitting of the sea and their Egyptian oppressors’ watery demise. Famously, the Pasuk describes (and Debbie Friedman sang about) how Miriam led the women in song and dance (15:20). The Haftara for Parshas Beshalach (Shoftim 4:4-5:31) recounts the story of Devorah, a prophetess and Jewish female leader in the time of the Shoftim, who sings a song of praise to Hashem following the defeat of the Canaanim who were oppressing the Jewish people in Israel during Devorah’s reign as Judge. This song is known as Shiras Devorah. Chazal tell us that only prophecies that are applicable for all generations were codified and retained in the canon of the 24 books of Tanach (Megillah 14a). As such, there is a certain timeless significance to the fact that Devorah’s story and song was written down, and, of course, further importance to the recitation of this Haftara in conjunction with Parshas Beshalach. 

Music and song are part and parcel of the Jewish experience. Song is central to the very fabric of our peoplehood. In fact, the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 23:4) notes that until Shiras HaYam, there was no song. Adam did not sing to Hashem upon his creation, nor was there musical accompaniment to Avraham’s safe exit from the Kivshan Ha’Eish, or Yitzchak’s narrow escape from under the knife at the Akeidah, or Yaakov’s victory over Eisav’s angel. Yet, when Klal Yisrael passed through the Yam Suf and reached dry land, they burst into song. The Midrash explains that HKB”H heard their song and said, “Li’Eilu Hayiti Mitzapeh,” for these (i.e. the Jewish people) I have been waiting. In the first moments of our identity as a free nation, a moment that would define us for all time, a moment we commemorate each morning in our daily prayer, we sang praise to God. 

What was the nature of this song, and how does it relate to Devorah’s?

In his Tefillah shiur this week, R’ Chaim Marcus shlit”a described Az Yashir as a statement of clear understanding of God’s power and judgment at the center of all creation. He quoted Rav Hirsch, who explains that Az Yashir is the quintessential Jewish song because it “engenders the awe of God,” and that this is the power of song and music in Judaism and Jewish culture. Furthermore, the Midrash in Shemos Rabbah elucidates that the word “Az” in Az Yashir is a statement of Bitachon, and that the entire song of Az Yashir was one of pure joy in witnessing with undeniable clarity that God is a just and fair judge, rewarding the Jewish people and punishing their enemies (23:4). 

To this end, the behavior of Miriam and the Jewish women at the Yam Suf is a paradigmatic example of song as a statement of faith. The pasuk says, “VaTikach Miriam… es hatof biyadah, vateitzenah kol hanashim acharehah bitupim ub’micholos,” - and Miriam took her timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dance (15:20). Rashi notes that it was due to the righteous women’s steadfast faith that God would perform miracles for them that they had brought instruments with them from Egypt altogether. Yet music is not just about faith. As I once read on my friend’s wall, “music is what feelings sound like.” Music and song help to create a state of mind and generate emotions that facilitate connection on all levels. Anyone who has ever experienced an emotion can tell you that you can sustain, deepen, or change your emotions depending on what music you listen to. Listening to music, singing, or hearing song is a part of many of the DBT skills for managing emotions, and it is also common sense. Song helps us to make sense of our experiences; music allows us to communicate what we have trouble verbalizing. To quote another gem from my friend’s wall décor: when words fail, music speaks. Lihavdil, many Torah sources illustrate the incredible power of music. When the Shevatim wished to relay to Yaakov that Yosef was still alive, they asked Serach bas Asher to play her harp and sing the news to Yaakov, as a means of easing Yaakov’s distress (Sefer HaYashar, Vayigash 9). When Shaul HaMelech was overcome by Ruach Ra and was bereft of the Shechina, he hired Dovid HaMelech to play his harp for him, for the Shechina only manifests from a place of happiness, and Dovid’s music enabled Shaul to feel more content (Shmuel 1, 17:14-23). This same method was employed by Elisha the Navi for King Yehoshafat later on in Melachim 2:15. These stories illustrate both that music and joy are inherently intertwined, and also more generally how music can soothe and heal both emotionally and spiritually. What is it about music that is so deeply powerful? From a spiritual perspective, we recognize that at the ideal level, music is meant to be synonymous with joy. Musical instruments and song are staple features of the Avodah in the Beis HaMikdash, and on major holidays, such as during the Simchas Beis Hasho’eva ceremony during Sukkos. Furthermore, as illustrated in this week’s Parsha and Haftara and throughout Navi, song is intrinsically connected with happiness and gratitude. Many of these instances fall under the category of Rav Hirsch’s description of engendering the awe of God. These songs are a reflection of a deep and unshakeable faith garnered through witnessing God’s miraculous judgment and intervention, or in thanks for His Divine gifts. Furthermore, we refrain from singing and playing music during times of mourning, for the very reason that, on some level, there is some enjoyment inherent in these activities. Yet not all song is joyful. What about music and song that is not meant to elicit joy? Is there room for that in Torah Judaism? Dr. Bruce Perry is a prolific researcher and expert on childhood trauma and the development of the human brain. In his research, he notes that children who have experienced trauma will often engage in seemingly disruptive behaviors, such as tapping their feet on the floor or pens on their desk, banging their heads against the wall when distressed, rocking in place, or other behaviors. While these may seem disturbing and nonsensical, Dr. Perry explains that actually, they are in some ways adaptive. In utero, all babies are tuned in to the natural rhythm of their mother’s heartbeat. This beat signifies safety. As the fetus grows, the part of the brain that recognizes this rhythm develops early, and thus this information is retained in the neurological wiring of a child. When a child’s safety is threatened due to developmental trauma, finding that beat again becomes a matter of survival; creating a rhythm is a safe haven, a way of reconnecting with a time the child was safe. This theory and related research is the basis for the use of music, dance, and yoga therapies in trauma work with children. It may also be a reasonable explanation for why certain historically oppressed groups are so deeply connected to rhythm and music; it is the soundtrack of resilience. The impact of music and song is vast and complex. Song is an expression of faith and a means of praising God, a way to channel joy and gratitude, as was the case for the Jewish people, led by Miriam, and Devorah and her husband following the defeat of the Canaanim. This is why Az Yashir is written in the future tense, “yashir,” meaning “will sing,” for all song is a testament to the fact that even though now we lack the clear manifestations of God’s just judgment in the world, we recognize that we will one day see it. Song is also a way to access and heal heartbreak, to increase the acuity of our emotions, decrease their intensity, or change our feelings entirely. In Galus, we are not always able to – nor do we want to – connect through joy. Sometimes, our music and song is about reconnecting with the rhythm of resilience, about finding and demonstrating a different kind of faith, that which propels us forward through the darkness even in the absence of clarity. This is the Munkatch tune of Ani Maamin, the tempo of which matches the to-and-fro sway of the cattle cars in which it was composed, or the song of thousands gathered at the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av, the Kumzits of the World. Music and song are not always about joy; they are about connection. I am grateful to come from a family that lives and breathes music and song. My family members play instruments, compose music, and certainly enjoy singing together (spending Shabbos with my parents is like attending an un-ending NCSY ebbing circa 1975). What is perhaps more fascinating, though, is that in addition to music, our family also has a keen affinity for mental health and psychology. Perhaps one could argue that this is purely coincidental, but I do not think so. I think to speak of feelings and to speak of music is to speak of one and the same thing. This week, tune in to the song that is at the core of our national identity. Tap into the heartbeat of our people, and infuse your week and your Shabbos with music and song in the way that most resonates with you. As Jewish women following the footsteps of great Jewish women like Miriam and Devorah, recognize that each of us has the capacity to create our own song – of thanks, of faith, of anguish, of joy – and to find the words we cannot say hidden in the notes and chords. With God’s help, we will soon be Zocheh to sing a song of redemption and clarity together once more.

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