Singers of Songs*

by Eliezer Segal

Exodus 14

19 Then the angel of God who went before the host of Israel moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, 20 coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness; and the night passed without one coming near the other all night.

Exodus 15

1 Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, "I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. 2 The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.

At the heart of the current passage from the Torah stands Shirat Hayyam, the Song at the Sea. It is a passage that has always been singled out for special honour and interest. Our sages have expounded at great length about the extraordinary spiritual quality and inspired power that is embodied in its words and in the miracle that occasioned its original recitation.

This has led me to ruminate about the function of song or poetry in Jewish religious life (both these terms are rendered by the same Hebrew word shirah). What is so distinctive about the texts in the Bible that were designated as "songs"? Now that we no longer require the external forms of rhyme, meter and other technical features that used to distinguish poetry from prose, it is hard to define what it is that makes poetry a special form of human expression in English literature. True, biblical poetry has its own external structures--such as parallelism and the graphic spacing of the stanzas--but I cannot believe that these are what constitute the special essence of poetry, the supreme spiritual power that finds unique expression only on rare occasions like the miracle at the Red Sea.

Before dealing to this weighty question, I would like to digress a bit, to a well-known exegetical difficulty that relates to the narrative context of the Song at the Sea, as understood by the ancient rabbis.

A favourite quotation from the Talmud that we like to invoke as evidence for the Torah's universalistic and compassionate outlooks is the tradition about how the angelic choirs were ready to burst into their songs of praise at the time of the miraculous parting of the Red Sea--but the Holy One stopped them, scolding them with the words "My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to recite songs!"

The proof-text for this tradition is Exodus 14:19-20: "Then the angel of God who went before the host of Israel moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness; and the night passed without one coming near the other all night."

The closing Hebrew words of the passage, ve-lo qarav ze el ze kol hallaylah, refer according to the literal sense of the passage, to the distance between the Israelite and Egyptian camps. However, to the sensitive midrashic ear, it recalls the prophet Isaiah's vision of the celestial angels (6:3): "And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory"--in Hebrew: "ve-qara ze el ze ve-'amar." It was this verbal similarity that inspired the association with angelic choirs.

There is something about the interpretation that is not altogether convincing. After all, if we are really so upset by the deaths of the Egyptians, then we should never have been allowed to to recite the magnificent song of thanksgiving that speaks so graphically and joyfully of the drowning of Pharoh's hosts. And yet, not only was the song awarded a disginguished place in the Torah, but it was incorporated into our daily prayers. It is recited in full every morning before the Sh'ma, and verses from it form the basis for the "Redemption" blessings of the morning and evening services.

Whom do we think we are kidding? Our distress over the fall of our enemies does not seem sincere enough to prevent us from singing about it three times a day.

This question was posed by some of the traditional Jewish commentators. One way to solve the contradiction is by pointing to the decisive differences between the situations of the angels and of the Israelites. It was the angels' singing that God refused to hear. For after all, what did angels have to sing about on that occasion? They had never experienced liberation or salvation. They had not suffered the tribulations of exile or the pain and humiliation of enslavement. The song that they would be singing would not be an outpouring of joyous gratitude for being delivered from peril or suffering, but only a vindictive gloating over the crushing defeat of the Egyptians. That kind of song was inappropriate, and had to be silenced.

The Israelites, on the other hand, were celebrating their own rescue from slavery and from death. That was a fitting occasion to sing the praises of the Lord, and therefore they were allowed to sing. This, according to some exegetes, is the significance of the words (Exodus 15:2) "The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation"--implying: I sing for my salvation, not for the defeat of my enemy.

The preceding discussion suggests an important clue in our quest for the essence of biblical poetry: A song is not separable from the singer. It is so deeply personal that what are ostensibly the same words will have a totally different significance for an angel and for a mortal Jew, for an individual and for a nation. Jewish traditions generally allows that much of our discourse should be neutral and objective, so that the personalities and biases of the readers and discussants cannot affect the content. What we speak or read in prose exists as an object outside of ourselves. This objectivity holds true for halakhic discourse, in which every opinion must be defended according to rigidly argued logic and proof-texts. In the rabbinic depictions of the "Heavenly Academy," the Almighty himslef must conform to the same rules of rational debate as he and his heavenly entourage discuss the fine points of talmudic law with human scholars. The patriarch Abraham established the precedent for objective standards of justice when he challenged his Creator "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right!" (Genesis 18:25).

Authentic song, on the other hand, is inextricably tied to our deepest being. If the act of singing does not affect and transform us, then it does not qualify as true song--even though it might possess all the external trappings of rhyme, meter and imagery.

This observation is not limited to the Song of Moses or to the poems that are recorded in the Bible. The familiar prayers that make up Jewish liturgy are also crafted as poems, and our sages in the midrash depicted the Israelites at the Red Sea as singing their song in the same manner as the recitation of the Shema or the Hallel in the synagogue. Accordingly, the rabbis of the Talmud insisted that the experience of prayer should not be reduced to a mechanical mouthing of words. They teach us that those who treat their prayers as a fixed routine are not participating in true supplication, and require that we always try insert something fresh in our prayers. I do not delude myself into thinking that this is a goal that we can achieve every time we recite the mandatory services--but we should not allow oursleves to lose sight of the ideal: Prayer is a form of song, and that means that it is not being done properly if we are not personally affected or transformed by the experience.

When we are realizing our true spiritual potential, we are not only singing the song, but the song should be singing us.

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*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, February 11, 2006 .