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March 23, 2006

The Shabbat of The Song
By Cantor Marcia Lane

Have you ever noticed that, when you fell in love, you fell in love with all

of your beloved? You fell in love with the shape of the face, with the
sound of the voice, even with the way your loved one walked. Believe
me, it’s that way with Torah, too. I fell in love with all of it: the
sound of Torah chanting, the content of the words and the concepts, how
they were juxtaposed phrase against phrase, and the very physicality of
the Torah scroll. I love the way you can look at each scroll and admire
the handwriting of the sofer who wrote it. And I completely love The Song.

On February 18th we will read Parashat Beshalah, which includes the Song at the Sea. For that reason this Shabbat is named Shabbat Shirah‘the
Shabbat of Song. This is only the second time that the word for song
has been used in the Torah. The first was when Laban rebukes Jacob for
stealing away with Laban’s daughters ‘when I would have sent you off
with joy and music . . . and with songs.’ Except for
that one comment, the word ‘song’ has never been used.

For most of us a Torah reading is just that; it’s read to us. But for the readers of Torah this is an exceptional parashah.
In visual layout and in content it is strikingly beautiful. The image
of that column of the Torah is the actual visual depiction of the
parting of the Sea of Reeds, with the Israelites crossing between the
walls of water. It is, perhaps, the first example of calligraphic art
representing an actual scene.

The shape of the song is called ‘brick on brick.’ That is, three
short phrases are positioned over two short phrases, and on and on,
like this:

I shall sing to God, for He is great; Horse and rider
He has swept into the sea. God is my strength and my joy
And He shall be for me my deliverance. This is my God!

So if you squint your eyes, and use a little imagination, you could
picture the words looking like two walls of water, with the Israelites
marching up the center! With the exception of Parashat Ha’azinu,
which is laid out in two small columns with a clear separation between
the two, there is no other long passage in the Torah that is so clearly
poetic in form and structure.

In the content of its words, the Song at the Sea is also impressive. It
contains several phrases that we have taken into our daily liturgy:

Mi khamokha ba’elim Adonai? Who is like You among the ‘gods’ Adonai?
Mi kamocha ne`edar ba kodesh? Who is like You, glorious in holiness?
Nora tehillot, oseh fele’, Awesome in splendor, doing wonders!


Ozi v’zimrat Yah, Yah is my strength and my joy
Va-y’hi li li-shu`ah, And He has been my deliverance.

There is another reason to love this parashah. In a trick of verbal ambiguity the poem begins with the words, ‘Moshe and the people Israel sang this song: ‘I shall sing . . . .” But at the end of the song we have this passage:

Then Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took her
timbrel in her hand and the all women followed her in dance with
timbrels. And Miriam sang for them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for He is great,
horse and rider He has swept into the sea.’

Miriam uses the tzivui‘command’form of the verb. She commands b’nai Yisrael‘the children of Israel”Sing!’

So one question might be, who sings first, Moshe and the mass of
people, or Miriam the prophetess? We have a rabbinic concept that there
is no ‘before’ or ‘after’ in the Torah. That is, the chronology of
events may not follow how the text is presented to us. So who sings

I have always thought that the preponderance of evidence is on the side of Miriam. For one thing she is specifically called n’viah”the prophetess.’ Another word for prophet is hozah‘seer. This word relates also to the word for a cantor’hazzan‘one who can see ahead, who knows the next prayer.

And Miriam and the women brought timbrels! Drums! When you are
fleeing for your life, who thinks to bring a drum? The only reason to
bring a musical instrument is if you believe in the deepest part of
your soul that there’s going to be a reason to rejoice. Who anticipates
rejoicing? Miriam and the women. So it stands to reason that she would
have the presence of mind to sing, and even to command b’nai Yisrael,
to join her in praising God in song’something they’ve never (in the
text of the Torah) done before. Also, logically, how could Moshe, who
up to this time was still expressing himself through the intermediary
of his brother Aaron, compose such eloquent praise? Or how can a great
mass of people improvise such a glorious piece of poetry? The answer
is: a single talented and inspired individual composes and the kahal‘the congregation’repeats the words.

Perhaps the ordination of women as cantors’hazzanim‘actually happened rather earlier than the 1970s.