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Parashat Beshalah

February 2, 2012

By Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath

There were no auditions!! There were no judges!! That’s right. You heard it here first. When Moses and the Israelites sang on the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:1) and when Miriam and all the women danced with hand-drums (Exodus 15:20) no leader said, “why don’t you just mouth the words,” or “why don’t you stand there and hold up the scenery.” No Israelite man or woman said, “I’ll just sit here quietly, I don’t know the words, I don’t know the steps, you take my part.” Moses and Miriam didn’t say, “we need producers, we need a studio, we need electronics, we need editing, gotta get this right!!” Moses and Miriam and the Israelites – together – raised their voices and moved their bodies in thanksgiving and praise.

We’re often shamed into silence. My college freshman voice teacher told me, “no one will ever pay to hear you sing!” Friends, family, colleagues and congregants – even most people I might stop on the street – can tell me of an instance where someone in charge of solo or group vocal music-making told them that they should sing softly, or not at all. Or, if they happened to have a “good” voice, they were told to sing heartily, to drown out the “bad” singers.

We often need absolute privacy before we move a muscle, before we try to dance with enthusiasm. One saving grace of my eighth and ninth grade adolescence came in the form of the beach on Sullivan’s Island, SC, just a quarter of a block from our home. I reveled in the safety of the beach’s winter emptiness and danced with abandon, certain no one watched. It was still a time when my internal judge and jury had not developed into the critic it can now be in my adult life.

Our adult internal critics often tell us that we’ll never measure up, that we’ll never sound as good or dance as well as the professionals. Our productions – individual or communal – will never be as slick, as expensive, as “wow” as those instantaneously accessible in all the electronic media. Should we forget that we’re not good enough, we’re reminded of it when we watch the auditions for television singing and dancing competitions, see someone who, like us, doesn’t “measure up” and gets lambasted for it. Far be it from us to put ourselves in any position where we might be judged and found wanting. No thank you, we’ll just sit here, be quiet, and let the more talented sing and dance for us.

What are we modern-day Israelites to do when we want to raise our voices and move our bodies in thanksgiving and praise of our hard-won freedoms?

I think we already know the answer and we have to make time for it to be realized. We have to get out of the safety of our individuality and join other Jews. We have to find and/or build communities where there can be a “spontaneous Jewish choir” – a group building its own sound without electronics. A group sitting close together, hearing one another, not separate and apart. A group that learns to feel the music, to feel the rhythm, to feel the thanksgiving in the words and the beat – and then express it communally. (See Joey Weisenberg, Building Singing Communities: A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer, p. 10)

Start or begin again on this Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. Join with others, don’t sit quietly, do your best with the words, learn the steps and take your part. There are wonderful Moses’s and Miriam’s waiting in synagogues and havurot.

Discover the power to heal, power to help, power to connect, and power to praise that come from holy music-making and movement. You won’t find a CD, DVD, TV program, YouTube video, or app for it. No audition. No judge. No shame. No overproduction. Find a community. Show up. Sing “Halleluyah” together, many voices and bodies as one, souls gathered praising God.


A member of both the Rhode Island and Massachusetts Boards of Rabbis, Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath is the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Achim and the Jewish Community House – a 100-year-old progressive, independent congregation in the heart of Taunton, Mass.