The high point of the Torah portion of Beshallach comes in the famous scene of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. In a sign of their faith, the Jews escape the approaching chariots of Pharaoah by marching between the columns of water to safety on the other side. Once there, they sing Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, which has become part of the traditional daily liturgy.

The singing is a moment worth pausing over. Why do the Israelites sing? And what does their singing teach us?

The great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) wrote frequently about song. In one of his most beautiful passages, he writes of the “four-fold song” of the world, which is comprised of the song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, and the song of the world. In certain times, writes Rav Kook, these songs all come together. He describes the moment:

Together, they sing their songs with beauty, each one lends vitality and life to the other. They are sounds of joy and gladness, sounds of jubilation and celebration, sounds of ecstasy and holiness.

In his commentary on Beshallach, the commentator Ramban (1194-1270) notes that as they cried out to God before the sea parted, the Israelites were fractured–some prayed, some wept, some shouted. Yet on the other side, as the Torah would have it, they sang as one.

If we take the two ideas–of Rav Kook and Ramban–we perhaps can see the story a little differently. The song of the Israelites after they crossed the sea was not necessarily a monolithic song, without harmony or counterpoint. Perhaps, instead, they were just as multivocal as they had been before their crossing. Yet through their shared experience of survival and salvation, they emerged in song–a song united and yet diverse, elegant in its simplicity and powerful in its variety.

This isn’t a foreign notion to us. Though our society has sadly lost much of the tradition of group singing, whenever we do sing together–when we sing together well–we go through this kind of experience. When we sing as part of a group, our voice goes out and melds with the voices of others, and the totality of those voices comes back to us and resonates within us. We experience our individuality and our communality simultaneously. That is the power of song.

Jewish tradition bases the singing of Hallel, the special Psalms sung on holidays, on the Israelites’ experience at the Sea. Why sing Hallel on our holidays? Perhaps because on those days we are meant to experience the fulness and joyousness of our membership in the Jewish people, something we can only do together and which we most powerfully feel through song.

We don’t have to wait for holidays, however. Singing is a part of Shabbat, both in synagogue services and the zemirot sung at home. And singing can happen whenever we feel a moment of transcendence. As Rav Kook writes, our soul is always singing. On Shabbat, during holidays, and at moments we discover for ourselves, we simply amplify the song that’s already in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.

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