Our Parsha this week, Beshallach, contains what is known as שירת הים/The Song of the Sea, which Moses, Miriam, and the people of Israel sang after they successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds and watched as their Egyptian taskmasters and pursuers were defeated by God. Noting the soaring language, expressions of God’s saving power and providence, as well as the way the entire people sing the song, Professor Stephen Geller of JTS, refers to The Song of the Sea as the National Anthem of B’nai Yisrael.
The ancient Rabbis ask a very practical question about this ‘national anthem.’ When the verse states “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord,” (Ex. 15:1) how exactly did they sing it? The song is rather lengthy, and the Torah describes it as having been spontaneously composed, so how is it possible that the people and the leaders sang the same song, together, without it falling into a dissonant mess?
The debate in the Talmud lists out a few possible options:
Moses taught Israel one refrain, and they repeated that same refrain after every new verse Moses added: (AA,BA,CA,DA, etc.)
Moses led Israel in a call and response format, where they repeated whatever he sang (AA, BB, CC, DD, etc.)
Moses started singing, the people repeated the first verse, and then they spontaneously sang the rest of the song together (AA, B, C, D, etc.)
The Rabbis leave us guessing as to the exact way the song was sung, but their question and answers provide an important framework for thinking about song and prayer. How should we sing and pray we sing together with our prayer leaders, repeat a particular chorus, repeat after them, or let the melodies wash over us?
While there are certainly times to let the experience of musicianship and melody guide us without participation, the Rabbis of the Talmud believed that when it comes to the most important of songs and prayers, like the biblical national anthem, our participation is necessary. Even when we think we don’t know the words or the tune, our job is to try to sing together. By participating with the Cantor or service leader we add our voice to the chorus of praise and joy of our services.
More importantly, by joining in we begin to learn the words, tunes, and feelings that make prayer and song so powerful.
So however you like to sing, whether with spontaneous poetry, a repeating chorus, or call and response, on a weeknight, shabbat morning or Friday night, please add your voice to our spirited, uplifting, and song-filled tefilot.