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Parashat Beshalach 5777: The power of music

Bob Marley used to say “something good about music: when it touches you, you stop feeling pain”. This refers to the amazing capability of music to influence our emotional and spiritual feelings. Music can touch something deep inside us. Melodies express complex ideas, sometimes even opposite ones. A song can soften our pain with happiness, but at the same time add nostalgic feelings. “When Israel saw the mighty deed that Hashem had performed against the Egyptians, the people feared Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in his servant Moshe. Then Moshe and the people of Israel sang this song to Hashem: “I will sing to Hashem, for he is highly exalted: the horse and its rider he threw in the sea”. And the following chapter is known as Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, a wonderful and inspiring piece celebrating the redemptive power of G’d. The rabbis discussed why Moshe chose that specific moment to sing. Rashi wrote that when Moshe saw this big miracle he felt the need to sing, he felt inspired. In this interpretation, this emotional expression of Moshe inspires the rest of Israel too and they joined Moshe in the singing. “Then Moshe and the people of Israel sang” in that specific order. On the other side, the Kli Yakar that lived in the 16th Century asks why didn’t Moshe sing after each one of the miracles that already happened. He writes that Moshe did not sing during the plagues because he knew that Israel didn’t have enough faith yet. Only when “they believed in Hashem and in his servant Moshe” then Moshe started singing. In this vision, the singing was not only inspired by the miracle, but as well by the faith that Israel developed. For Rashi the Song of the Sea and the inspiration for singing are a reaction to an external experience, singing expresses the excitement of the moment. We sing in order to express dormant feelings that we didn’t know exist there. The Kli Yakar sees the Song of the Sea as a result of an internal spiritual process, gives a voice to feelings that we already feel. Do we sing to be happy or are we happy because we sing?

In our lives these two approaches exist in music in general and in the music of our services in particular. The melodies of the services look to empower and give expression to internal feelings, as well as connecting us to feelings of closeness, awe and transcendence. The balance between change and tradition in our music should accomplish this feat in order to be effective. Music is memory and future at the same time.

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