In this week’s Torah portion (Beshalach), the children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds. Upon experiencing that miracle, Torah tells us, three things happened: 1) they felt yir’ah, awe, and 2) they felt emunah, faith and trust, and 3) they broke into shirah, song. (And for me, the Torah is always both about what happened to “them” back “then,” and also about us here and now: our journey, our spiritual lives, our emotional possibilities.) Some of the words they sang found their way into daily Jewish liturgy:
מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהֹוָ֔’’ה? מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ, נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת, עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃
Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai? Mi camocha nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot, oseh feleh!
Who is like You, God — majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, Worker of Wonders?
And when we sing these words each day, we’re called to remember. To remember the miracle of the redemption from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea. Take apart the English word remember and you get re/member — to experience memory in the body; to re-inhabit lived experience. Singing Mi Chamocha is an opportunity to re-member liberation. To experience it again. To feel it in our bodies. To cultivate our sense of awe and trust, and from those emotions, to joyously sing.
The daily liturgy specifically mentions joy. “They answered You [and so we too answer You] with song, with great joy!” As the psalmist wrote — the words that are inscribed over our sanctuary doors and over our ark — “Serve the One with joy, come before God with gladness.” (Psalm 100:2) Once we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, but once we emerged through the sea we became servants of the Most High. Slave or servant: the same word — עבד / eved — but the emotional valance is completely different.
Torah tells us that while we were in slavery, we experienced קוצר רוח/ kotzer ruach: constriction of spirit / shortness of breath, both physical and spiritual. Without breath, without spirit, it’s hard to sing. And I want to acknowledge the fact that sometimes genuine joy is hard to come by. Sometimes life’s constrictions — depression, or grief, or loss — steal our breath and our song. Pretending otherwise would be spiritual bypassing, using spiritual life to pretend that everything’s okay when it’s really not.
And. Every day our liturgy gives us the opportunity to remember — to really re/member — awe and trust and song. The Hasidic teacher known as the Sfat Emet writes that thanks to our faith and trust the Shechinah (God’s own Presence) came to dwell within us, and our faith purified our hearts and then we were able to sing. He goes on to say: in fact that’s the whole reason we were created in this world in the first place: to bear witness to life’s miracles, to be redeemed from constriction, and to sing.
I want to say that again, because it’s so radical. The whole reason we were created is to notice life’s miracles, to be redeemed from life’s narrow places, and to sing. “Everyone else has a purpose, so what’s mine?” The Sfat Emet says: awe, and liberation, and song. Our purpose isn’t to get promoted, or to climb the social ladder, or to rack up accomplishments. “If you want to sing out, sing out; if you want to be free, be free!” Our tradition says: the experience of freedom will naturally lead us to song.
Our daily liturgy reminds us of the Exodus. We remember it again in the Friday night kiddush, which tells us that Shabbat is a remembrance both of creation and of the Exodus from Egypt. Shabbat exists to help us re/member our liberation. Today we’re freed from the workday, the weekday, ordinary labors, ordinary time. Today we can bask in a sense of awe and wonder: “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now!” And from that place of wonder, how can we keep from singing?
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Congregation Beth Israel during Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) She adds: “It echoes the themes in Answering With Joy by Rabbi David Markus. Each week he and I study the Sfat Emet together with our fellow builders at Bayit, so maybe it’s not surprising that this week our divrei Torah are quite parallel!”
Art by Yomam Ranaan.