Torah from Around the World #49

By: Rabbi Danny Burkeman, Associate Rabbi,

West London Synagogue

, London, UK

“From Miriam to Debbie”

Music has a tremendous power to move us emotionally and
to bring memories and feelings flooding back. The


of Debbie
Friedman z”l has that power over me. No matter where I hear it and in what
context, if I close my eyes, I am sitting in a field, somewhere in Britain, on
an RSY-Netzer (Shemesh) summer camp. I’ve sung this prayer all over the world,
but it always transports me back to Shemesh, and the wonderful weeks of summer
spent with friends.

The music that accompanies our prayers has a special
power both for us, and, according to Hasidism, for God. According to Rabbi
Shneur Zalman of Liady: ‘There are gates in heaven that cannot be opened except
by melody and song.’ When we sing our prayers, we don’t just elevate our own
souls, but we reach up to God in a way which words on their own can not.

In this week’s Torah portion we journey back to our
people’s original song; when the entire Israelite community united in song with
Moses and Miriam after the crossing of the Reed Sea. One can imagine the joy
which gripped the Israelites as they realised that they were truly free from
their Egyptian taskmasters. As the waters settled, the Israelites could believe
that the land of their oppression was finally behind them.

This was the moment of redemption from Egyptian slavery
and it was a moment to be remembered, and experienced, throughout the
generations. ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Adonai freed us from
Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.’

After reciting the


, both in the morning
and evening, we recite a prayer which asserts the truth of God’s sovereignty
and power. And in the midst of this prayer, as we remember our redemption and
delivery from Egypt we recite:

Mi chamocha baelim Adonai, mi kamocha
nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot oseh feleh

– ‘Adonai, who is like You
among the gods people worship! Who, like You, is majestic in holiness, awesome
in praise, working wonders!’ (Exodus 15:11).

When the Rabbis were developing our liturgy, they wanted
to make sure that twice a day we would transport ourselves in song to that time
when we first sang together the line of

Mi Chamocha

in praise
of God. Although this prayer is generally read, when we come to this line, in
almost every community with whom I’ve prayed, the congregation joins together
in song, just as we did the first time it was recited.

When we consider the communal power of song, I have
always been struck by the contrast between the song of Moses and the song of
Miriam. When Moses and the Israelites began their song, they started: ‘I will
sing to Adonai, for God has triumphed gloriously’ (Exodus 15:1). Despite the communal
nature of the entire community singing, each person sang as an individual,


I will sing. In contrast when Miriam began her song with the women she
responded: ‘Sing to Adonai, for God has triumphed gloriously’ (Exodus 15:21).
She called on all the women to join together, with the Hebrew word for ‘sing’,


the plural imperative form. This was not an individual prayer; this was a
communal prayer to be sung as a community.  This was Miriam’s moment. It
was at this point that Miriam assumed her position as a leader of the Israelite
community. She became our first song leader, the person who guided us and
supported us to give voice to the song of our hearts and the words of praise
for God.

This week, we lost our generation’s foremost song leader,
Debbie Friedman. She led a generation to sing, and through her music brought
people closer to Judaism and to God. She was a worthy heir to the legacy of
Miriam as she too helped us join together in song. They both helped people find
their voices so that they could join together in song and in prayer. And they
provided us with words and melodies to elevate our prayers and reach ever
closer to God. Debbie and Miriam both called us to

shiru l’Adonai

– to
sing unto God.

This Shabbat as we read Parashat Beshallach, when we come
to the Song at the Sea we will be asked to stand. As we stand in our synagogues
across the world, it will be as though we are once again standing on the banks
of the Sea of Reeds. The special melody for the Song at the Sea will further
help to transport us out of the synagogue to that moment of redemption. The
music will elevate us in that special way which only song can.

While the tradition asserts that we all experienced the
Exodus firsthand, none of us actually have personal memories from which to
draw. But on this Shabbat, we can remember our movement’s own spiritual leader,
our prophetess of song, Debbie Friedman, who helped us find our voices, to find
our melodies and to sing unto God; she helped lead us from silence to
song.  The Song at the Sea teaches us that music has a power which
survives long after the words and tunes were originally recited. Music is a special
gift that we receive, and on this Shabbat, we can celebrate the gift received
from Moses, from Miriam and from Debbie.

To read the World Union’s tribute about Debbie Friedman
z”l, please click


. To learn
more about Debbie and hear some of her work, please click



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