Singing against the darkness


“Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I’m afraid.” These Oscar Hammerstein lyrics from The King and I remind us of the power of a simple song. In those moments of fear, doubt, elation and ecstasy that are peppered throughout our life, song can provide the means to allow us to communicate our deepest and most hidden emotions.

Parashat Beshallach comes this week to teach us this very message. The “Song at the Sea” that Moses and all of Israel sing to God as they reflect upon their miraculous escape from Egypt is so profound that our rabbis gave this Shabbat a special name, “Shabbat Shirah,” the “Sabbath of Song.” In the midst of a season of melancholy, we pause and simply sing our praise to God.

The “Song at the Sea” is often associated with the victory, the rejoicing of the people as they look back upon the narrow escape from slavery and from the army of Pharoah that has just been decimated at their heels. As the bodies of the horses and chariots, and one can only assume, the soldiers as well, wash unceremoniously up upon the shores of the sea, Moses, Miriam and all of Israel burst into a nervous and then jubilant song. A well-known midrash reminds us that as the angels themselves burst into song, God scolds them, saying: “My creatures are drowning, and you sing songs of praise?!”

How quickly is our celebration reduced to humility and compassion for all living things.

Yet Beshallach may, in reality, be a different type of song. More than a song of war and victory, it may be the song of a small child in the dark, hesitantly singing to drive away the fear of the unknown, singing against the darkness itself. After all, there we were: A ragtag band of slaves suddenly free, civilization and comfort (albeit in slavery) left behind, with nothing but a wilderness lying before us. Why not sing? The only alternative was to cry and huddle in fear.

Life is like that sometimes. With choices come fears and challenges. Every step we make in a new direction leaves something behind and some unknown yet ahead. Hope and fear lay within our trembling hands … and so we sing, hesitantly at first, then with a bit more confidence, and finally, with the utter joy that reminds us that with God at the center, the path that lies ahead is filled with blessings.

Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth prepared this week’s Torah portion.