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Music to the Tune of Judaism – A Lesson from the Song at the Sea

With Parshat Beshalach this week, how could we not present an explanation on the Shirat Hayam? We’ll return to our regularly scheduled exploration of music next week. :-)

The Song at the Sea has many angles of study that are absolutely fascinating. On of the interesting medrashim on this incredible national experience of music is a Gemara in Tractate Sotah, which recounts the following three way discussion:

The question is, what is the meaning of the term “leimor”, i.e. “saying”,  after the Torah already told us “Az yashir”, “then they sang”? So we have three different opinions.

Rabbi Akiva explains that they sang it as an adult would read the Hallel, to fulfill others’ obligation. This means that Moshe sang it, and the people responded with singing simply the chorus, “I will sing to Hashem,” and nothing more.

Rabbi Eliezer states that they sang it as a child who reads the Hallel, in which everyone repeats it line by line from him. So Moshe sang, and the people repeated each phrase exactly as he said it.

Rabbi Nechemia has a totally different take – he says that it was sung as a Chazan who begins Shema, and then everyone reads it together. He says that Moshe began the song by singing Ashira LaHashem (I will sing to Hashem), and then the entire Jewish people simultaneously composed and sang that song together – including babies in their mothers’ wombs!

One of the truly beautiful ideas taken from this machloket is that in reality, these three sages were disagreeing about the essence of leadership and the unity that one can attain through leadership.

For Rabbi Akiva, the leader’s job is to be the active producer, and the job of the followers is to support their leader. This support doesn’t necessarily need to be that active; as long as the job is getting done and things are being accomplished. The people express their unity in their support of the leader.

To the contrary; Rabbi Eliezer declares! A true leader must show the people what to do, and the people are unified in doing it together.

And then Rabbi Nechemia comes with a completely new idea of leadership – the leader shows how things begin, and with his inspiration, the people develop the idea themselves and in total and absolute unity.

This last opinion shows how this experience was so pivotal that the Torah marks it as a template for what will happen when Moshiach comes. The Talmud in Sanhedrin uses this verse as one of the source texts for the resurrection of the dead. After all, the verse says “Then they will sing”. But when you consider the level of intense joy and utter unity, as well as complete dedication to a singular cause by an entire people, one can understand the relativity to the Messianic Era, when all humanity will sing as one.

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