As my voice rises with that of the cantor, I tell myself my enthusiasm more than makes up for my staggering lack of singing ability. Shul is the only public place where I will bust out song with abandon, disregarding the sidelong glances thrown my way. I am unabashedly loud, and also happiest, when worshipping through song.
In this week’s parshah, the righteous Miriam famously gathers the Hebrew women in song and dance to celebrate escape from the Egyptians. “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21). The late Debbie Friedman rendered this moment in her own track. “Miriam’s Song” is on regular rotation during the “Rock Shabbat” services staged by my local Reform Temple, a favorite of both adults and children.
Most of the music in which we engage during services, however, is prayer. It is praise, it is gratitude, and it is supplication. Whether Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Orthodox or Renewal, the prayers are largely the same. Shalom Rav, Hashkiveinu, Lecha Dodi, and V’Shamru are familiar standards, though they may be delivered somewhat differently by each movement in our collective tradition. No High Holiday service is complete without Avinu Malkeinu and any Passover Seder would surely fall flat without the inclusion of Dayenu. Communication with the divine encompasses innumerable languages, including music. Its power does not reside in literal, linear understanding, but rather its ability to foster a certain feeling within and around us. I know I am not the only Jew who can sing a perfect Yismechu without being able to translate what any of those beautiful words actually mean.
In addition to Miriam getting her groove on with her sisters, Parshah Beshalach also includes a lyric poem that gives us the Mi Chamocha prayer of our modern day services. I have participated in slow, sonorous versions, as well as riotously joyful renditions and have felt the tones fill me with awe, deep appreciation and peace. Our tradition tells us that it is this song the Israelites sang after emerging safe from the Sea of Reeds. It begins with the somewhat rhetorical question, “Who is like you, Oh God, among the gods who are worshipped?”
Music is contextual in my life. What I listen to in the gym is quite different than what I put on when making dinner which is certainly not the same as my getting-ready-for-work playlist or the road trip compilations capable of fueling hours of driving. For spiritual purposes, I prefer our Hebrew prayers. Some I find comforting, others electrifying. All rouse within me a sense of connection to something greater than myself. For me, they also feel like home.
This is not true of all Jews, certainly. I know many for whom these prayers are simply something to sit through as we wait for the Mourner’s Kaddish to signal the end. Those I sit beside in Shul are often much quieter, participating by phrases, and sometimes taking the opportunity to whisper to their neighbor. This is ok. It can feel inherently meaningless to worship in a language other than our own, no matter its holy status. We may feel self-conscious exercising our vocals in front of strangers or friends. Perhaps it’s altogether just uncomfortable. Some find divine connection through the sermon or the oneg. Others, in simply donning a kippah or tallit. And others still, in skipping services entirely and enjoying a Friday night cocktail with a friend. All means of connection are valid and one is not inherently better than another.
Our Torah reminds us that celebration, song and dance are inherently human behaviors. They may be individual but are more often communal – connecting us to one another as we connect with God. Today, we need not limit ourselves to the songs of the siddur. Holiness may be found in the music outside of synagogues and summer camps, as well. Certainly, Jews continue to make positive contributions to all areas of music. Maybe the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” can prove a compelling anthem for the story of the Maccabees. Perhaps we can hear “Raise Your Glass” by Pink and be reminded of Miriam and other outspoken women in our tradition. Personally, I can’t listen to Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” without thinking of our ancestors wandering the desert for 40 very long years.
We are fortunate to be Jews. We live within a tradition that continues to evolve through our sometimes intentional, but often unconscious, contributions. Our Jewish identities are not simply one small compartment of who we are, but a glorious container encompassing the totality of our lives. We breathe, we eat, we listen to music. When performed by Jews, these actions are inherently Jewish. It’s a beautiful phenomenon. The next time you update your Spotify playlist, take a moment to think of it in a Jewish context. What of our vast tradition does listening to your go-to Pandora station evoke? Test the possibility of connecting with God through Grooveshark. Who are you when you hear your favorite song? All music is potential connection and a reflection of our very personal Jewish journeys. Music is language, it is prayer, and it is life.