“Singing together helps people through very difficult times.”
Last week, I heard these words on an NPR podcast called “Singing the Revolution.” They came from Stuart Stotts, author of We Shall Overcome: A Song that Changed the World. Mr. Stotts argues that the civil rights movement might not have succeeded without the benefit of music, which fed the activists’ hearts and souls. Bernice Johnson Reagon-- daughter of a Baptist minister and founder of the a cappella group “Sweet Honey in the Rock”—agrees. She says that for the African-American demonstrators who risked their lives facing down brutal white supremacists, singing the songs of the black church conferred upon the people a collective conjured strength. The music created a kind of protective barrier between the demonstrators and the police, allowing the marchers to move beyond their fear. As Ms. Reagon describes it: “Those songs do something to the material that you’re made of. The singing connects you with a force in the universe that makes you different. You become part of a community. And then they can’t get to you.”
This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, suggests that much the same dynamic worked for our ancestors at the shores of the Red Sea. While the text seems to point to the people singing the famous “Song at the Sea” only after they successfully passed through the waters, some of our most important commentators argue otherwise. Both Ramban and Seforno insist that the people actually sang while in the middle of the crossing, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. In other words, as Aviva Zornberg notes, the anxiety of the moment is the engine that drives the song: “The meeting of terror and joy, destruction and birth, takes the people beyond the normal places of speech.”
While we, thankfully, may never find ourselves pursued by either a vast army or racists bent on our destruction, we all face moments when it feels impossible to move forward, when we are paralyzed by fear. During those times, both Torah and history teach us that we may find faith and courage in music, especially when it is sung and celebrated in the company of good companions. When we know that we are not alone, when we share the blessing of song, we embolden ourselves and gird our faith to go on. This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shira—the Sabbath of Song. May we find the songs—and the fellow singers—that we need to face life’s challenges with courage.