I will sing to the Holy One, who has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea
The Holy One is my strength and my song
God has become my liberation. . .
Who is like unto You, among the gods that are worshipped?
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awe-inspiring, working wonders
(Exodus 15:1-2; 11)
When, precisely, did the Israelites sing these words from the Song at the Sea?
Most readings suggest that they constitute a victory song, offered after we pass successfully through the Sea of Reeds. We arrive safe on dry ground, watch the demise of Pharaoh and his hosts, then break into jubilant chanting. The biblical narrative points strongly toward this chronology: “Thus the Holy One delivered Israel from the Egyptians. And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Holy One had wielded against the Egyptians, they had faith in God, and God’s servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Holy One. . .”
Case closed, right?
Not so much.
Some of our tradition’s most important medieval commentators argue against this plain sense of the Torah text. Both Ramban and Seforno insist that the Israelites actually sang while in the middle of the crossing, while still walking through the Sea, 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. And this song is some words of expression, not just of jubilation, but of the human situation of being in the middle, of being full of fear, the sense of life and death in the balance, seeing what can happen to human beings all around them. And that there, but for the grace of God, go I. It's a song that human beings sing in the face of mortality.”
Why do these commentators offer this alternative chronology; why, for that matter, does the timing of the song even matter? I believe the answer lies in how we understand the power of music to carry us through our most challenging and fearful experiences. As Rabbi Yael Shy notes: “A liberation song sung from the middle of a terrifying place—from the dead center of a miracle nobody knows will end successfully—is a profoundly powerful song.”
Bernice Johnson Reagon would agree. She is a founding member of The Freedom Singers, a group of young African-American musicians that sang at countless civil rights gatherings and protests, including the 1963 March on Washington. Ms. Reagon says that for the 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.”
In 2010, Berniece Reagon and The Freedom Singers performed at the White House, as part of a concert celebrating the music of the civil rights movement. They sang the indomitable anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” which is based on an old spiritual. It serves the exact same purpose that our commentators ascribe to the Song at the Sea, strengthening the resolve of those who need all of the courage they can muster to remain steadfast on the road to freedom. Each verse names the obstacles—and denies them their power:
Ain’t gonna let no jailhouse turn me ‘round. . .
Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round. . .
Ain’t gonna let race hatred turn me ‘round. . .
One of the song’s great virtues is its nearly infinite adaptability: new threats can be added and sung away for any occasion.
Then, after each verse, comes the unwavering chorus, which echoes the rhythm of marching feet:
Aint’ gonna let nobody turn me ‘round
Turn me around, turn me ‘round
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round
I’m gonna keep on walking
Keep on talking
Marching up to freedom land
While we hope never to 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 bravely and boldly.
For a clip of The Freedom Singers performing “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” at the White House in 2010: