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I Don’t Want to Sing Another Happy Song

Some weeks ago, one of my b’nei mitzvah students and I were reading the English for her Haftarah portion, Ezekiel. Together, we needed to select the verses she would be chanting for her bat mitzvah. When we finished reading out loud I asked her, “Are there any sections that you would like to read or, on the contrary, sections you would prefer not to read?” She paused for a moment and said, “I like verse 29 and 30,” which read:

“I will deliver you from all your impurities; I will summon the grain and make it abundant; I will not bring famine on you. I will make the fruit of the trees and the crops of the fields abound, so that never again shall you be disgraced…”

And then she continued, “And I think 31 and 32 need to be included.”

”Then you shall remember your evil ways, your dealings that were not good, and you shall loathe yourselves for your iniquities and abominable deeds.”

And that is only verse 31… You get the picture.

My student, with absolute conviction, had arrived at a rather deep and Jewish idea: there is a certain rhythm and cycle in which everything belongs, everything is comprehended. Happiness calls for sadness, love for teshuvah, life demands death. We are reminded of this when we break the glass in a wedding ceremony, remembering destruction in a moment of pure construction. We are also reminded of this sense of unity at funerals and when we sit shiva, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that celebrates life, when laying our loved ones to rest.

This coming Shabbat, congregations across the globe will be reading Parashat Beshalach, which contains the Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, a poem that Moses and the People of Israel sang when they were liberated from Egypt, and after they were able to cross the Sea of Reeds. It contains words that we read and sing during all our worship experiences, the Mi Hamokha prayer, our prayer for redemption:

“Who is like You, Eternal One, among the celestials;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in splendor, working wonders!” (Exodus 15:11)

And then, immediately upon the poem’s conclusion, we find the following words:

“Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums” (Exodus 15:20).

Some point to these words as the foundation for our practice of communal singing and praying. There is a song, instruments, and dance; there is coming together, triumph, joy and celebration. Think the final scene of the “Prince of Egypt,” the animated movie from 1998. Or Adon Olam, sung by Cantor Azi Schwartz to the tune of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton tune “You’ll Be Back.” These, and many others, are true expressions of the spirit of those lines in this Torah portion. I have watched the movie, and I’ve sung that melody while leading services in years past,  but on this particular Shabbat Shira, the first Sabbath of Song of this pandemic (and hopefully, the last) these words cut through me in a completely different way. I do not feel like dancing or picking up my tambourine. And while the path toward redemption in this era seems to open up for us once more, the journey appears long, and I’m feeling tired. Moreover, I confess, I don’t want to sing another happy and uplifting song. And so I wonder, as my student has taught me to ask, what else is to this Torah portion, to this liturgical piece, to this Song Of Songs? Could there possibly be room for something other than joy and triumph? Exodus itself may offer a clue:

“Thus the Eternal delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw  the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Eternal  had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Eternal: they had faith in the Eternal and in God’s servant Moses” (Exodus 14:30–31).

In these words I hear exhaustion, fear, wonder, and faith. With these words, I see the elders and the sick unable to continue walking, but I also see men and women coming to their rescue. I see children being carried by their parents, in the way only parents with aching arms know how to carry their babies without ever letting them fall. I see courage even in the face of the unknown. And while this is less Hollywood, it brings me comfort. These sentiments allow the text to be complex, rich and deep.

On this particular Shabbat Shirah, I’m reminded that whether I have the strength to pick up a tambourine, to dance and make a happy sound, or the courage to make room for exhaustion and fear, I can still sing the Song of Redemption.

Sheila Nesis is a singer, songwriter, and cantor born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 2007, Sheila was invited to join the clergy at one of Manhattan’s Upper East Side synagogues, and she made the move to NYC. Prior to that, Sheila toured the United States performing a repertoire that included liturgical Jewish music, tangos and boleros, ladino songs, and jazz of the 1930s and ’40s. She is currently Cantor at Temple Sinai in Denver, Colorado.

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