Some weeks ago, one of my b’nei mitzvahLit. Commandment. It is traditionally held that there are 613 mitzvot (plural) in Judaism, both postive commandments (mandating actions) and negative commandments (prohibiting actions). Mitzvah has also become colloquially assumed to mean the idea of a “good deed." students and I were reading the English for her HaftarahThe portion of the books of the prophets read on Shabbat after the Torah reading. The two usually have parallel themes. 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 getA writ of divorce. Traditionally, only a man can grant his wife a get. Liberal Jews have amended this tradition, making divorce more egalitarian. 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 shivaSeven-day mourning period following the funeral of a first-degree relative, during which time family members remain at home and receive visits of comfort. Other customs include abstinence from bathing and sex, covering mirrors, sitting lower than other visitors, and the lighting of a special memorial candle which burns for seven days., reciting the Mourner’s KaddishThe Aramaic memorial prayer for the dead. Mourners recite this prayer at every service, every day, in the presence of a minyan (prayer quorum) over the course of a year (for a parent) or thirty days (for a sibling or offspring). The prayer actually makes no mention of the dead, but rather prays for the sanctification and magnification of God's name., a prayer that celebrates life, when laying our loved ones to rest.
This coming ShabbatShabbat is the Sabbath day, the Day of Rest, and is observed from Friday night through Saturday night. Is set aside from the rest of the week both in honor of the fact that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. On Shabbat, many Jews observe prohibitions from various activities designated as work. Shabbat is traditionally observed with festive meals, wine, challah, prayers, the reading and studying of Torah, conjugal relations, family time, and time with friends., congregations across the globe will be reading Parashat Beshalach, which contains the Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, a poem that MosesThe quintessential Jewish leader who spoke face to face with God, unlike any other prophet, and who freed the people from Egypt, led them through the desert for forty years, and received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. His Hebrew name is Moshe. and the People of IsraelLit. ''the one who struggles with God.'' Israel means many things. It is first used with reference to Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel (Genesis 32:29), the one who struggles with God. Jacob's children, the Jewish people, become B'nai Israel, the children of Israel. The name also refers to the land of Israel and the State 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 MiriamMiriam is the sister of Miriam and Aaron. As Moses' and Aaron's sister she, according to midrash, prophesies Moses' role and helps secure it by watching over the young baby, seeing to it that Pharaoh's daughter takes him and that the baby is returned to his mother for nursing. During the Israelites' trek through the desert, a magical well given on her behalf travels with the Israelites, providing water, healing, and sustenance. 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 TorahThe Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general. 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 SinaiAccording to the Torah, God, in the presence of the Jewish people, gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai (Har Sinai). in Denver, Colorado.