It Heals and Comforts to Sing a Song as a Community
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
Most of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, is written in prose, with the exception of a few passages which are written as songs. For example, we have the Song of the Sea in the book of Exodus (15:1- 16:21), the song of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy (31: 19-22), the song of the Prophetess Deborah in the book of Judges, several songs of King David in the book of Samuel, the book of the Song of Songs, and the numerous psalms which are also songs.
It means that the leaders, and the tradition in general, found different ways to transmit meaningful messages. One of the ways was through songs.
In this week’s parashah we can find an additional song, the Song of the Well in the wilderness:
“Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it— The well which the chieftains dug, Which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs. And from Midbar to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the country of Moab, at the peak of Pisgah, overlooking the wasteland.” (Numbers 21:17-19)
The people of Israel thanked God for the water of the well through a community song.
It is interesting to compare the Song of the Sea (Shirat Hayam) sang by Moses after the crossing of the Red Sea and this song. The Song of the Sea was led and sung by Moses and Miriam, the leaders of that time. It is written in the Talmud, Masechet Sotah, that the Song of the Sea was sung by the people responsively. That is, Moses said the first phrase, which the people said after him. He then proceeded to the second phrase, and the people echoed him. Moses was an authoritative leader, and the people were obedient followers. Moses was the active composer of the song, the choirmaster as it were, and the people were but the choir.
In contrast to the Song of the Sea, the Song of the Well was led and sung by the entire community together.
Maybe it is not a coincidence that we have, in this week’s parashah, this song sung by the whole community, while this portion simultaneously narrates the death of two of the great leaders from the time of the Exodus from Egypt until the wandering in the desert: Miriam and Aaron. Miriam dies and is buried (Numbers 20:1); Aaron too is “gathered unto his people” and is mourned (Numbers 20:28-29); and Moses learns that his leadership role will come to an end sooner than he had thought, before the people of Israel enter the Promised Land.
This week’s parashah describes a painful situation for the people of Israel and also a critical transition in the leadership. In some way, the Torah describes a story of transition, of the end of an era, of the passing of the mantle of leadership to a new generation.
In this time of pain, sadness and transition, the people sang a song together. Without a doubt, it heals and comforts to sing together as a community.
In this week’s Torah portion, the entire people sang as one. The song begins not “Then Moses sang this song,” but rather “Then Israel sang this song.” The leadership passes from one Divinely chosen charismatic leader to the people as a whole.
I believe that this song shows us the maturity, spiritual growth, and unity of the people of Israel. At the crossing of the sea, they couldn’t sing together. Only after a time of growth and maturity, could they sing as one.
May we be able to find our own songs throughout our lives – sing them, expressing our learning, our lessons and spiritual growth – and be able to sing them as a community.