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In Search of Happiness Through the Parsha of Beshalach

Published on Friday February 26th, 2021

Happiness is a powerful feeling, awakening emotions concealed in the hearts of men and allowing them to experience a form of inner contentedness.

Happiness may be experienced personally or collectively. However, it invariably reveals an inner struggle inherent to human beings: how to express or communicate what we feel?

The limitations of speech are known to all. They condemn a man to use a vocabulary which has lost its impact and has been so adulterated it expresses but an echo of its original intent. This may be due to overuse. People use similar words to convey realities that differ vastly. How can I express my feelings in words, using expressions which risk freezing and numbing my emotions or convey them in fragile terms?

Despite the above, speech is the noblest of human qualities. It distinguishes man from animals and allows him to communicate and establish rapport with his fellow men. Speech is also one of the privileged vectors allowing us to cultivate a relationship with God through prayer.

This week’s Parsha reminds us of the wonders of speech and suggests song as a way to overcome the banality of words. Engulfed by intense emotions and feelings of gratitude, Moshe and all the People broke spontaneously into a song, which emerged from their mouths, not in worded expressions of gratitude but in a tune, accompanied by these well-known words "Az Yashir Moshe ".

Similarly, Myriam, the prophetess, Moshe’s sister, followed by the women, sparked a song of gratitude and emotion to Hashem. And Rashi points out that when they began to sing this song, the Bnei Israel were immediately inspired by Myriam’s prophetic inspiration and the same words spontaneously came out of their mouths!

And indeed, in the Jewish tradition, the song embodies a specific grandeur, giving incomparable impact to the words carried by a melody. Likewise, the founding moments of our history, as well as their prophetic inspiration are regularly associated with the song.

Our Haftarah evokes the song sung by Deborah and Barack following the miraculous victory against Sisera. We may also quote the prophet Elisha who requested music to awaken his prophetic spirit; or King David, whose music soothed King Shaul, and whose famous Tehillim have accompanied the prayers of our people in song for eternity.

Singing awakens a multiplicity of emotions and a diversity of meaning relevant to man. Whenever speech freezes the meaning of words, song frees their flight, strengthening them beyond meaning and awakening the hearts of men to experience renewed feelings, leading spontaneously towards "spiritual" longing and desire. The author of the Tanya, the Admor Hazaken, offered a wonderful formula: "A word is like the pen of the heart, but the song is like the pen of the soul".

To understand the distinction between speech and song, the Chassidic tradition suggests two movements: one ascending and one descending. Words allow a man to move from abstract thought and materialize his thoughts in speech. This is a descending movement. Conversely, singing prompts man to pour out his soul and express a desire for closeness with the Creator of the world, and raise his feelings towards the Almighty.

We refer to our text to understand how song produces this elevation of spirit. Indeed, Rashi explains why Moshe’s song is introduced by the future tense ("Az Yashir ... - Then, he will sing ..."). Rashi reveals that this future tense expresses Moshe and the people’s intention and ardent desire to praise God, whereby they can be free of the traditional limitations of speech. And, quite naturally, a song is brought forth.

During the founding moments of our collective and individual history, man feels the compelling need to expand the material limits of his existence; he aspires to embrace more than the present moment, to express more than prosaic words can allow. Singing and poetry allow him to free himself from the material constraints of human finitude, to transform a providential approach to history beyond the event, and to reconnect with his soul’s pristine source.

Song has an additional quality as it is part of a melody that connects the notes to each other, making it possible to perceive harmony as opposed to a cacophony, beyond the agglomeration of musical notes. Wherever spirit and rational thought isolate and segment, music and song bring together the past, the present, and the future in an integrated single movement.

Thus, this desire to unite and give meaning, this hope to feel universal harmony at the hands of the Almighty behind isolated events of everyday life is the fabric of our tradition and the ambition of our faith. As Rav Jonathan Sacks said: "Faith teaches us to hear the music behind the noise.”

How can I not conclude with the words of King David, who made the song the essential vector of prayer: "The heavens tell the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of His hands”. Intellectual discourses and redundant wordings are seldom really heard. Yet music spreads all over the earth, and its lyrics travel to the end of the universe”. (Tehillim 19)

Poetry, song, and music single out the words of men and fly them to the Almighty.

Shabbat Shalom!

Jérome TOUBOUL - © Torah-Box Account

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