What is the essence of song in the Torah?
Writing about a song is a bit like the comedy routine of the mime who wouldn’t stop narrating his own actions, or the great playwrite who, when asked his intentions in a certain play, replied that if he were capable of explaining he would not have had to write the play! In pedestrian life we speak in prose such as “how was your day?”, “what’s for dinner?” or “there’s a phone call for you!” etc.
When is song expressed? Imagine an individual who has just learned that his Lotto ticket was the $80,000,000.00 winner. When he calls home to his wife will he express himself in prose or poetry? Will he say “dear, we won the Lotto today!”? To this she’ll reply “and I made your favorite eggplant Parmesan for dinner tonight”. “It was $80,000,000.00 dear” he’d insist, and she’d calmly wish him a safe trip home from the office.
Who would imagine that style of dialogue!? More likely he would begin with some stuttering to hold back the sudden cascade of emotion. At once he would blurt out almost incomprehensible combinations of words, that could only and be understood by those who knew the true context. After years of financial struggle and hardship, the wildest fancy has come true. Those standing nearby will surely discern that something wondrous has occurred. “dear, it happened…I can’t believe it..80 big ones and it’s all ours…all ours…just what you hoped…just what we dreamed …and now…now…where do we begin?..how can we begin to ever?…oh my G-d, I can’t believe it ….$80,000,000.00!!” His wife would probably join in echoing some refrain from his spontaneous burst of original poetry, repeating “where do we begin?…how do we begin?…ad infinitum…ad absurdium.
What is song? Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch defines it as “an inspired or rapturous expression of what some external event has revealed to the inner self, that which the physical eye can not see, but what has become clear to the mind’s eye”.
Perhaps this helps to explain why “The Song” of the Jewish nation by the sea is written in a block form with intermittent open spaces. Sometimes the silence of what is not said is often more profound than what is actually expressed. The “bank account” of emotions and ideas is an ocean compared to the few drops of ink scrawled on the tiny “check”. When the inner world of feelings swells beyond what the mouth can express, the result is potentially…song.
What was the depth of emotion which expressed itself as the Song at the Sea? What was revealed to the inner-self in the collective soul of the Jewish Nation?
There is a controversy recorded in the Talmud regarding the scriptural book “Song of Songs”, written by King Solomon. There were those who did not want to include it in the scriptures because its content can be misunderstood. The book is an analogy of the love between G-d and the Jewish People in terms of the love between man and woman. The Talmud quotes the great Rabbi Akiva who spoke in defense of the inherent holiness of King Solomon’s “Song of Songs”. He said that all of “the writings” are holy and “Song of Songs” is the holy of holies.
The Torah is filled with many harsh rebukes and criticisms of the Jewish people and it’s leaders. We are called a “stiff necked” people, and almost no one, not even Moshe escapes sharp and scathing criticism for a seemingly slight error. One might wrongly conclude, that somehow we are the least-favored nation in the A-lmighty’s world. King David reminds us in his book of Psalms: “Praiseworthy is the man whom G-d disciplines etc.” The superficial appearance is that the one who is haunted with difficulty and criticism is despised. That is the superficial mask. What is the heart of the matter, however? The Song of Songs tells us that an intense love exists deep down. The caring teacher drives the promising student to fulfill his or her potential. Loving parents correct their child’s imperfections for the sake of the child. More love is contained on the inside than can ever be understood by those who do not see the true context.”Song of Songs” is the expression of the inner world of feelings between G-d and the Jews. It is the world behind the mask. That is what makes it “Holy of Holies”.
The Jewish nation stood by the Sea of Reeds in the surprising repose of safety, only a short time earlier escaping for dear life. They expressed in exalted song their clearest cognition that the pain and suffering of the Egyptian exile was truly not punitive, but in fact, rehabilitative. The dawning recognition of divine love instantly eclipsed 210 years of physical and spiritual privation. This resulted in spontaneous song. This is the essence of the song in the heart of hearts of the Torah!
We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of this week’s Dvar Torah by Rabbi Label Lam, of FOUNDATIONS for Jewish Learning Monsey, N.Y. 10952 Phone: 914-352-0111 or 800-700-9577. Fax-914-352-0305,
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Label Lam and Project Genesis, Inc.