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Julia R. Cadrain
Shabbat Shirah (Parashat B’shalach)

Julia R. Cadrain  |  January 10, 2014

The Israelites journey to freedom was harrowing and frantic. We know from our re-telling of the story at our Passover seders, and from this week’s Torah portion B’shalach, that in their escape, there was not even enough time for their bread to rise, that they “took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” We can imagine them, grabbing whatever possessions they could carry, holding tight to their small children, doing their best to corral their livestock, and running for the red sea.

How is it then, that in all of this panic and fear and rush, that Miriam HaNeviah, Miriam the prophet, made it to the other side with a TIMBREL in her hand? We read that after crossing the sea Miriam picked up a timbrel (our best translation of this is hand drum) and all the women went out after her in dance. We can imagine something like a hand drum chorus – this group of women, dancing and singing and celebrating their freedom.

In all the hustle and bustle to leave, how did they manage to pack their timbrels, when there wasn’t even time for their dough to rise! Scholars and rabbis have wondered about this. One rabbinic teaching says that the presence of timbrels speaks to the women’s faith – they were so certain they that would be redeemed that they knew there would be cause for celebration, and thought to pack timbrels.

I think the presence of their timbrels speaks to their faith, yes, but also to the human, instinctive and almost involuntary need to SING. Before there was a music industry, before there were pop super stars, before there were pianos and guitars, people made music. Miriam knew that she and her people would reach freedom, and she knew that they would need to express their unspeakable joy and relief and wonder at this miracle through song and dance. Where words fail, music speaks.

Across the Jewish world, we have always embraced song as an integral and essential part of our worship and expression. Over time, the presence of music in our Jewish community has remained strong, while the music itself has evolved and changed to reflect the shifting musical tastes and styles of the day.

Tonight I want to give you just a small taste of this evolution through our song of redemption, Mi Chamochah, that song the Israelites sang after crossing the sea, that we find in this week’s Torah portion.

Binder Mi Chamochah – 1920s Binder was writing at a time when many Jews in the US were trying to assimilate with their music, creating music that sounded like the music their Christian neighbors were hearing in church. Binder brought back the modal, ethnic quality that Jews tried to shed when they first moved from Eastern Europe. His Mi Chamochah is in the fragish mode. Even though you may not know the name of the mode, much of the Jewish music we know and love, like Hava Nagila, is in this mode. It’s characterized by a lowered second, which in his Mi Chamochah, sounds like this. (Singing) And this is what it sounds like in the larger context of Binder’s setting.

Friedman Mi Chamochah – This next Mi Chamochah by Debbie Friedman jumps us forward about 50 years. Debbie’s yahrzeit actually falls this week, so she’s already particularly on our minds right now. Debbie has been such an important person in the Jewish world, as she almost single-handedly created a whole new folk style of Jewish music in the 70s and 80s, inspired by the folk movement in the US. And she’s also been an important person to many of us as individuals. I know Rabbi Buchdahl and I both feel lucky to have called Debbie our teacher, and I imagine many of you in the room have your own memories and connections with her. We remember her music, and also her wise, kind, and loving soul that shone through in everything she did. Please join us in singing her Mi Chamochah.

Redemption Song Nichols – 2012 – Moving us forward another almost 50 years to a brand new song from one of the reform movement’s superstar composers, Dan Nichols. Dan created his own Midrash or interpretation of Mi Chamochah by writing his own English words, essentially his own riff on the theme of redemption. This is emblematic of a larger trend in Jewish music happening now, where other composers like Josh Nelson and Noah Aronson, whose melodies we know and love, are creating their own English words to traditional Jewish liturgy. More and more, Jewish artists are feeling free to put their own stamp on music by creating new melodies and words that are rooted in tradition but also brand new.

You can hear that our shirah, our song, has evolved over time, and there’s no telling what new and exciting things the next decade will bring. But one thing you can be sure of is that just like Miriam, who packed her timbrel even in the midst of frantic and harrowing escape from Egypt, we’ll always have that instinctive, human need to sing and make music together.

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