As we read the Song of the Sea, Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz shares a personal reading and reflection on prayer in Jewish religious life.
Judaism has a penchant for the dramatic, the public and the ritual.
Think about it: the Seder Kriyat haTorah, the Torah service is one of the liturgical high points in our service. With stirring song, we rise and open the Ark, take out the scroll and lovingly parade her around the congregation. There is great power in our public rituals, be they the collective singing of the Shema, the lifting of the scroll, the waving of the lulav and etrog or the raucous banter during the Megillah reading. Public rituals at their best make us feel safe and included. They affirm our identity as Jews. There is something cathartic about fasting as a community on Yom Kippur or coming together to a Shivah minyan in support of our mourners.
In fact, Judaism is so oriented towards the collective experience of our ritual life that the Rabbis of the Talmud valued collective worship over individual worship. The concept of minyan, the Prayer Quorum of Ten (of all genders in non-Orthodox Judaism, and men in Orthodox Judaism) expresses this concern very well. We cannot utter certain prayers – the Barechu (call to worship), the Kedushah (the sanctification of God’s name in the Amidah) and the Kaddish – without a minyan. In Judaism, the collective is redemptive; it is how we build community, how we guarantee our Jewish continuity, how we repair the world and even how we come before God.
Parashat Beshallach is a powerful illustration of the high-drama of the public, communal Jewish experience.
Shirat haYam, the Song of the Sea, is our collective testimony to the miracle of splitting the Sea of Reeds, so that we could flee Egypt and find sanctuary in the Wilderness. After all, the Torah tells us that
‘az yashir Moshe u’v’nei Yisrael et hashirah hazot lAdonai’ – ‘then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song to the Eternal’.
Later on, we also learn that ‘vatikach Miriam hanevi’ah achot Aharon et hatof beyadah vatetzenah kol hanashim achareiah b’tupim uvimcholot’ – ‘and Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aaron took her drum in her hand and all the woman went out after her with their drums and with dances.’ (Ex. 15:20)
Essentially, everyone was involved: men, women and children. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 30b), even discusses how the Israelites kept on singing the Song of the Sea, whether they sang the refrain, ‘Ashirah lAdonai’ after each stanza or sang the whole song together. In any case, there is consensus that the song was sung as a communal experience.
Yet, within the collective catharsis, within the drumming and dancing, the singing and rejoicing, there was also the deeply personal experience. It is important to note that the people sang ‘Ashirah lAdonai ki ga’oh ga’ah’ – ‘I will sing to the Eternal, for God is exalted above the arrogant.’ The Song of the Sea uses the first person singular, not the first person plural. It is ‘ashirah’, not ‘nashira’, I, and not ‘we’.
Worship, praise and prayer are incredibly difficult to define, quantify or articulate. Prayer is difficult. Even the most seasoned of davenners (pray-ers) struggle with prayer; not just the liturgy and the Hebrew, but the language, ideas and concepts, with the experience and practice. What is it that prayer is supposed to do? Is there something sycophantic about praising God? Does God need the praising or do we? How do those of us pray when we have so many doubts, or we feel that we cannot tap into the religious experience altogether? What is the point of prayer?
This is where the collective and the individual intersect.
We need to think about what prayer means, we need to talk about how prayer can uplift us, inspire us, transform us and connect us to a deeper love and ground us in the totality of Being, as well as leave us feeling alienated, indifferent, angry or cold. At the end of the day, the turning inward, the seeking out of the inner space of our souls is a worthwhile endeavour, regardless of what we expect to meet at the other end.
Many of us experience anxiety about the current state of the world. Current affairs urgently require our moral response. But we are also called to take care of ourselves and our souls. I have found comfort in the words of the liturgy and the prayers of my heart, to steady me in a world that is so unsettled, to give me hope, to bind me to God’s love and the compassionate values of our tradition.
The brilliance of Shirat haYam is not just that it is a bold and revolutionary song but that it involved all of us, in deeply personal ways. We all sang the Song of the Sea. We are all called to turn inwards and explore what this wondrous, difficult, challenging, comforting world of prayer is. According to the Midrash, it was one individual, with a profound individual experience, who caused the sea to split. Nachshon ben Aminadav waded into the great depths, exposing himself to the risk and beauty of faith. There is something profoundly Freudian about this image – of one man walking into the turbulent waters, trusting God, or self as he pushed towards Redemption. May we all be blessed to find comfort in prayer, whether it is through familiar words and melodies, the bonds of friendship that are cemented at Kiddush, through the intellectual wrestling with what Judaism means, or perhaps even a glimpse of Something that defies definitions and transcends limits.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz is Assistant Rabbi at Sinai Synagogue, Leeds (UK), and Paideia Emmanuel Levinas Fellow.
Image credit: Viviane Okubo