Weekly Torah Commentary — Beshalach Feb. 3, 2012

Parsha Beshalach contains key events in early Jewish history and an abundance of spiritual insights for our inner development and growth.

This is called Shabbat Shira (Sabbath of Song) because it is this week that we review the miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds by the Children of Israel at the completion of which, the entire congregation explodes into a joyous and thankful song of praise to Hashem for His awesome deliverance.

After the former Hebrew slaves left Egypt, they traveled into the desert, and very soon, Pharaoh regretted his decision to let them go, assembled his army and set out to bring back his slave laborers. When the Israelites saw the Egyptian army approaching in the distance, they were terrified and cried out to Hashem. In response, Hashem’s instructions through Moshe were: “Do not fear! Stand still…and see the salvation of Hashem…”

He commanded Moshe to raise his staff over the waters, the sea parted and the entire nation crossed over on dry land. The Egyptians, seeing this wonder, plunged in impulsively to pursue their prey and were subsequently drowned as the sea returned to its normal state. Seeing the utter defeat of the Egyptians, the children of Israel broke into exuberant song. Miriam picked up her tambourine and led the women in singing and dancing.

This event teaches us several important lessons. It is the first record of the nation — as a nation — singing to Hashem and brings to our attention the power of music. You are no doubt aware that every Hebrew letter has a corresponding numerical value and that when two words in Hebrew have the same numerical value, it indicates that there is a deep connection between them. In that light, it is very significant to learn that the Hebrew word for ‘song’ (Shirah) has a numerical value of 515 and the Hebrew word for ‘prayer’ (tefillah) also has the numerical value of 515, which tells us that prayer and song are profoundly related. We know that King David sang to the Almighty and indeed, he is described as ‘the sweet singer of Israel’. When King Saul was troubled by evil spirits, they would send for David and it is recorded that when David played music for the king, the evil spirits departed from him. Dvora, the judge, sang a glorious song with Barak after the defeat of the armies of Sisera. Hannah broke out into passionate song at the birth of the prophet Samuel. The Psalms are replete with such phrases as “I will sing unto Hashem for He has triumphed gloriously…”, this verse from Psalm 3 being just one example.

In the 1700’s, the Baal Shem Tov lamented the dry, mechanical form of prayer prevalent in his day in the communities of Europe and he initiated a revolution of joy, passion and music in the worship of Hashem. Words without music, he believed, were like a body without a soul. The effects of his ‘revolution’ are evident to this day in congregational services that are alive with enthusiastic singing and joy.

But what about our personal times of prayer? Do we find it difficult to concentrate on our prayers? Is praying with kavana a challenge?

I suggest that combining song with our personal, private prayer and meditation can greatly enhance our ability to maintain our focus on Hashem during prayer. In fact, I do more than ‘suggest’; I can testify from personal experience that singing our prayers does indeed greatly enhance our ability to remain focused on Hashem during private prayer and I highly endorse the practice.

It is not necessary to have a beautiful voice in order to utilize this aid in prayer. Use the voice Hashem gave you for He listens to the song emanating from your soul. Whatever quality of voice He gave you was His choice for you when you were created – use what He gave you with your whole heart for that is what honors Him. In your relationship to Him as a child to its Father, Hashem delights in your singing to Him as any father delights in the song of his child.

In Tune with Torah this week = let us take to heart the exhortation of David, ‘sweet singer of Israel’, as found in Psalm 101: I will sing of kindness and judgment; to You, Hashem, I will sing praises; and in Psalm 146: My soul, praise Hashem; I will praise Hashem with my life; I will sing to Hashem as long as I live… Sing to Him — sing for joy and watch your times of prayer become more and more powerful and joyful.

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