Life as a Symphony: Shirah and Becoming an Adult


safranBy Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

We are each but a quarter note in a grand symphony.

– Guy Laliberte

The conductor takes his place upon the podium.  He raises his baton.  A hush falls over the hall and there is a moment of exquisite silence, during which it seems as if the world itself holds its breath in anticipation.  Then, with the sweep of his hand, a sound rises, a glorious sound greater than the sum of its parts.  A symphony begins.

An attuned ear can, of course, find the disparate tones as the music plays.  The strings here.  A flute there.  The drum.  The sharp played by the oboe here.  The rest taken by the violas there.  But each piece of the symphony is only given meaning by being part of the greater whole.

There is no symphony without the wholeness of its parts.

So too with shirahShirah rises above the scope of both sichah and zimrah.  Each of these is important and has its honored place in life’s experience.  Sichah, conversation, calls upon the intellect, reflecting that which is most thoughtful about human experience.  Zimrah adds another layer of content, as if another layer of sound is added to the music.

Unlike the intellectual experience of sichah, zimrah demands more nuance and engagement.  Zimrah demands an emotional investment as well.  To sing Shabbat zemirot is to engage so much more than our minds; it calls forth our hearts and hopes as well.  In zimrah both halachah and agadah are brought into harmony; the body and soul of Shabbat is made one.

Our lives and experience are enriched by our participation in the intellectual and the emotional.  But neither of these alone, or in tandem, is enough to make life truly meaningful.  For that, we need shirah.

As in the magnificence of the symphony, shirah brings to bear the fullness of all the orchestra’s component parts.  Shirah embraces the fullness of experience, in its scope of subject and in its complete use of the “composer’s” talents, abilities and senses.

Dovid Hamelech was reprimanded for diminishing Torah by referring to it as zimrah.  Torah is not zimrah. It is the perfect shirah because it mirrors the whole of human experience; it encompasses the wholeness of a symphony.

It is the wholeness of experience that saw Israel recite shirah on the yam.  There, on the distant shore of the sea, the newly freed nation spoke not merely of present triumphs. Their “song” was about much more than present courage and accomplishments; their spontaneous shirah embraced their experience of their brutal past even as it proclaimed a vision of their grand future.

Their shirah called forth visions of the coming conquest of the promised land, and even of building a holy Temple in the far distant prophetic future, reaching its crescendo as it envisioned the perfect Messianic society when Hashem shall reign forever.

Shira is timeless.  It reflects all that was, is and will be.

It encompasses the good and the bad.  The Midrash quotes Moshe announcing that just as he sinned with the word az when he condemned God, saying, Umeaz ba’ati ledaber el Paraoh era la’am hazeh, [since I have come to speak to Paraoh, the nation’s situation has worsened] so now he will praise God with az; az yashir. Both sin and praise, encompassed in one.

When we truly sing, we understand that our voices cannot sing praise without encompassing pain and suffering.  Our shirah is a realization that geulah – redemption – is not an independent condition.  It is not a by-product or a fortunate outcome.  It is, in fact, a direct consequence of galut. There can be no geulah without galut.

There is a direct connection to when Moshe exclaimed, Be’az chatati, yesterday I angrily declared my anguish over the galut and enslavement and therefore today I openly declare my gratitude and song for the redemption – az yashir.

The difficulties of yesterday and today make possible the glory of tomorrow, which is yet to come.  Perhaps then this is the meaning of the Talmud’s statement that, “Whoever says shirah in this world merits to say shirah in the world to come.”

The symphony requires all the notes from all the instruments – brass, strings, percussion, flats, sharps and naturals.  To hear only one part is to miss the fullness of the symphony and to surrender the grand for the small.

* * *

It is not easy to grow up and take on adult responsibilities.  It’s nice to be a child, free of care.  And it is supposed to be.  Childhood is a time of  joy and innocence… at least, that is how many adults feel looking back through the lens of their adult responsibilities.  But the truth is, childhood wasn’t all that easy.  There was lots of hurt and confusion along with the joy.  There were falls, booster shots, bitter-tasting medicine, scrapes and scratches; there were mean-spirited children in the school yard and stern lectures from parents, not to mention the reprimands from older sisters who are quite sure they know what is best and younger siblings who become incredibly bossy just when you want kindness and comfort.

Yes, with a little bit of perspective, it is easy to see that all that “fun” of childhood was mixed in with a goodly amount of anguish. 

The child lives a number of years… um, let’s say thirteen… in his own private galut.  But then he is redeemed at thirteen, independent – with the wonder and uncertainty that is part of independence!

What an interesting plan God seems to have employed!  The baby crawls before he walks.  The boy struggles before he becomes a man.  Why?  Because without the struggles, being a man is an impossible and meaningless task.  As it is with geulah and galut so too is it with our own experience and lives.

True shirah is the culmination of a complete, universal perspective.  It relies not only on today’s joy, but also yesterday’s pain and tomorrow’s glory.  It is because I was a child “only yesterday” that today I can laugh, rejoice and dance, knowing too that tomorrow I am grown, mature and responsible.

* * *

Chazal declare that “from the inception of the world’s creation until Israel stood at the sea, we do not find anyone who has uttered shirah to God, but Israel. He created Adam and he did not utter shirah ….”

Is that really so?

Doesn’t the Midrash extol Adam for reciting Lechu neranena? Likewise, when Adam repented for his sin, the Midrash tells us that he sang  Mizmor shir leyom HaShabbat. Why then do Chazal state that until the parting of the sea no shirah was ever truly uttered?

It is because Chazal speak of genuine shirah. When Adam asked forgiveness for his sin, his focus was on the “now”, on his immediate need of forgiveness, not on the scope of his life and experience that had brought him to his sin – or on the future that still lay ahead.

Shirah necessitates a recognition of the present state of salvation and geulah, but with an equal cognizance that yesterday’s pain, anxiety and galut were also part of God’s grand scheme. Such a shirah was first uttered by Israel at the sea.

The Sfat Emet questions the well-known postulate that Parashat Haazinu is referred to as shirah. After all there are many chastising and punishment-filled statements throughout the parasha!

But that is precisely the point.  To express shirah requires the full perspective not only for today’s joy but also yesterday’s pains.  Awareness of  hardship and the joy,  galut and geulah, creates fullness and harmony in one’s life; it teaches that such things “emanated from God . . . let us rejoice and be glad on it.”

Genuine faith encompasses the belief that He Who takes us into galut will also lead us geulahKohelet (7:14) describes God as having, “made even the one as well as the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.”  God’s plan was not to make human life an unbroken spell of calamity – or of joy.  Both are necessary parts of life in His scheme.  When we know this and feel it, we can sing about it, too.

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