“One of the finest products of Hebrew poetry, remarkable for poetic fire and spirit, picturesque description, vivid imagery, quick movement, affective parallelism, and bright, sonorous diction” – that is Professor Driver’s tribute to the Song of the Red Sea.
The stirring melody in which the song is chanted, especially the S’fardi version, is full of excitement and vigour.
The words carry you along with them – “I will sing to the Lord, for He has gloriously triumphed: the horse and its rider has He cast into the sea”. The song is one of the high points of the year’s Torah readings.Nonetheless the sages mounted a protest against it. Here are the people of Israel expressing their natural relief and joy at escaping from the nation that oppressed them for so long, and yet, say the rabbis, God objected.
“The work of My hands is drowning in the sea,” He said, “and you would sing a song to Me”?
This is amazing Jewish ethics. The Egyptian tyrants were wicked and inhumane, and they deserved punishment – yet they were still God’s creatures, and the rule is, “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice” (Prov. 24:17).
This principle is given as the explanation of our custom of spilling a drop of wine on Pesach at the mention of each of the ten plagues.
It also enables us to understand why we shorten the Hallel on the first six days of Pesach, because our joy is tempered by the thought that human beings, however wicked, had to suffer so we could survive.
From this we learn that there are times not to sing. But there are times for singing too.
The Baal Shem Tov used to say that we recognise God in the words of the Torah, in the themes of the prayer book – but also in the singing of the birds, the whispering of the trees and the grandeur of creation.
Life is full of moments of joy that should make us want to sing. True, there are days of disappointment, disillusionment and despair when nothing seems to go right. But one must have faith in tomorrow and say, “Tomorrow I will sing!”
Even today, in the very midst of its anxiety and worry, there is a reminder in the Psalms, “I lift up my eyes to the hills: whence comes my help? My help is from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121). And Adon Olam says, “The Lord is with me: I shall not fear”.
So even in the midst of one’s tears it is still possible to sing.