Jews are a People of the Book; Jews also are a People of the Song. In fear, poverty, war and exile, song packed light and eased the way. This spiritual secret is encoded in Jewish spiritual DNA: we can sing our way through. Even for those of us who wouldn’t describe ourselves as singers, the ancient secret of song is ours to rediscover and reclaim in modern life.
The secret begins in bondage – whether Jewish slavery to Egypt or any physical, emotional or psychological shackling. Bondage fueled the hope of redemption (ge’ulah), such a core Jewish aspiration that ancient rabbis debated how to know redemption’s start and maybe hasten it. Some said redemption would be supernaturally messianic (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a); others said liberation would come by war (Talmud, Megillah 17b). For a people so often overborne throughout history, we might relate to this impulse to seek (meta)physical strength as an external power of liberation.
But liberation also lies within, and specifically in our own voice. Reb Nachman of Breslov (1772-1811) famously taught that we uplift each other and ourselves by listening for the notes of goodness within ourselves and others, then stringing the notes into the song of our lives. Liberation by reclaiming the spiritual voice was the special focus of Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000), the modernSlonimer Rebbe. Wading into Jewish debate on liberation, the Slonimer taught that Israelite slaves began their journey to freedom not when their shackles fell but when they reclaimed their voices: “They sighed from their bondage, and they cried, and their wails rose up to God” (Ex. 2:23). Until then, the Slonimer taught, slaves were so habituated to bondage that they were silent: as the Passover Haggadah reflects, “The real slavery of Israel in Egypt was that they learned to endure it.” The slaves’ sigh, then groan, then cry, began their inner path of re-individuating from oppression – and that was what “rose up to God” and began the liberation. Reclaiming the voice broke inner habituation to bondage: physical freedom then could follow.
Our subtle inner turn toward freedom, reclaiming our inner voice, can start with something so seemingly insignificant as a sigh. The sigh inhabits real feelings rather than suppress, ignore or habituate to them. Liberation from bondage starts with inhabiting the reality of bondage in all its pain: being real sometimes means sighing, groaning and crying.
For our enslaved ancestors, the journey that began with a sigh soon became a song. This week’s Torah portion (Beshallach) celebrates this Song of the Sea, the jubilant Song of external freedom (Ex. 15:1-19) that, at long last, matched the internal freedom born with a sigh. So unique was this moment in Jewish spiritual history that Torah’s rendition of the Song looks different from all the rest of Torah. So awesome was this moment that in its wake even the “lowliest handmaiden” achieved spiritual heights unknown to the great prophets. In the spiritual heights, our ancestors couldn’t help but sing.
Song packs light and eases the way. The spiritual secret of song is so deeply encoded in Jewish life that some Holocaust-era Jews sang their way to the gas chambers. But a good spiritual secret is hard to keep: during this week in which we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we recall that enslaved African Americans evolved a similar song tradition of their own – and for many of the same reasons. Centuries later, Rogers and Hammerstein, lyricists descended from Jewish tradition, brought this wisdom to Broadway with “Whistle a Happy Tune,” in the classic musical “The King and I”:
Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect I’m afraid….
Make believe you’re brave
And the trick will take you far:
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are.
Liberation begins within – with a whistle, a sigh, a groan, even a cry. This subtle inner turn makes the outer turn possible. With time and persistence, the sigh can become a song, and spirit can lift toward freedom anew.