This past Shabbat, I delivered a d’var Torah in an area synagogue. The d’var Torah was based upon the same texts that I shared in my podcast episode this past week. You can hear that edition of my podcast at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com I shared some memories from my days in Junior Congregation learning from our beloved teacher Harry Kraft z”L which I will invite you to hear on the podcast. I will omit them here because they are much more effective as “oral Torah”.
The d’var Torah reflected on a difficulty in understanding a verse in the Torah. In the introduction to Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, in Exodus chapter 15, we read: Az Yashir Moshe u’bnai Yisrael: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to God”. The question is: How did the people know what to sing?
The rabbis discuss this question in a text in the Talmudic tractate of Sotah. Three opinions are presented. The third of which is that the people sang along with Moses word for word, apparently through a miraculous prophetic ability.
But, the other two are more interesting. Rabbi Akiva states that the people only repeated the first two words of the song over and over again after each phrase that Moses recited. The people sang: Ashira L’adonai. “I will sing out to God.” All they had to do was repeat those two words.
The second opinion, that of Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi Hagalili, is that the people repeated the very words that Moses sang phrase by phrase. They said different phrases but only after hearing them from Moses.
So, whether they repeated one phrase or said different phrases, they only sang what Moses told them to sing.
Did they ever grow up and sing on their own?
According to one rabbi, they did.
In a later text, Yalkut Shimoni, Rabbi Avin HaLevi said that they learned to sing on their own and forty years later, they did. In a verse in the book of Numbers, we read about a song about a well: “Az Yashir Yisrael” “Then Israel sang”. They sang on their own, without Moses’ lead.
I imagine Moshe Rabbenu, our consummate teacher, standing on the sidelines, listening to the voice of the people of Israel and feeling nachas, satisfaction, at the people now grown up and sharing their own words of praise.
In my years as a pulpit rabbi, working with bar and bat mitzvah students was one of my favorite parts of the job. I always tried to impress upon the young people how one of the most important parts of the bar or bat mitzvah service was the d’var Torah. They had the opportunity to teach Torah to the congregation. Instead of merely repeating the words that previous generations had chanted – the blessings, the reading of the Torah and the haftarah- they had the chance to move forward and, as it were, sing on their own. Hearing the chanting of sacred words in the manner of our ancestors is critical for continuity. But, hearing their own thoughts is critical for growth. I reminded them that if they had a personal commentary on the texts they read or if they shared their own personal opinion on an issue, not everyone would agree. But, hearing their voice was so important for the future because it gave people an insight into how at least one young person was thinking.
I concluded my d’var Torah with a reflection on a phenomenon taking place in the Jewish community today. I am not painting with a broad brush. I know that there are many exceptions to what I am about to describe but it is a reality that has been documented over and over again. It was the subject of a piece in the New York Times just two days ago and it is a reality in many Jewish families today.
I speak of the reality that many of our young people see the war in Gaza from a completely different perspective than their parents and grandparents do. Many are asking probing questions that older Jews are not asking. Many are learning from sources of information many of us quickly dismiss. And, many are questioning assumptions many of us take for granted.
I know that hearing these opinions can cause dismay, frustration or even anger. But, as difficult as it may be, I believe we need to listen to these voices. We need to validate our children and grandchildren’s right to hold their opinions. We need to listen to their concerns and their perspective. We need to make sure they hear our perspectives, and patiently but clearly explain why we feel as passionately about the issues as they do even if we see things completely differently. We can not let this issue draw a wedge between us and we need to be careful not to be quick to label them. We may not agree at all but we must be careful not to speak in words or tones which will alienate them from our tradition and our community.
Again, this is not meant to overgeneralize. They are many older Jews who have serious questions about Israel’s actions and many younger Jews who are passionate in their complete support of Israel.
But, the phenomenon can not be ignored.
We may not always sing the same words but we are still part of the same people.