Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Beshalach

“Preaching to the Choir”

Did you ever sing in a choir? If you did, you will easily be able to appreciate what I am about to describe.

I well remember singing in a choir, and I recall three different scenarios which occurred in my choir with my choirmaster, who was invariably also the cantor.

In one scenario, the cantor began by singing part of a selection, and then taught us the refrain. He would then proceed to a second part of the selection and instruct us to repeat the same refrain after it. Then he would sing a third part, after which we were again required to repeat the identical refrain. All we really had to learn was one short refrain which we interspersed into his singing.

In a second scenario, he sang a short selection, after which we would repeat that selection. He would go on to his second selection, which we again repeated after him. Throughout the performance he would lead and we would follow, singing every line, but singing it in response to him.

In the third scenario, we knew the entire song even before we arrived in the rehearsal room. He would then start the song, we would immediately join in, and continued to sing the entire composition in unison with the cantor.

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), we read about a choir and a choirmaster, or cantor. The choir consists of all the people of Israel, and the choirmaster is none other than Moses our teacher.

This week’s Parsha contains a song, for the first time in the Bible. It is the Song of the Sea, which was chanted by Moses and the Jewish people after they witnessed the miraculous splitting of the sea, and thereby were delivered from their Egyptian pursuers.

“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said:
I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and might;
He is become my deliverance.” (Exodus 15:1-2)

It is quite clear that both Moses and the people sang. But, our sages ask, what was the relationship between them? Exactly how did Moses lead the lengthy song, and at which point did the Israelites respond?

Our sages ask this question in the Talmud, in the tractate of Sotah. As is often the case, they do not agree upon one single answer. Rather, three opinions are offered.

Rabbi Akiva maintains that Moses acted very much like the cantor in the first scenario described above. He began with the words “I will sing to the Lord…” which became the refrain and was then echoed by the people. He then continued, “the Lord is my strength and might…”, to which the people responded with the refrain “I will sing to the Lord…” And so on throughout the song. Moses introduced each new stanza, which the people did not themselves sing, but instead repetitively sang the refrain, and only the refrain, over and over again.

Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabbi Yosi HaGalili, disagreed. In his view, Moses sang each stanza, one at a time, and the people repeated that same stanza. Thus, Moses sang, “I will sing to the Lord…”, and the people responded, “I will sing to the Lord…” Then Moses sang, “the Lord is my strength and might”, and the people responded, “the Lord is my strength and might”. This approach is identical to scenario two above.

Rabbi Nehemiah offering yet a third opinion. According to him, Moses began the song with words “I will sing to the Lord…” Immediately, the people joined in, and sang the entire song, from start to finish, along with Moses. They were as inspired by the miracle as he was, but needed him to only begin, after which everyone, choir and choirmaster, sang the same song simultaneously. Rabbi Nehemiah’s approach conforms to scenario number three.

I have often wondered what fundamental issue is being debated here. Permit me to suggest one possibility, which is consistent with my abiding interest in the subject of leadership, with which the regular reader of this column is well familiar.

In Rabbi Akiva’s view, Moses as leader did all the work. The people merely chimed in, echoing repeatedly the brief phrase which he taught them. The leader is active, the people responsive, but passive.

Rabbi Eliezer proposes a different model of leadership. Moses sets an example, and the people emulate him. He sets a second example and is again emulated. The leader teaches, and the people imitate him. He is their role model.

Rabbi Nehemiah suggests an entirely different paradigm, one which is startlingly novel. For him the leader is but a spark which ignites the potential creative powers of the followers. A leader sets the stage, but all the followers have equal inspiration and join cooperatively with the leader. The ancient metaphor of shepherd and flock is no longer apt. There is no flock; all are shepherds.

I would further suggest that these three sages are not at all contradicting each other. Rather, each is referring to a different stage in the development of a nation.

Rabbi Akiva is referring to the first stage, during which the people are not yet ready to be innovators themselves, but must be taught to sing a simple refrain over and over again, in response to the choirmaster’s creativity.

Rabbi Eliezer proceeds to describe a second stage. Here, the people are still not capable of originality themselves. But they are no longer limited to repeating the same refrain. They all ready to follow the master’s example along the entire journey.

Rabbi Nehemiah envisions a third and ideal stage of development. The people are capable of composing a new song. They have the same degree of creativity as does the choirmaster. They merely need him to offer a brief introductory, and then they are capable of singing an inspired new song in tandem with each other.

Once again I have attempted to demonstrate to you how central is the concept of leadership in our Torah. It is so central that even the Song of the Sea, the choir of Israel and Moses our choirmaster, give us the occasion to reflect upon the subject of leadership.

Much more important, the Song of the Sea brings us closer to attaining the vision of a time when all of the Jewish people are equally inspired to sing the same song. May that time come speedily, in our days.