In the Sedra of Beshallach, in introducing the song of the Jewish nation after the splitting of the sea we find the words; “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to G-d, and they spoke, saying... (15:1)
In last Friday night’s D’Var Torah Rabbi Bergson asked the question “How did they actually sing this song?
The Talmud in Sotah 30b provides three approaches. In a nutshell:
Rabbi Akiva taught: Moses said, "I will sing to G-d," and they responded, "I will sing to G-d"; and for each phrase; Moses would sing the verse, and they would respond with the refrain, "I will sing to G-d".
Rabbi Eliezer taught that the people repeated each verse that Moses said. So Moses sang, "I will sing to G-d," and they repeated, "I will sing to G-d" . Moses sang, "For He has triumphed gloriously," and they responded, "For He has triumphed gloriously" , and so on;
Rabbi Nechemiah taught that Moses only sang the opening words of the song, after which they each sang it on their own.” (Talmud and Rashi, Sotah 30b)
These three opinions represent on a broader level three levels of unity in a community from which we can learn.
Rabbi Akiva describes an ideal in which a people completely negate their individuality to the collective identity embodied by the leader. Moses alone sang the nation's gratitude to G-d. The people had nothing further to say as individuals, other than to affirm their unanimous assent to what Moses was expressing. This is very similar to the congregational refrains throughout the prayers (Amen in particular)
At first glance, this seems like the ultimate in unity: a community of hearts and minds yielding to a single programme and vision.
Rabbi Eliezer, however, argues that this is but a superficial unity -- an externally imposed unity of the moment, rather than an inner, enduring unity. When people set aside their own thoughts and feelings to accept what is dictated to them by a higher authority, they are united only in word and deed; their inner selves remain different and distinct. Such a unity is inevitably short-lived: sooner or later their intrinsic differences will assert themselves.
Therefore Rabbi Eliezer interprets the Torah's description of Israel's song to say that they did not merely affirm Moses' song with a refrain, but repeated his words themselves. Each individual Jew internalized Moses' words, so that they became the expression of his own understanding and feelings. The very same words assumed hundreds of thousands of nuances of meaning, as they were absorbed by each of their minds, and articulated by each of the mouths, of the people of Israel.
Rabbi Nechemiah, however, was still dissatisfied. If Israel repeated these verses after Moses, this would imply that their song did not stem from the very deepest part of themselves. If the people were truly one with Moses, why would they need to hear their song from his lips before they could sing it themselves? It was enough, says Rabbi Nechemiah, that Moses started them off with the first words of the song, so as to stimulate their deepest experience of the miracle, with the result that each of them sang the entire song on their own.
The truth is that all three approaches are needed in a healthy community. Rabbi Akiva’s approach forms the foundation of community building - individuals putting aside their needs and desires for the greater unity and vision of the community. In Rabbi Akiva’s terms -we just sing the refrain and don’t add our own voice to the mix.
But for a community to be healthy in the long term we need to hear the nuanced voices of all its members. That is its very strength leading to diversity and creativity. (Rabbi Eliezer)
Our ultimate goal is to achieve a unity that is not superimposed onto us but is the deepest expression of our Jewish souls, so that we the song spontaneously springs forth like at the splitting of the sea! (Rabbi Nechemiya)
May our community continue to grow from strength to strength in a spirit of unity bringing together all our unique voices to blend into one great harmony that achieves so much more than the individual parts.