Many years ago, I heard a lecture from a Cold War analyst, a Sovietologist. He told a story about two birds from Moscow who were flying north trying to make their way to the more open plains of Finland. As they approached the border, they were met by two Finnish birds.
"Life must be horrendous back there in the Soviet Union," said the Finnish birds.
"It's okay," responded the Russian birds.
"You probably don't have enough to eat or decent medical coverage," said the Finns.
"We have decent food and adequate coverage," the others said.
"So why are you so anxious to leave?"
"Because back there, they don't let us sing."
Admittedly, the story is dated, but the sentiment is not. Speech without song, prose without poetry is like, to borrow Haim Nachman Bialik's phrase, "kissing the bride through the veil."
Elie Wiesel in his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea, vividly describes his father and grandfather. His grandfather, Dodya Feig, was a pious and devout Chasidic Jew. His father, Shlomo, was a respected communal personality and, though religious, was more modern. Writes Wiesel: "From my father I learned how to speak, from my grandfather I learned how to sing."
Dip a Toe and Dive In
This week, we encounter a special Shabbat. It's called Shabbat Shira, the "Sabbath of Song." As the Jews are leaving the oppressive and repressive Egyptian regime, they have a difficult time crossing the border. In front of them is the daunting Yam Suf, "the Sea of Reeds," and behind them are the Egyptian chariots – the T80 tanks of their day.
Ultimately, God performs a miracle, the Egyptian "third army" is discomfited, and the Jews cross to freedom. But, our tradition notes, something crucial and defining occurred prior to God doing His thing.
It was only after one person mustered the courage and proceeded to walk into (not on) the water, waded in it and, by example, coaxed and inspired others to do the same, that God then intervened. In other words, it was only after this Jew made his "strike" that God made His "split."
The name of this Jewish leader was Nachshon ben Aminadav. Many of you will recognize this name, as it was made famous by Operation Nachshon – the code word for the Haganah's breaking through to Jerusalem in 1948. Let's focus for a moment on the other part of his name.
Aminadav literally means "my people who volunteer."
What an interesting lesson about leadership and followership. Judaism is not meant to be a sit-back-and-observe way of life; you have to put a toe in, wade a bit, dive in and, of course, delight in it.
Ultimately, the Jewish people cross the sea and break out into song. These 18 verses are the quintessential song of the Torah, and on their account is our special Shabbat so named.
Listen to an amazing insight taught by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick. Zeh keli v'anveihu, Elokei avi va'aro'menhu ("This is my God and I will glorify Him, the God of my father and I will exalt Him").
There are two aspects of Jewishness, posits the Rav. The latter phrase, "the God of my father" indicates that we are Jews because we are born to it. It is passive. It bespeaks an ontological condition. I am part of my father and mother's people – whether I like it or not. The first phrase, though, indicates an existential condition. This is my God, it is for me to actively seek and consciously engage with my story. To put this another way, the chosen people must today become the choosing people. Passive belonging is no substitute for active being, to paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.