Sermon Shabbat B’Shalach/Shirah 5779
January 18, 2019
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
As you have heard, this is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, when we chant the Az Yashir Mosheh, the longest poem in the Torah and the first great song of our people. It has given chazonim, cantors, the excuse to turn this Shabbos into a very special musical experience, choosing from the incredible storehouse of Jewish musical creativity to make it a unique and especially melodious and harmonious Shabbat.
In the past I have worked with talented Jewish musicians to fashion Shabbat Shirah celebrations of Sephardic Jewish music, Italian Jewish music, German-Jewish music, neo-Chasidic music, contemporary American-Jewish music, Yiddish music, cantorial music, jazz services, or highlighted the synagogue works of Jewish musical pioneers like Max Janowski, Kurt Weill, Ernest Bloch, Leonard Bernstein and my dad, Baruch Cohon. It was always creative, fun and very hard work… and it was also hard to judge the lasting impact on congregational life. Sometimes those special services would bring a new melody into our regular Shabbat service rotation of tunes for prayers; sometimes the music was so interesting that people would ask for copies of the pieces we sung. Sometimes not.
So this quite possibly marks the very first time in my entire career as a cantor and then a rabbi that on Shabbat Shirah I have not done a Sermon-in-Song on the Sabbath of Beshalach. This is our 12th week of Shabbat services, and our nascent music program here at Congregation Beit Simcha is developing wonderfully; I hope you will agree, thanks to Albert Sarko and Niles King and Eva Turner and the free participation of other volunteer singers and enthusiastic congregants. Still, we don’t yet have the resources in place to produce a full musical program that differs too substantially from our regular Friday night.
But there is another message of Shabbat Shirah and it is perhaps the better one to explore tonight. Because the actual text of the Torah portion addresses the freeing of the Israelites from slavery, and the divine destruction of the final attempt by the brutal Pharaoh to re-enslave our people, a true celebration that we are now, in words that echo another theme of this Martin Luther King Jr., weekend, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.
The Song at the Sea is a kind of coda to this liberation symphony, the last movement of a great composition that began slowly and somberly with enslavement at the beginning of Exodus, rose to a crescendo of Beethoven-like power with the final plague, soared into a joyous Handel-ish oratorio during the Exodus, whirled into a pulsing, Stravinsky style interlude of chasing chariots, surged into a tumultuous Mahler-like explosion of crashing waters and now ends with this glorious Tchaikovsky-esque song of triumph. You can see, perhaps, why it is called the Sabbath of Song.
But beyond even music, the message of Shabbat Shirah is one of a truly fresh beginning. Because the story doesn’t end with the Israelites on the shore of the sea, watching their enemies’ bodies float away. It immediately turns to the journeys of the Israelites going forward, into the future, towards hope and promise and covenant at Sinai and a Promised Land. We Jews are often called a people of history, with an astonishingly long and complex past. But in truth we are a people who always looks to the future, to see what the next day will bring, and how we may shape tomorrow. That’s how B’shalach reads: after freedom, where will we go, how will we get there, and what will we do once we arrive?
That message has some local meaning for us, collectively.
As you know if you’ve been reading our congregational emails or attended services or classes, we have been busy this past fall and now into the winter starting our new Congregation Beit Simcha. Having spent over 22 years serving established synagogues as the rabbi, and before that serving as either student rabbi or cantor for established temples ever since I was 17 years old, this has been, in many ways, a very different experience. Beginning something brand new is certainly hard to do, but it has actually been incredibly refreshing and energizing for me, personally, and I hope for the congregants and friends of our exciting new synagogue.
Starting a new congregation is definitely challenging. You start with, well, nothing, no name, no building, no sign, no Torah, no prayer books, no congregants, no mission statement, no business license or non-profit exemption, no website, no logo, just an idea and a dream. But that is also incredibly liberating, because we, as a founding group, are able to define who we are, what we want to be, and what we envision our synagogue being for each of us. We can decide just what our own Congregation Beit Simcha will be. It’s a very special opportunity to choose both how we want to do things as Jews now and what we aspire to become in the future.
We have been blessed from the beginning with a remarkable group of leaders, our initial and current board, which organized and developed the essential elements of Congregation Beit Simcha. We have been gifted by the extraordinary generosity of people who have come forward before they were asked to provide the essential requirements for a shul to begin and have continued to do so out of their hearts.
The truth is that it’s not as though the central functions of a good synagogue aren’t clearly evident: provide warm, spiritual, thoughtful and musical Shabbat services, intellectually challenging and inspirational Jewish education for young people and adults, meaningful life-cycle experiences, true hands-on community and social action opportunities and commitments. These are what every great synagogue makes available, whatever its size. But just how we do that, and the choices we make about the quality and integrity of what we do, shape our own efforts. And we don’t have to struggle with overcoming customs that might be outmoded or ineffective. We can just do our own thing, as we choose to do it, immediately.
When you begin a congregation, you don’t have much staff—nearly any, in fact. Which means people come forward to volunteer in truly wonderful ways. It also means that if someone has forgotten to do something it is probably you, rabbi, thank you very much.
I must admit that there is a great freedom in this that isn’t always present in a larger, more established synagogue. Actually, it’s almost never present in a larger, more established temple. Here, in our startup synagogue, Beit Simcha, our “house of joy” or celebration, if we want to start a program or plan an event or change the music or try something no one has ever done before—say a Shabbat service on horseback—there is very little pause between the idea and the reality. We just try it. If it works and we like it, we can do it again, or make it better. If it doesn’t work or we don’t like it, we learn from it, and do something else, or do it differently next time. Change the tune, if you will.
We don't yet know if this means we will create a synagogue that changes Judaism for the next fifty years, or the next five years. Heck, we haven’t been around for five months yet. But it’s exciting to draw upon the incredible depth and breadth of Jewish tradition and to be able to approach it in new and fresh ways on a daily basis, sometimes an hourly one.
The one thing we can guarantee is that we’ll keep trying new things, but do so based in the amazing abundance of Jewish religion, tradition and culture. We are off to a great start, but I’m certain that what’s coming next will be even better.
But the message of Shabbat Shirah, while certainly helpful for our Congregation Beit Simcha, is also a personal one. Because the promise given here in B’shalach is that there is always, always, the capacity to begin something new. We can rise from oppression and loss and start again. In the face of defeat we Jews do begin again. Not only collectively but individually Judaism promises that even after challenge and tragedy, even after struggle and plague, we can start our own, new song. And it can be not only beautiful but truly great.
May that be God’s will for us, as it was so long ago on the shores of the sea. And that will make this a real Sabbath of song.