- Hillels of Georgia
Eli Mars - 2/7/2020
In this week’s torah portion, B’shalach, the people of Israel escape from Egypt and the Sea of Reeds and out of the wrath of Pharaoh and his army. Not only is this torah portion famous for inspiring one of my favorite movies, The Prince of Egypt, but the story is also famous for instilling Jews – past and present – with a real sense of connection and religious identity. After being liberated and witnessing G-d drive Pharaoh’s army back into the sea, Moses and the rest of the Jews are overcome with emotion and do exactly what Jews do – pray. More specifically, the Jews praise G-d with song, and I mean, why wouldn’t they? B’shalach is an important story because it’s where we read about Miriam’s Song and the Mi Chamocha, the song of Exodus that we sing during services. What I want to highlight specifically in this torah portion is the means by which the Jews show their gratitude–music. I feel confident in saying that I am a pretty devoted Jew. I mean, I’m here giving a d’var, right? From day one of Emory, I made it my goal to become heavily involved in Hillel. This summer will mark my twelfth year at Camp Ramah. Okay, I did go to Catholic high school, but we can look past that. All jokes aside, even with this sense of devotion to the religion that I love, I always had trouble answering what about Judaism was so intriguing and kept me coming back. And now, having further reflected on myself as a Jew and after reviewing B’shalach, I can confidently say that it’s two things: community and music.
The community aspect is pretty self-explanatory. I mean, look around the room right now. This is a group that has gathered to share an experience together. Hillel and Shabbat would mean nothing if we celebrated them by ourselves. It is the joy of others that truly brings out the meaning of why we are here. And for me, being here together reiterates why I love being Jewish. My second point, which I want to focus on a little more closely, is music. Music is a unifying force and a tool that brings joy in all of our lives. Whether listening to music in the library, in your own dorm, or even at Mags, music has the potential to elevate any situation. Some of the best moments of my life have come from being surrounded by the people I love, jumping up and down, screaming my lungs out to the music that I love. Music also has a universality that for me has really manifested itself through Judaism. On my first day at Emory, I waddled into Hillel all nervous for the ‘Welcome Back Shabbat’ and sitting in services, I was still able to sing along to songs and prayers that I knew from home. There I was, a little freshman – well, I guess I still am a little freshman – singing songs next to strangers, who I am now proud to say aren’t strangers anymore. I always knew that music was a huge part of my Jewish identity – and arguably the driving force of my Judaism –but I didn’t know why.
Music is an art form that needs an audience; it’s an art form that needs to be shared. And sometimes messages are too powerful to just be conveyed in mundane wording that music often brings that message to an elevated level. There’s a famous quote by author Hans Christain Anderson that has always stuck with me: “Where words fail; music speaks.” This is why the Jews didn’t just sit around and cheer after becoming free. When Pharaoh finally granted the Jews permission to leave, Jews such as Miriam – even with limited time and luggage space – went for their instruments because they knew that deep down that their identities were ingrained through music. By singing these songs generation after generation we maintain this sense of identity in a world where that identity is being tested day after day. This is why tonight during services we sing Mi Chamocha, the same chant these very Jews proclaimed. Music has this beautiful ability to serve as this time capsule – to remind us of the important things in life.
I want to end with a small challenge to all of you: be the music in someone else’s life. Be that layer of meaning and purpose that makes someone else’s experience better. Since being at Emory, I’ve been exposed to an overwhelming number of people that have inspired and pushed me.
Thanks for listening, and Shabbat Shalom.