Music and song have been important for Jews since the parting of the Red Sea.
The miracle at the Re(e)d Sea was expressed through song: the song sung by Moses and the children of Israel and the song sung by Miriam with all of the women, amid drumming and dancing.
The miracle of the revelation at Sinai was expressed through words: “And Moses descended to the nation and he said unto them, ‘And God spoke all these words, saying …’” (Exodus 19:25, 20:1).
Song and music enter the heart and soul, whereas speech and words speak to the mind, the brain. Song and music create emotions, feelings; speech/words create understanding and cognition. Song and music develop spirituality and faith; speech and words develop intellect and knowledge. Song and music lead to the wisdom of the heart; speech and words lead to the wisdom of the mind.
Song and music produce religious prophets; speech and words produce learned sages. Song and music can touch every individual deeply and profoundly. Speech and words can only move those with an intellectual background and innate ability.
Song and music reach out to all as a group experience, inclusive, with everyone joining in. Speech and words, meant for one who understands, are a teaching experience, an exclusive experience in which the most learned dominate.
Moses sings at the Red Sea, but it is a song-speech; Moses is a master of words and speech, not of music and song. At the Red Sea, Moses speak-sings; as the teacher, he speaks alone after which everyone repeats the lesson in unison.
Miriam sings with the beat of the drums. She responds to the miracle together with all the other women as the united group experiences ecstatic joy. Song and music lead to movement, dance and human embrace. Words and speech lead to meditation, books and authoritative judgments. Song and music lead to the drum of the rhythmic heartbeat.
Words and speech lead to the staff of the ruler and judge. Moses left a legacy of a book of books and a code of laws and commandments; Miriam left a legacy of a well from which poured living spring waters of regeneration and rebirth.
The entire nation saw the sounds of Sinai; they saw the words; they saw the cantillations and the musical notes; they heard the music within the commandments; and they felt the love within the laws.
We must join the staff of Moses to the drums of Miriam, the song-speech of the sea to the speech-song of the mountain, the “lovingkindness” of Miriam’s well to the laws of Moses. Moses’ commandments, the wisdom of the heart, must be joined to the interpretations of the mind. Then everyone will understand everything.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.