Fun fact: When Duncan and I get called to the Torah for an aliyah, Duncan lets me start the blessing a split second before him so that he can match my key and we don’t sound terrible. That is to say, I do not think of myself as a singer. I can chant with the best of them and lead services with gusto, but when it comes to carrying a tune or leading something with a complex melody, I am just not comfortable. I am grateful to Cantor Bitton and Ilene Safyan for fulfilling that role for me when I lead services (and believe me, you should be as well). Honestly, I don’t even like to sing in the shower. For most of my life, I was told I was plagued with the “Tarnoff tone,” and like those women on my mom’s side of the family, I believed we all couldn’t carry a tune.
Nevertheless, music is a big part of my life. I’m married to an avid singer, and we named our daughter Shiri (“my song”) in tribute to my father’s love of music. I was determined that no matter how her voice sounded, we would not plague her with thoughts that she couldn’t sing. Shiri loves to sing. Everything we do or say gets put into a song. Quiet play is almost always punctuated by quiet singing to herself, and, when appropriate, she has no trouble singing out loud and singing out strong.
This idea, while familiar to fans of Sesame Street or the Carpenters, actually has its roots in the Torah. Parshat Beshalach, which we read this week, is notable for showing the power of song. We find the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians go after them, but God intervenes and saves them. The Israelites continue through moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them as well as moments marking the occasional temper tantrum at God because the journey through the desert isn’t perfect. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards.
In the middle of all of this we read the “Song of the Sea.” In this moment the Israelites are overwhelmed with emotion. They have just left slavery and are not quite free yet. They see the waters ahead of them, the Egyptians behind them, and the instinct is to sing. You can almost picture this song, tears running down their faces, freedom in their grasp. And singing. Moses didn’t worry about how his voice sounded in this moment, he simply sang. Miriam took the timbrel and danced her heart out. Imagine what a free flowing release of music this was.
Thanks to my musical husband, Duncan, I’ve since learned that I can sing, I just need to focus on singing in my own key when I’m leading and backing off a little to find the key when I’m singing with others. We read the words of Parshat Beshalach and are reminded that we aren’t supposed to leave the singing to just professional vocalists. Music is a part of life, and singing is our individual expression of that. So as the song says, “Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Just sing.”