By Rabbi Neil Tow
Special to WJW
Every Friday night, as Shabbat comes in, we sing Shiru L’Adonai Shir Chadash (Psalm 96) “Sing to God a new song” and many weeks I find myself questioning whether this means we should write a new song or prayer for Shabbat or whether it means we should find new inspiration and meaning in the songs or prayers we’re already singing.
Both ways of thinking about “the new song” require reflection and creativity. On this Shabbat during Pesach, we celebrate the miracle at the sea all over again as the waters part and our ancestors walk through. The reaction of Moses and the people to their liberation through this miracle is to sing a song, the Song of the Sea. I would venture to claim all of us would feel moved to sing and dance in that moment, but now, after so many generations of remembering the Exodus in daily, Shabbat and holiday prayers, and around the Seder table, and during the pandemic now more than a year old, how can we renew the feelings of celebrating our freedom for the first time?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev teaches us we do not have to decide between writing something new and finding new meaning in the songs and prayers we have. He explains, “At each stage of our religious development, as our sense of God’s wonder deepens, we sing differently to God — we sing a new song.”
Our voices, then, will rise with newfound wisdom from our experiences.
After a year of uncertainty, loss and so many changes, our songs may be sad or full of relief. Either way, our communication to God will carry the tone and texture of our experiences.
What hangs heavily on my mind this year is that after Passover the proverbial waters of coronavirus will not open into a new and unfettered normal. Our ancestors walk through the waters and are liberated. We will come out of Passover this year and, although we’re still under the shadow of the virus, we’re witnessing the amazing progress with vaccines, meaning we can see a way through this time. And when we do come through we all sense the new normal will be different and we do not know the full picture yet. Our ancestors also have to confront and adapt to a whole new way of thinking and living with new responsibilities as they learn to live as God’s people and care for each other in order to maintain their freedom.
For them, and for us, freedom on the other side of adversity is precious, fragile and requires constant self-reflection and renewal of commitment. We can see how difficult this is when our ancestors started complaining as soon as they crossed the sea. We can see how difficult this is as we try to keep our families and communities unified and hopeful when we’re physically and socially so far apart from one another.
At times like these I remember the lesson I learned from my colleague Rabbi Baruch Zeilicovich, who taught that chayim, the Hebrew word for life, is a plural noun, suggesting that our lives are intertwined with one another’s and we need each other’s support.
Rabbi Neil Tow is associate rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac. He will become rabbi of Congregation Shaare Shalom in Leesburg this summer.