Shabbat Shirah: On marking a time of song and great joy

Shabbat Shirah


Exodus 13:17-17:16

Judges 4:4-5:31

This week, the Torah portion sings.

"Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to God" (Exodus 15:1). "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them, "Sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously" (15:20-1).

Again in the haftarah, there is song. Deborah the prophetess sings of gratitude to God after her people's victory in her day. No wonder that this Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. The liturgy, even more than usual, sings of gratitude and joy and faith.

This week, my home is filled with song. My daughter's bat mitzvah is around the corner. At any hour of the day or evening, I may stop what I am doing and hear Penina chanting her haftarah one more time or hear her practicing the Shacharit service once more in her beautiful young voice. And even when she isn't singing, there is a spring in her step, music in her soul — and in mine.

As a rabbi, I should have known about the power of a child's bar or bat mitzvah. After all, I had watched many people go through it over the years. And I had understood what this ceremony meant Jewishly: It is the child's moment to step up to the bimah, to do what adult Jews have always done, to bring his or her voice to the unfolding of Torah and Jewish life. And while the bar-bat mitzvah belongs to the child, it is, of course, also the parents' opportunity to watch their child symbolically claim an adult place in the Jewish community.

What I never understood, until it was my turn to be the mother of the bat mitzvah, was just how powerful the event truly is, and how very wise our tradition is in giving us the opportunity to celebrate this passage.

The bar-bat mitzvah, the symbolic marker of the child's coming of age, and the process leading up to it, is truly as powerful as the child's birth. One watches with amazement and trepidation as one's child emerges from the womb of childhood to the much larger world of adolescence.

We watch my daughter blossom, now almost totally beyond our control, into a person with her own extraordinary set of convictions and talents and concerns. We look back through her childhood, and imagine what she will look like at the next turning point of her life. There is gratitude and awe as we see how far she has come, sadness as we see her growing up and away, excitement and pride and joy at who she is becoming.

One dear friend, listening to my reflections on this process, observed that ideally we would pay such focused, awe-inspired attention to every phase of our children's lives. But we cannot — we are busy, distracted, overwhelmed.

As this time of celebration unfolds, however, we see our children in all their beauty and richness. The sense of awe and gratitude is enormous.

Just before the Song of the Sea that gives this Shabbat its name, we find one of the most important statements about faith in the entire Torah. After reading of the Israelites' miraculous passage through the Red Sea, we hear, "And when Israel saw the wondrous power which God had wielded against the Egyptians, the people felt awe for God: they had faith in God and in God's servant, Moses" (14:31).

This is a moment of perfect faith. The people have just witnessed God's awesome power first hand. They see, they feel awe, and they believe. Of course, it is not long before the Israelites are complaining again about the journey through the desert, because they cannot sustain the complete faith of the miraculous moments in normal times.

For us, too, the moments of revelation — those times when we feel God's presence and our own faith and gratitude most keenly — are fleeting. The bat mitzvah will come to an end and our family will return to normal time, normal struggles, normal disappointments. But just as our Torah and our liturgy ask us again and again to recall the memory of the grand events of our people's history to nourish our faith as a people, so too, each of us can return to the magnificent moments of faith in our own lives. If we have savored these moments, they can continue to nourish us.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at