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March 2009

This week's portion: the psalm I sing


I don't want to sing to the Lord
who has triumphed gloriously
horse and driver hurled into the sea

I don't want to say
this is my God and I will enshrine him
the God of my father, and I will exalt him

not if that means celebrating
when the floodwaters or the bombs
have left their bodies bent and bloodied

even if they were cruel taskmasters
even if they hit us first
even if they are not like us at all

the psalm I sing says
God does not turn God's back
on any part of creation

the psalm I sing says
the God who plays favorites
does not find favor in my eyes

I praise God who thundered at the angels
for daring to rejoice
when God's children were drowning

God who demands we wake up
face what we have permitted
bandage the bleeding with our own hands

This week we're in parashat Beshalach, which contains the account of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (and the drowning of the Egyptians in that sea.) There's a lot of other great stuff in this week's Torah portion too, but this year I got caught on the Song of the Sea, and that's where my poem arose out of this week.

Reading the Song of the Sea in the wake of the Gaza war has been painful for me. I cannot countenance rejoicing at the gory deaths of others, and neither can I argue this year that it's okay for me to focus on the part of the story I love (the leap of faith it took to walk into the waters) at the expense of the part that makes me cringe.

Song of the Sea is part of the traditional morning liturgy, and I often daven it aloud:

I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and might;
He is become my deliverance.
This is my God and I will enshrine Him;
The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.

It's printed in my siddur in the traditional brickwork pattern which distinguishes these lines on a Torah scroll, and I love the melody I know for it. My community stops singing after these first lines, and reads the rest in silence up until the last line ("God will reign forever and ever.") I've always understood that we fall silent at that point because after these opening lines the poem gets violent, and that's not the aspect of God we want to glorify. But this year, the violence which follows these lines stares me in the face, and I cannot turn away.

The reference in the penultimate stanza is to the story in the Talmud (Megillah 10b) that the angels wanted to sing a hymn at the destruction of the Egyptians, but God chided them, saying, "my children lie drowned in the sea, and you would sing?" This is the reason why we spill drops of wine from our second cup of joy, at the seder: to remind ourselves that because others perished, our joy in our liberation can never be complete.

[The psalm I sing.mp3]

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Reading the song and singing our own (Radical Torah repost)

Here's what I wrote about this week's parsha in 2006 for the now-defunct Radical Torah.

Shirat Ha-Yam is both visually and verbally breathtaking. Some compare it to brickwork, seeing in its shape the patterns of stone on stone that suggest how Torah can be foundational. Others consider it to evoke the ocean crossing, with ragged waves drawing back on both sides and a column of Israelites in the middle.

From the Jerusalem Talmud comes the metaphor that Torah is written in black fire on white fire. Some modern-day midrashists suggest that the text's missing stories exist for us to extrapolate from the white fire, the spaces between the visible words. If that's so, then this poem is redolent with untold stories -- or maybe the spaces in the text are openings for our own words of praise. Before we get to the white spaces, though, the black text is worth exploring.

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Diving into another spring semester

The life of an ALEPH rabbinic student is always full, and this winter is no exception. Because our fall semester didn't begin until after the high holidays (so many students and faculty have HHD pulpits that it didn't make sense to begin in early September and then halt our studies for the chagim), it's only now ending; one of my classes has scheduled oral final exams this week, and another class will have its final session on Friday (followed by the writing of several essays.) Meanwhile, my spring semester is beginning this week too.

I'm taking four classes this spring: one on the liturgy of festivals and holidays, one on spiritual direction (part of the three-year program in hashpa'ah which I began last month), and two in the field of Hasidut: an overview of Hasidic teachings on the sacred year, and an immersion in Kedushat Levi, the writings of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.

You can read more about each of these classes beneath the extended-entry tag.

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