Reading the song and singing our own (Radical Torah repost)
February 03, 2009
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.
The Song of the Sea bedazzles with metaphors for God's military might:
In Your great triumph You break Your opponents;
You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw.
At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up,
The floods stood straight like a wall,
The deeps froze in the heart of the sea...
God's fury here is fire, and wind, and ice -- three of the strongest forces the natural world offers. The metaphors overpower the poem's narrative. Yes, the Song of the Sea reminds us of the story we've just read, but here the imagery takes precedence over the retelling. Read it once as poetry, and notice how the words roll like waves.
And then read it again as an expression of theology. Shirat ha-Yam teaches us that the appropriate response to survival is song. That he who seeks to conquer may himself be conquered, and that we have God to thank for our continued existence. That God is great, worthy of the finest words we can offer.
Three-quarters of the way through, we hear a new strain of melody. The inhabitants of other nations, the poem tells us, quake in fear at what our God has done to the Egyptians:
The peoples hear, they tremble;
Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia.
Now are the clans of Edom dismayed;
The tribes of Moab -- trembling grips them;
All the dewllers in Canaan are aghast.
Terror and dread descend upon them;
Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone --
Till your people cross over, O Lord,
Till your people cross whom You have ransomed.
You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain...
I'm not entirely comfortable with the language of fear here. Awe is fitting, but the kind of fear I see in the Song of the Sea goes beyond that. The poem depicts entire communities cringing from the anticipated blow -- a gorgeous use of hyperbole, but also suggestive of a relationship with God that troubles me. I don't want my God to be revered out of fear.
The notion that our God is mightier than any other god in the neighborhood, and will smack down anyone who crosses us, may feel antiquated to contemporary liberal Jews. It's theologically problematic for those of us who hold that though different peoples may choose different faces for our ascent, we're climbing the same mountain. If our God isn't just "ours," this kind of singular bodyguard relationship doesn't make sense. What's more, history calls it into question. The seas don't part in today's world, no matter how much we need them to.
But the last three lines of that excerpt change its tone. Once the Israelites finish their wanderings, the tenor of the song shifts. We may be approaching our desert wanderings with bravado, Hashem flanking our rag-tag mixed multitude, but once we cross over the need to instill fear evaporates. We need protection in the interim place between where we came from and where we're going, but once we get there, we can relinquish that metaphor for God -- and that mode of interaction with the other nations around us.
What does it mean to be planted on God's holy mountain, as the song predicts? Though the last lines clearly imply the building of the Temple, I want to suggest an alternate reading. The Exodus was never merely an escape from; it was also, and more importantly, a journey toward. Toward freedom, toward wholeness, and toward the responsibility implied by the covenant we formed when Torah was revealed at Sinai. Maybe this too is what it means to be planted in God's holy mountain: the way we, individually and collectively, root our Jewish identity in the text we received at the foot of Sinai.
A text which includes both black fire and white fire, words and the spaces around them. Shirat Ha-Yam is a praise-song from a particular place and time. In the white spaces that surround the written words, we can sing our own songs of praise, our own shout-outs to the ineffable One Who breathes us into new lives, new journeys, new iterations.
Reflect on your life, and imagine a moment of profound liberation and rejoicing. Think of a time when you were--or, perhaps, a time when you hope to be--free from a Mitzrayim, a narrow-place which constrains you. What images would you use to express your joy at that liberation? What words make up your Song of the Sea, your song of jubilation to God today? What new song can we sing to God together when we reach this year's Shabbat of Song?