Why innovative prayer isn't "strange fire" (Radical Torah repost)
Sex, Gender, and God at Zeek

Song for the seventh day

In my Moadim l'Simcha class ("Seasons of our Rejoicing" -- the class on the Hasidic spiritual year) we've been reading a difficult but beautiful text from Netivot Shalom by Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe. (For those who are curious, there's a partial translation of Netivot Shalom online here.) The text we're reading is a commentary on parashat Beshalach, the Torah portion which contains the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the "Song of the Sea" which the Israelites sing on the far shore. Traditionally, that song is studied on the seventh day of Pesach, which in the rabbinic understanding is the day when the Israelites actually took the leap of plunging into the waters.

The Slonimer writes that there are three levels of emunah, "faith" or "trust": the emunah of the heart, the emunah of the mind, and the emunah of the body. And the highest of these is the emunah of the body. When we fully embody our faith in God, then the divine presence dwells in us, and that is when we are able to sing the song our redemption song. (I blogged about this a few years ago in a post called Embodied trust, after reading part of this text in translation. In this class we're reading the text in the original, which is more challenging but proportionally more rewarding, too.) Beneath the extended-entry tag I'd like to unpack this text a little further, and share some of what touches me in it.

In the Torah story of the crossing of the sea, we read that "the people had awe of God." But the miracle of that crossing, the Slonimer says, was all love: it arose out of divine love, it was/is an experience of divine love. So how does awe (the Hebrew word here is yirah, sometimes translated "fear") come into the picture? (Usually ahavah and yirah, love and awe/fear, are juxtaposed as paired opposites.)

The Slonimer writes that at the splitting of the sea, the enormity of God's love for us was made manifest. (We allude to this when we sing "Your children saw your sovereignty, splitting the sea before Moses" daily in our liturgy. Interesting that he reads sovereignty -- malkhut -- as a metaphor for love, isn't it?) At the parting of the sea, we sang the song which arose out of our realization that we are deeply loved by God. Experiencing that love, we feel love in return. Our love is so great that it sparks awe. (Or, phrased another way: the awe arises out of love. Awe and love are two sides of the same coin. This is a lovely bridging of opposites.)

There's a simple level of yirah (fear/awe) which has to do with our relationship with the forbidden. (Fear of transgression, of accidentally breaking the mitzvot -- the perennial fear of doing something wrong.) But, the Slonimer says, awe which arises out of love is higher than that. The way we strengthen our teshuvah (the existential leap of turning-toward-God) is by thinking instead in terms of what is permitted. That's how we sweeten things in the eyes of the Eternal. This, he says, is what's really meant by "And the people had awe of God:" awe at this high level, the level which is positive rather than negative, arising out of love rather than fear. 

The Slonimer tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they hadn't yet arrived at having embodied faith, faith that goes so deep it's in one's very bones. It wasn't until the moment when they spontaneously cried out Mi chamocha, "Who is like You?" -- that's when their faith became truly embodied, when it penetrated them fully and became who they (we) are. Part of what's lovely here, to my mind, is that the leap of faith is so necessary. The children of Israel didn't have full faith until they took the leap of stepping into the sea, but they had to step into the sea before the full feeling of faith was present in their bones.

And it's when heart and body are united that we're able to sing the song at the sea. That's how we arrive at the high spiritual plane of love; and that's when the holy spirit (Ruach ha-Kodesh or Shekhinah) dwells upon/in us, which in turn enables our whole being to sing. There's a Hebrew pun here between shartah (dwells/inhabits) and shirah (song, as in the Song of the Sea); the Slonimer seems to be saying something about how when we unite heart and body in a leap of faith, God's presence inhabits us and we're able to sing a new song. That's what the seventh day of Pesach is supposed to be about. Taking that plunge, and being transformed by it.

 Elsewhere the Slonimer writes about how tzaddikim (righteous people) go through life as though they were crossing the sea, even when they're walking on dry land. Even though the crossing of the sea was a onetime redemptive experience, we should strive to live as though we ourselves were crossing the sea right now. We should try to live with constant awareness of the miraculous in our lives.

As we remember the story of our ancestors taking the leap of faith of entering the Sea of Reeds -- which our tradition tells us happened untold generations ago on this very day -- may we open ourselves to the transformative possibilities of walking through the world with eyes made for wonder.


Technorati tags: , , , .