Among my favorite poems is “Eli Eli” by Hannah Senesh:
My God, my God
I pray these things never end
The sand and the sea
The rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens,
The prayer of man.
Senesh was of course the young Zionist who parachuted behind German lines and made her way into her native Hungary in order to rescue fellow Jews. She was captured and we now know tortured mercilessly. On November 7, 1944 she was executed by a German firing squad.
Her writing and poetry remain. Her words are often added to our Shabbat prayers, especially when joining together at the beach.
And yet she titled the poem not “My God, My God” but instead “Halichah L’Keisariah—Walking to Caesarea.” In her mind the poem was first and foremost a reaffirmation of the Zionist devotion to the land. It was not as we choose to envision it: a heartfelt prayer about finding God in nature. And yet we persist in reimagining her poem. We rewrite Senesh into our prayers and prayerbooks.
Likewise the ancient rabbis reframed the Mi Chamocha, found in this week’s portion and within Shirat HaYam—the Song of the Sea:
Who is like You, O Lord,
among the gods that are worshiped;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, working wonders! (Exodus 15:11)
The rabbis placed the Mi Chamocha within their words about redemption. Our past redemption by the shores of the sea became the promise of a future salvation. In effect the Mi Chamocha affirmed the often felt sentiment, “Please save us like You once rescued us.”
And yet when we examine the context of the Mi Chamocha we discover that it is a victory, war poem. Look at its opening verses:
The Lord, the Warrior—
Lord is His name!
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
He has cast into the sea;
And the pick of his officers
Are drowned in the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 15:3-4)
In the rabbinic imagination the Mi Chamocha is transformed from a war poem into a statement about God’s majesty and power. They could imagine nothing else. Living in an age after the destruction of the Temple and most especially the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Romans (in 135 C.E.), they needed to reimagine God not leading Israel’s armies and crushing our enemies but instead within the gentleness of the Jewish heart.
This is how they made Torah their own.
This is how they ensured that Torah would survive into the present day.
The Rabbis picked and pulled from the verses that spoke to their hearts and their circumstances. By placing the Mi Chamocha in our prayerbooks they recast it and transformed it. They changed a war poem into one that speaks about miracles and redemption. They allowed room for us to see in the Torah’s ancient words the hope for a future salvation from all evil. In our own day, we discover within these verses of the Mi Chamocha the promise of freedom that rightfully belongs to all people.
It is such efforts that make Torah our own. It is how we have always created meaning. It is how we continue to wrest meaning from the Torah’s verses.
We reinterpret. We reimagine. We write a new script for our own day.
We walk along the sea and its beaches. We become reacquainted with the words of an ancient poem.
We rediscover our God.