Are you off to the seashore this summer? When you stand at water’s edge, what else do you hear besides the happy shrieks of children, the gulls’ cries and roar of the waves? As you contemplate the ocean’s grandeur, listen carefully. The medieval Jewish classic, Perek Shira, Chapter of Song, captures this life-giving song, placing short biblical praises of God from across the Hebrew Bible into the “mouths” of the sea, coral reef fish and stars, among other wonders of the natural world. I have celebrated the birth of my first grandchild by creating an aleph-bet picture book that adapts Perek Shira into a celebration of the environment and its Creator for children of all ages, All the World Praises You! an illuminated aleph-bet book, appearing July 15. Honeybees for my name, and dahlias, for my little granddaughter lead you on a wild ride through our precious environment, replete with non-denominational Jewish spiritual joy and environmental ethics. This essay is another in a series that I have posted in recent weeks, presenting art and ideas drawn from this celebration of nature in the Jewish soul.
Who of us is not overcome by the power and enormity of the ocean? Just like many of us who stand at water’s edge, the Psalmist sensed God’s power in the roar and rush of the ocean’s waves. He expressed the feeling in this verse from Psalm 93. In fact, this short psalm focuses specifically on how ocean displays God’s great power, harking back to the primordial waters prior to the separation of the waters on the second day of Creation. Bible scholar Amos Hakham suggests that “This verse goes back to tell what happened before ‘the world was established so that it cannot be moved,’ (verse 1). The mighty floodwaters lifted up their voice, and rose up with a great tumult to inundate the entire world…” Only God, the psalm continues, is more powerful than the roar of the ocean. The most important of all rabbinic commentators on Tanakh and Talmud, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitschaki), who lived in 11th century France, associated this verse with God’s protection of Israel, invoking the “strong hand and outstretched arm” with which God brought us out of Egypt: “I know that more than the voices of many waters, which roar over us, You are mighty, O Lord, and Your hand is powerful over them.”
The verses follow the contours of the rocking waves, as the ocean—its enormity filling the eye— transforms from calm lapping to a sweeping breaker. The sudden swell of the wave, hoisting even the words of the verse into the droplet-misted sky, draws out the “radical amazement,” that Abraham Joshua Heschel saw as the root of awe at the Creator. Yet the honeybee is safe from its waves, while the small dahlia transforms to a child’s beach-ball.
My small painting of the ocean emphasizes the change from calm to violent waves. Countless artists have explored the oceans’ nature and moods. The nineteenth-century British painter, J.M. William Turner, for instance, painted many profound atmospheric scenes of both calm and violent seas; click here to see his painting, The Bell Rock Lighthouse.
The poetry and painting lead us to muse about aspects of our own lives, our relationship with God, and how we relate to the natural world in both our mundane and our spiritual lives. How do you think about the power of the waves, and endlessness of the deep oceans that encircle our globe? Contemplating the ocean, knowing both its power and fragility in the wake of human impact, in what ways can you relate your own life to both its health and power? Does the ocean evoke thoughts of timelessness? Of great power? Of vulnerability despite timelessness and power? What do you understand about the Divine while you gaze at the sea?
You will find the painting, and more information on All the World Praises You! on its webpage. Another version of this essay, suggestions for related reading, along with materials for elementary-school age, bar/bat mitzvah age and high-school and adult readers, including rich discussions of the paintings’ meaning, the letter itself, explorations in environmental science, and even links to “citizen-science” programs, are available at Diving Deeper! Enrichment Materials for All the World Praises You! Enjoy! There’s more to come!
All the World Praises You! may be ordered directly, and is available (from July 15) wherever books are sold in the USA, or through Amazon.com across the world. Please see www.AlltheWorldPraisesYou.com for more information. The notes above are adapted from Diving Deeper: Enrichment Materials for All the World Praises You: please click on the link above for more. Sources for quotations are included there.
All the World Praises You! an illuminated aleph-bet book, by Debra Band, with new translations by Arnold J. Band.
All materials herein copyright (c) Debra Band 2018. All rights reserved.