Eleven years ago, my husband, Peter Lipton, died of a heart attack at the end of a game of squash. Paramedics worked hard to save his life, pumping his chest as if he were a drowning man they’d hauled from the waves, and salt water might gush from his lungs. Then they stopped, and it was my turn to drown. ‘Down into the depths like a stone’.
In aftermath of Peter’s death, I experienced life as if under water. Semi-familiar shapes floated by in the gloom, faces loomed in out of focus, and sounds were distant and distorted. One of the things that kept me afloat in those years was arriving at Lauderdale Road Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on Shabbat morning in time for Az Yashir, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15 / Shemot 15) I felt as if my life depended on it.
I think I’m not the only one who feels strongly about Az Yashir. In every Sephardi synagogue I’ve ever been to, the Song of the Sea is sung with a collective enthusiasm that defies logic. Old men who’ve sung it every morning of their lives sing as though they themselves just emerged safe from the water and turned back to see their enemies vanish under the waves. Sickness, loss, dislocation, disappointment, death itself – a veritable Pharaoh’s army of the things we fear – sink day after day like stones into the watery depths. And we, Thank God, are on dry land.
The Song of the Sea performed by Rabbi Hayim Louk according to a tradition of the Jews of Morocco
Some of the power of the Song of the Sea is preserved in visual representations of what must surely be the Bible’s most cinematographic moment.
Torah scrolls make the words of the Song stand out visually (O, I know it’s just a coincidence that the lines look like waves …)
The Red Sea crossing was a theme of one of the recently excavated Huqok mosaics:
The next five images are from Passover Haggadot (see more here). Note the emphasis on armor — these were soldiers, not civilians!
Some of the Song’s power is preserved in musical settings of the biblical text. Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’ was generally deemed to be a failure, but the Song of the Sea stood out, and went on to achieve a life of its own:
It’s somewhat less melodic … but here’s a Ladino ballad, and the story of its survival.
Crossing the Red Sea in Ladino: A Rare Sephardic Passover Ballad
By Dr. Rina Benmayor
Kuando el puevlo de Yisrael d’Ayifto salieron kantando (“When the people of Israel left Egypt singing”) is a ballad, or romansa, about the Exodus that was sung in Ladino as part of the Passover Seder in homes and communities in the Ottoman Empire. Like all good ballads, it tells a gripping story, in this case of the exodus from Egypt. The ballad is particularly vivid in its poignant and dramatic descriptions of the men, women, and children, carrying the dough that would become matzah as well as gold, the lightest of their possessions. It is complete with dialogue: Moses, with his flaming staff, exhorts his fearful people to have faith, that they will not die tombless in the wild. Then, all of a sudden, God’s voice thunders down from heaven instructing Moses to lead his people across the sea, while Pharaoh and his armies, waving their red banner, are close in pursuit. We know how the story ends. The ballad ends with praises to God Almighty, King of the Universe, for his miracles. Read more
And somewhere between Handel and the Ladino ballad (a bit closer to the latter…), Bob Dylan was also inspired to sing about Pharaoh. He performed this song live at event with Martin Luther King.
And some – a great deal! – of the Song of the Sea’s power is preserved in songs about the exodus from Egypt composed by African slaves in the American South and the Caribbean islands.
A current exhibition at Washington D.C.’s Museum of the Bible, a project of the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, provides a shocking glimpse into the world of the Bible and African slaves.
The exhibition’s focus is the ‘Slave Bible’, printed in London in 1807 by the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. While not an official organ of the Church of England, the Society was far from marginal. The governors listed in its 1820 proceedings include the Bishop of London, the Dean of Westminster, the Lord Mayor of London, and Robert Peel, the man who created the British Police Force (Bobbies are so-called for him) and what became the Conservative Party. Peel’s family made its fortune in textiles, an industry almost inseparable in those days from cotton, and therefore from the slave trade.
Merely by exhibiting the Slave Bible and inviting response, the Museum of the Bible is engaging to an extent with the church’s role in the slave trade. But it’s not enough. As is clear from the Museum’s website (quoted here below with my highlighting and annotations), their condemnation of a perverted version of the Holy Scriptures, designed to perpetuate what we now recognize as the evil of slavery, is lukewarm. Bear in mind as you read this that evangelical churches in America are still segregated.
The Slave Bible, as it would become known, is a missionary book. It was originally published in London in 1807 on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of enslaved Africans [and to keeping them in their place, DL] toiling [a gentle word for what they did] in Britain’s lucrative Caribbean colonies. They used the Slave Bible to teach enslaved Africans how to read [a smoke screen – other texts could have been used, DL] while at the same time introducing them to the Christian faith [the Bible Museum hesitates to say out-loud what the exhibition title makes explicit: they aimed to convert the slaves to Christianity, DL]. Unlike other missionary Bibles, however, the Slave Bible contained only “select parts” of the biblical text. Its publishers [this decision wasn’t made by publishers for commercial reasons, but by the society itself to keep slaves down, DL] deliberately removed portions of the biblical text, such as the exodus story, that could inspire hope for liberation [this sounds like a kindness – don’t lead slaves to want what they can’t have. More likely, the slavers feared uprising, DL]. Instead, the publishers emphasized portions that justified and fortified [non-judgmental words for an act so negative, DL] the system of slavery that was so vital [again, non-judgmental] to the British Empire.
You can hear and read more via the popular US radio program All Things Considered:
What’s notable about this Bible is not just its rarity, but its content, or rather the lack of content. It excludes any portion of text that might inspire rebellion or liberation.
“About 90 percent of the Old Testament is missing [and] 50 percent of the New Testament is missing.”
Fortunately, the Slave Bible was a failure. Slaves learned by other means the Bible’s message of liberation. More than that, they found a way to use it against their own oppressors. The exodus story, especially, inspired many spirituals in which the children of Israel were the African slaves themselves and Pharaoh was a slave owner. No wonder the drowning of Pharaoh’s army – the sprawling global infrastructure of the slave trade – became a potent symbol of hope, and left an extraordinary musical legacy.
Once again, the power of the slave shout song is not in the melody. But don’t despair, The Golden Gate Quartet more than make amends.
And if that wasn’t melodious enough, I’ve reserved the last word for the Queen:
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Didn’t Pharaoh’s army get drowned?
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep.
Happy Shabbat Shira!