The Jewish people are on the cusp of war now, a transformative war, and the air beats with moment, both momentous and monumental; it feels like nothing the world has ever seen. Maybe this is the beginning of a paradigm shift for the Jewish people, a drawing together. Maybe this is the dawning of the age of post-tribalism. Right now, Jews are clanging back and forth between poles: determined, uneasy, sunk deep into ruts of sorrow and hysteria, humbled and mute before the greatness of Israel, open and vulnerable to God. We sit shiva and collect money for ceramic vests, we run to shelters and grab on to the heroism around us, and all of us — all of us — are searching for the words to describe, to comfort, to instruct. But when the moments in life defy words, we turn to song.
Modern Israel may well have begun her redemption through creative art, with all of the glorious music of our people newly woven together from thousands of years of exile experience, but what living through these times has taught me is that beyond the contemporary burst of creative inspiration, it is the songs of the Bible — psalms, prophetic prose, poetry — that give shape to the indeterminate. They articulate the moment. They are the Tree of Life, I’m discovering, and holding fast to them gives me a respite from the abyss.
Connecting with the dense poetic and prophetic sections never came naturally to me. Sporadically, a passage resonated, but usually whenever I read or tried to study those passages, they just crumbled like crackery cardboard in my mouth, dusty and tasteless. I knew they were meant to be redolent, round and lush and juicy, and transformative – years of Bible study wove that instinct deep, but I just did not know how to bite into them. Their grand and distant pronouncements fell flat. So I never got comfortable with Psalms, or Isaiah, with Zecharia or the songs of the Bible. I never felt them intimately, and so I kept them at a distance. I was resigned to thinking that there were some things in life that I would just never get.
Studying biblical poetry requires great dedication. Its language and idioms are broad and vague. Exposure to biblical poetic prose is often by way of the haftarah, the portion from the prophetic writings that is read weekly on Shabbat after the Torah reading. Either that, or from the three poetic megillot woven into our holiday services. Or maybe from recitation of psalms. Even with this sustained engagement, year in and year out, most of us remain indifferent to these passages. Honestly, until now I thought that only the most dedicated, acrobatic, associative thinkers find symbolic relevance and inspiration in the ambiguous, difficult sections. I tried to be dedicated. I tried to find inspiration, and relevance, but I could not.
And now, suddenly, I am taking huge bites of the Bible’s poetry. I’m gulping it down. All at once, it is succulent, and juicy, bubbling on my lips and skittering down my throat. I don’t know where it gets its sweetness and tang, its pungency. I don’t know why the words fill my mouth to bursting. But what this war has done for me is release the scents and flavors and presence of these large swaths of the Bible.
Only now, at what feels like a major movement in the culmination of the Jewish story has my heart been fully opened to the music of the Torah’s song. I roll the verses of Psalms on my tongue. Most of the time, I can’t tell you what I’m tasting, but it is the kind of bite that careens up to the tips of your ears and tingles your fingers. I feel the weight of Shirat Ha-azinu (a poem at nearly the end of the Torah) for the first time, as light and heavy as a newborn in its mother’s arms, like holding God’s Torah, which is the shirat ha-olam, the song of the world (Arukh HaShulchan, YD 270).
What I am discovering is that this event – this burning, humbling, confusing, awful massacre and looming war – binds me to shirah, to poetry. Do you feel the shift, as well – where the constraints of narrative no longer suffice? Our minds and souls yearn to inhabit the wider spaces that poetry’s breadth opens for us. We are each one of us becoming poets, and so we are drawn to the transcendent voice of Torah’s shirah.
Suddenly, the language of the poems in Tanach are heady with meaning; I’m reeling under its impact, nodding vigorously. Yes! Yes! Moses and David, Deborah and Hannah, Jeremiah and Isaiah and Daniel described for us in a myriad different ways the measure of what lies just beyond: “towards evening, there shall be light.” I read the Song of Deborah now, in the moment of our existential uncertainty: “When the nation binds together as wildness overruns Israel, then praise God! Let all of your enemies perish, O Lord: but let them that love Him be as the sun when it comes out in its might.” Yes! Every morning as we make hundreds of breakfast sandwiches for the soldiers stationed around my moshav, Deborah is thinking of us.
I open Jeremiah randomly: “Thus says the Lord God of Israel to me; Take this wine cup of wrath from My hand, and force all the nations that I send you to drink it. And they shall drink, and retch, and go mad, because of the sword that I will send among them.” Yes! To this we are galvanized, Jeremiah – we are ready. I taste these words, and they taste like manna: sweet like a honeyed wafer, like a mother’s milk, designed just for us, for this moment.
I tried something with Shirat Deborah. I attempted to adjust her song for us, for Israel in 2023, for the Jewish people throughout the world, and after a few minutes I realized that I was just copying her song, word for word. I felt like the protagonist in Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The fictional Menard reimagined Cervantes’ Don Quixote for his contemporary French audience by presenting them with the exact, word-for-word copy of the original. His “improved” version was hailed as a remarkable, insightful composition rich with all of the context that had elapsed in the interim between Cervantes’ groundbreaking book, and its “reworking” in the 20th century. Before me on the page, in my handwriting, was Deborah’s shirah, but I read it as my own, as it was meant to be – her gift to the world, and to me. And like Menard’s Quixote, my Shirat Deborah was a layered piece, laden with thousands of years of having been read in different contexts, in different places. It is fully ours to claim right now, at this moment of our national reckoning.
When every verse and chapter seems immediate and reflective of our daily experience, then I can cling to the Torah in ways I never had before, and be enveloped by it. It is as if this parasha’s haftarah was chosen as a gift just for us, for right now:
But you, Israel are my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.
You, whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called for you from its farthest corners, and said to you, you are my servant; I have chosen you, and not cast you away.
Fear not; for I am with you: be not dismayed; for I am your God: I will strengthen you; indeed, I will help you; moreover, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.
Behold, all that raged against you shall be debased, and confounded: they shall be as nothing! They that strive with you shall perish. — from this week’s haftarah, Isaiah 41
There is much to do these days, so much goodness that we can do to bring light into the world, and I am surrounded by the euphoria of so many basking in those good acts, and of the glory of our people. But we should also allow ourselves to re-engage with the shirah of Tanach, for it was precisely for this time, among many other times in our past, that it was composed and bequeathed to us. “And it shall be said on that day: Behold, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us. This is the Lord; for whom we waited. We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.” Let the words soar through your mouth; let us sing them as we let them be the script through which we live this moment. “Be gracious with us, Lord.” And let this be an hour where we hold tight to each other, and hold tight to God.