22 Jan 2016

Beshalah 5776: Beyond Words

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‘I’ve written some poetry I don’t understand myself’ — Carl Sandburg

When I was six years old I attended Hancock Park elementary school in Los Angeles. My parents had delayed sending me to Jewish day school so that I could be a student in Edith Shain’s class. Edith taught kindergarten. She taught us how to think critically and was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ teachers who impact you fundamentally.

There was a fact about her that we all knew and were proud of. She was the nurse in the picture. The nurse being kissed by a sailor in the famous photo taken by Eisenstaedt on V-J day in Times Square? That’s her. That photo always had great personal meaning to me; my kindergarten and first grade teacher became an American icon of hope and freedom.

Years later when she was interviewed about the photo and asked what it meant she said:

‘That picture says everything. It says commitment, it says future, of course it has love, it has plans, projections, it has everything in it’. [1]

One wonders how it is that a photo of one image could express to us so many layers of meaning. The snapshot of an innocent kiss conveys an image of love, hope, future and joy, some of the greatest values that we hold most dear; values which we had, at the time that picture was taken, fought and died for.

At the time of the Exodus from Egypt there was no Alfred Eisenstaedt and there was no Life magazine. But I imagine that if there was, there would be some iconic shots of the momentous and unprecedented unfurling of human liberty and freedom that would embody the episode.

That old cliché ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is not quite accurate. Even ten thousand words could not fully present what the one image does. Curiously though, only a few words of poetry very well could. Photos are not the only mode we have devised to capture, in faithful measure, the great experiences and values of life that defy definition through prose. We of course have art and music, and we have poetry. It is through poetry that our freedom was captured and communicated for posterity. Literary and visual[2] poetry is the centrepiece of Perashat Beshalah.

In witnessing the great expression of love and commitment from G-d and the poetic justice in that those who had ruthlessly tossed our own children into the water were now consumed themselves by water, the Children of Israel came to experience a reality that could only be expressed through a medium that supports the multi-faceted nuance of the great event. This was an event in which, as poetically described in the Talmud,[3] ‘if all the seas were ink, and all the trees were quills, and all the sky was parchment’ we would fail to explain its fullness and truth. This was not an occasion for explanation but for expression.

The Poem of the Sea/Shirat Hayam goes beyond a gloss and instead attempts to present the very experience to us. It stands for us as our ancient Eisenstadt V-J day photo. What we witnessed at the sea shore was much more than the vanquishing of our oppressors, the poem includes the ‘commitment[4], future[5], love[6] and plans[7]…’ of this instance of victory and freedom. In its layered beauty, worlds of meaning are housed and find their interpretations through the generations of souls who explore it.

In reading the works of the great poets we open ourselves to absorbing the intricacies of the world’s great glories and we learn to know the essential difference between beauty and sensationalism.

At the dawning of our freedom as a nation, on the shores of the Red Sea, we reacted honestly to what we saw and felt and we hoped that the hearts of our children and theirs after them would be committed to reacting to the realities of their lives as honestly. We prayed that our nation would be of those few on earth who were not intimidated by trends or fashions. We were determined to cast our lot with such souls — even if they would not always be the dominant ones of society.

Like Edith Shain who taught me, among other things, that the classic fairy tales were not as Walt Disney had told them; that just because everyone likes them doesn’t mean they are better than the originals. And like our ancestors who once stood by the sea in wonder and in love with G-d who created and delivered them, and in poetry captured all of the fullness of the meaning of freedom, we sing this poem every single day in our prayers as a testament to the resonant and complex beauty that is life.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck
[1] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/edith-shain-nurse-v-j-kiss-sailor-times-square-immortalized-life-photo-dies-91-article-1.184434

[2] The words are written in Torah in 3 overlapping columns which express the imagery of the walls of water on either side and the nation passing through the middle.

[3] Shabbat, 11a

[4] Until they crossed — your people
O G-d unitl they crossed — the people you fashioned
You brought them, You planted them
on the mount of your heritage (15:17)

[5] A foundation of your royal throne
You prepared, O G-d the Holy Temple, O Lord
founded by your hands (15:17)

[6] Who is like You among the gods, YHVH?
who is like You, majestic among the holy-ones,
…Doer of wonders! (15:11)

[7] I will sing to G-d… (15:1)

Law and Lore

About the Prayers – The Amida

Section II

The second section of the Amida is usually comprised of 13 blessings. On Shabbat and festivals, however, these are replaced with only one blessing that is unique to the day. On Shabbat there is different wording for this section for each of the three services (Shaharit, Minha and Arbit).

There are two reasons given for not saying the usual 13 blessings on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
One opinion states that because it takes time to read through all 13 blessings we reduce them so as not want to tax the congregation in honour of Shabbat.[1] The other opinion is that the usual 13 blessings ask G-d for various needs like sustenance and health and we are concerned that in asking for their needs people might cry or become depressed and one is not meant to be in a state of sadness on Shabbat[2].

In essence, however, there is nothing about the 13 blessings themselves that is problematic on Shabbat, only the possible effects of saying them. Therefore, if one began saying even the first word ‘Atah’ of the usual blessings on Shabbat by mistake, it is proper to complete that berakha and then revert to the special wording for Shabbat or Yom Tov, rather than stopping in the middle. This is done at whichever point one remembers.

This is not done, however, if one mistakenly began saying the usual 13 blessings during the Musaph prayer because Musaph is never comprised of those blessings. Therefore, if one mistakenly began ‘Atah Honen…’ during Musaph, at the point one realises the mistake one stops immediately and begins the proper wording for the Musaph of the day.
[1] Berakhot, 21a; R. Shelomo Adrete (RiShBA), I, 115; Magen Abraham, 126:4

[2] Yerushalmi, Shabbat, 15:3

Parasha Perspectives

IV              Beshalach 

22b           Journey out of Egypt begins the long way
around (13:17-22)
23             People trapped as planned by God (14:1-14)
24             Miracle of sea splitting (14:15-25)
25             Showdown: Destruction of Egyptians (14:26-31)
26             Shira: Song of the sea (15:1-19)
27a           Miriam leads Women’s Shira (15:20-21)
27b           Moshe sweetens waters due to the peoples’ complaints of thirst (15:22-26)
27c           No food, the people complain again (15:27-16:3)
27d           Bread from heaven (16:4-10)
28a           What is manna? Not on Shabbat (16:11-27)
28b           Shabbat. Remembrance of manna (16:28-36)
29             More water problems: People complain, Moshe complies (17:1-7)
30             Amalekites attack, Yehoshua and chosen men successfully defend (17:8-13)
31             Remembrance of Amalek (17:14-16)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS