Song of the Sea

Next Shabbat, during the Torah reading, I will chant the Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, pictured to the left. It brings back happy memories of cantillation class at JTS; this was one of the special things we were required to learn, in addition to the six trope systems. Preparing the Torah cantillation is one of my favorite parts of my role at Szim Salom; it keeps me on my toes, since I always have to prepare, even if I am familiar with the verses. I prepare in general as well–it’s always good to go over the liturgy, since something will through in a new way–but the Torah portion assures the preparation.

The Song of the Sea is often chanted responsively, but this time, over Zoom, that would be too cacophonous. I will just have to encourage people to sing along, while muted, at the appropriate parts.

It has now been nearly eight years since I began attending synagogue in general, and over three years since I assumed Szim Salom’s cantorial role. I hesitate to call myself the synagogue’s cantor, even though that’s my role; cantors are on a completely different level in my mind. When I think of the word “cantor,” I imagine not only the legendary cantors, but the ones known mainly to their own synagogues, who have brought the language and liturgy into people’s lives, year after year, generation after generation, with wisdom and feeling that can be conveyed only through the doing. But it’s also a responsibility, and it has been mine now for three years. I love the responsibility; sometimes I feel flat-out exhausted when the weekend arrives, but then when it comes time to lead the service, the language, rhythms, melodies, and togetherness take over.

It is exciting to see Szim Salom, after almost thirty years of existence, becoming accepted in Hungary’s larger Jewish worship community. For many years, the General Assembly of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) did not recognize Szim Salom or our sister congregation, Bét Orim, because as progressive (European Reform) congregations, we diverged too far from what they considered halakhic. To date, our rabbi is the only female rabbi in Hungary, as far as I know. But through the extensive, big-hearted efforts of individuals including Péter Árvai from our community and members of Neolog communities, we not only gained official recognition (In February 2020, the Mazhihisz officially welcomed Szim Salom and Bét Orim as associate members), but received gestures of extraordinary goodwill. Gábor Fináli, the rabbi of the beautiful Ohél Ávráhám on Hunyadi tér, has decided to invite us and Bét Orim to hold services there about once a month (once it is possible to hold services in person again). Over the years, we have had no real place of worship; in my three years here, we met in three different locations. So this gesture meets an urgent need and opens up possibilities of friendship and learning.

As I have often thought before, it’s essential to have different levels and forms of observance within Judaism, as within any religion. This opens up the possibilities, not only for individuals, but for long-term traditions. It also allows for resilience. People change over time in their relation to religion, worship, sacred texts, and so on. When the traditions grow too rigid or forbidding, any personal change can lead to a break. But when they do not, or at least when many varieties exist, a person can “hang in there,” so to speak. I find it important and exciting to hang in there. In the beginning of my Jewish life, I was intense with enthusiasm and commitment–not so much to the laws of observance as to the learning of texts and melodies. Hours and hours went into study and listening, evening after evening. Later, things slowed down a bit, but the commitment did not go away. I have started to find my own way, which is not anyone else’s, but which is not isolated either.

The returns remind me how much there is to come. Chanting the Song of the Sea and feeling the joy of it all over again—the image and sound of the sea parting, the phrases that bring up so many memories—I know that not only does the text endure, not only do I in some way, despite aging and mortality, but person and text come together, again and again, around the world, as time roars and crashes around us.

Phases and Counterpoints

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Popular psychology often describes human life in terms of stages: the five stages of grief, the four stages of culture shock, and so on. Such formulations are simplistic and untrue, except as general templates. Our lives cannot be chunked; we may go through phases, but they blend and combine and sometimes appear out of order.

Still there are reasons to mark points in time, to honor life events, whether of the past, present, or future, whether our own or someone else’s. The point is not to dictate joy and sorrow but rather to create a counterpoint. My own thoughts and feelings do not disappear during a ritual, but I hear them alongside something else; in this way they turn into something new. Ritualized mourning will not match my own mourning, nor ritualized celebration my own joy; so the ritual lifts me both out of and into myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one can think of Jewish ritual as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” He notes that the first time that the word qadosh, “holy,” is used in the Bible, it is applied to the seventh day–that is, to time. Shabbat is art and architecture of time in that we ourselves shape it. It is artifice in the best sense of the word; it comes out of intention and imagination.

Jews vary widely in our observance of Shabbat. Many do not observe it at all, many observe it strictly, and many do something in between (or change over time). Differences aside, even an awareness of this day can affect how we go about our lives. It contrasts with our everyday timing, urges, and impulses. Moreover, it is we who have to build it; it has been observed and described for centuries, but we contribute to its structure, not just once, but again and again. We lay down a block or beam; we set a window.

Something similar can be said for other holidays (inside and outside of Judaism). They are ways of honoring and structuring time: not our personal time, but the time of a larger entity.

This Friday and Saturday, as Szim Salom, we celebrated Shabbat Shira, the special Shabbat that includes the Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea) in the Torah reading. Shabbat Shira takes place once a year. Traditions vary from place to place, but it is common for the entire congregation to rise for the Song of the Sea and to sing certain verses responsively.

In the cantillation course I took at JTS last year–taught by the wonderful Cantor Perry Fine–we devoted much time to the Song of the Sea because of its importance and complexity. The leader must know how to alternate between regular Torah trope and the responsive melody; moreover, he or she must be steeped in the text, capable of giving it cadence and tone.

800px-Song_of_the_seaFor this responsive reading at Szim Salom yesterday, we made many preparations; on Friday night, after service, we went over the melody and verses; the rabbi spoke about the significance of the responsive verses and their difference from the rest of the text. On Saturday morning, we invited everyone to come up to the scroll to see the Shirat Hayam, which has a different layout from the rest of the text. Before beginning the Torah reading, we reviewed the melody and verses again. From there, things swelled; the reading was truly responsive and joyous. It is not for description here; it happened there and is now wrapped up in memory.

Shirat Hayam (in Chapter 15 of Exodus) tells how Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, which parted left and right for them, and how Pharaoh’s horses, riders, chariots, and captains perished in the waves. While most of the text relates a succession of events, the responsive verses have a sound of eternity. They are part of Jewish (and sometimes Christian) regular liturgy, hymns, and piyutim; people readily recognize verse 15:11, “Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” and 15:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”

In this way, right there in the Shirat Hayam, you feel the counterpoint of timelessness and time: a song rising up out of a tale, or a ritual out of history.

As I thought about this, before and afterward, I remembered Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young…”) I started thinking about some lines that I had not given as much attention before. When I think of the poem, I usually remember the second stanza first of all:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

All of this I thought I understood. But just a little later, at the end of the third stanza, a phrase takes me by surprise: “the artifice of eternity.”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

This is supposed to be strange, I think; it goes against notions that eternity just happens. Eternity is created, magnificently created; it opposes nature, which “is begotten, born, and dies.” The speaker yearns to become artistic form and creation; the fourth stanza begins,

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

“Once out of nature”–this phrase is peculiar too. What does it mean? Perhaps “released from the phases of life,” released from the body and its decay. Once out of nature, I will take a new kind of form, the speaker suggests, and it will not be “from any natural thing.” But there are still more surprises to come:

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

There is a lot to say about the repetition of “gold” (“goldsmiths,” “hammered gold,” “gold enamelling” and “golden”) and the sardonic “keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” But it is the ending that catches my thoughts: “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” How is it that the golden form, “out of nature,” sings of time and passing, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come”? It is the singing that sets it apart; to sing of time is to gather it up.

This singing is not only external; it involves studying “monuments of its [that is, the soul’s] own magnificence.” Here, to study is to sing; through study you rise up into form. This poem invites its own study; it seems easy to understand but keeps startling you (as though you were a drowsy emperor). It draws you into a continuous puzzle that, with each solution, brings new meanings to the whole. Its iambic pentameter (with aberrations) both lulls and wakes the ear; the stresses and counter-stresses make the song.

That’s only the beginning, though; if you read the poem along with its companion, “Byzantium,” you understand it in still more lights and tones.

So it is with the phases of life; they exist not on their own, or even in combination with each other, but in counterpoint with the things we read and sing, the time we honor, the words we slowly come to understand.

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Dave Pearson, Sailing to Byzantium (gouache and ink)

Dave Pearson’s Sailing to Byzantium is part of his Byzantium series.

The image of the Shirat Hayam in a Torah scroll is borrowed from Wikipedia. As for the photo at the top, I took it last week on my way to school. The gold behind the trees looks like a sea or a lake, but it isn’t. That morning, there was a straight cloud line that hung low over the horizon; where the cloud line ended, the sun’s rays spread. A few minutes later, this sea of gold vanished, as the sun rose up past the line, into the clouds.

There was a problem with the formatting of this post; it is now fixed.