Message from Rabbi Valerie
Shirat HaYam – Song of the Sea – as Concrete Poetry
In the art of poetry, concrete poetry – sometimes also called ‘shape poetry’ – is poetry whose visual appearance matches the topic of the poem. The words form shapes which illustrate the poem’s subject as a picture, as well as through their literal meaning.
This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, includes such a poem. Called Shirat HaYam – the Song of the Sea – this poem is the Israelites’ victory song that follows the famous story of our people crossing the Red Sea/Reed Sea to safety on the other side. In fleeing from the Egyptians, God parted the sea to create dry land, a pathway only for the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptians follow them, the waters close in and drown Pharaoh’s soldiers.
As you see in the picture above, the poem is arranged with sections of text staggered between portions of white space, very unusual for our Torah scroll. The meaning is not as obvious as other concrete poetry may be, so we have multiple midrashim – multiple interpretations – to give us insight into the meaning of its shape.
The Talmud describes the verses in Shirat HaYam as a wall with interlocking bricks. Although I learned that these bricks represented the pyramids build by the Israelite slaves, the Talmud explains that an interlocking wall has strength, perhaps meaning that the Israelites were given strength on their journey.
In another midrash, the white spaces represent the waves or walls of water while the black letters represent the Israelites crossing on a narrow strip of dry land in a long winding line.
A third midrash,, new to me, explains that the white spaces are God’s tears mingling with the words of victory, as God mourns the loss of God’s own creations: the Egyptians unnecessarily drowned in the sea because they followed Pharaoh’s instructions.
Another famous midrash, not directly related to Shirat HaYam, sees the white spaces as surges of fire. It’s one of my favorite ways to describe Torah, that the white fire behind the text is actually the story. Rashi explains, “The Torah was written in primordial time, in the presence of God, with black fire on white fire.”
The white spaces, or surges of white fire, are most apparent in this poem. Rabbi Laura Dugan-Kaplan gives a beautiful explanation of what we can learn from the “white fire” in Shirat HaYam: “It is our responsibility as students of Torah to live in the white spaces, to connect with the source of primordial Torah, to be critical readers and active interpreters of the black letters. The image of Shirat HaYam even gives us hints about how interpretation will come forth. One hint invites us to meditate; another invites us to feminist critique. Sometimes, what is said in the language of the black letters brings us to stunned silence, represented by the open white spaces…The teaching is clear: when our perspective becomes biased, we must return to the white spaces of primordial Torah.”
May we endeavor to make not only our study but also our view of the world as open and unbiased as the white spaces in the Song of the Sea.