Poetry in our Lives: Shabbat Shirah

Presented by David P. Stern 22 January 1994 in Greenbelt, Maryland

      This is "Shabbat Shirah", and "shirah" or ("shir") means in Hebrew either song or poem. This is a sabbath for poetry. You may have noted that the haftarah is another long biblical poem, the Song of Deborah. The reason for the name, of course, is the "shirat hayam", the "song of the sea", which forms the high point of today's reading, the song of triumph which Moses and the children of Israel sang after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea.

      Two months ago my wife and I spent a week on Nantucket, and on a bulletin board there we found a notice that "Congregation Shirat Hayam will reconvene May 27". "Shirat Hayam" is a very good name for a congregation on an island 30 miles out to sea although, apparently, it is only active in the summertime. Maybe some here also remember our past rabbi, many years ago: he named one of his daughters Shirah.

      What is poetry, anyway? It is distinguished in two ways. First, it follows a special style--for instance, rhyme and meter-- and second, it is written concisely, for emotional impact. It is the second item that really counts: the special language is only there to wake up the feeling.

      Poetry in the bible is like that, too, but the style differs. Western poetry relies heavily on rhyme and meter--on words whose endings match, and on a repeated rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. For instance:

    Oh beautiful for spacious skies      
    For amber waves of grain
    For purple mountains' majesty
    Above the fruited plain

      The bible does not use rhyming words, and its meter is rudimentary. What it does use is repetition: statements are repeated a second time, but in different words. Take today's reading, for instance:


    He is my God and I will glorify Him
    My father's God and I will exalt Him
    Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea      
    And his chosen captains are sunk into the Red Sea.

      You do not always find this repetition in the Song of the Sea, or in the song of Deborah, but these are very old poems, more spontaneous and less formal.

      In later poetry , for instance in the psalms, the repetition may be more regular. For instance, in Psalm 92 which we sing for Kabbalat Shabbat:


    The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree
    Like the cedar in Lebanon rise high
    Planted in the house of the Lord
    In the courts of our God will they blossom
and so forth.

      Poems have a second attribute, both in the bible and at later times: the language is austere, words are carefully selected. Each line in the above psalm uses only 3 words in the original Hebrew. In addition visual images are often used. For instance, Pharaoh and his hosts "sank like lead in mighty waters." You will find something unusual in almost every line of "Shirat Hayam."

      But all these are secondary, are merely props to the main theme: a poem is meant to touch you--you the listener, you the reader. That is why psalms and prayers use the poetic form, why both the biblical prophets and Shakespeare used poetry. A good poem stirs you, it grabs you, especially when set to melody. Poems are the natural language to express love. They are also powerful in wartime, to express ideas and causes for which men endure hardship and risk their lives. In the civil war, soldiers marched into battle singing "glory, glory, hallelujah!" You know the words (an echo of Isaiah, ch. 63, haftarah of Deuteronomy, ch. 29):


    Mine eyes have seen the glory
          of the coming of the Lord
    He is trampling out the vintage
          where the grapes of wrath are stored.      
    He has loosed the fearful lightning
          of His terrible swift sword
    His truth is marching on.

      Eighty years later Jews in the Polish underground, desperately fighting the Nazis, were similarly inspired by the words of the "Partisanerlied" written by 22-year old Hirsch Glick--written in Yiddish, so this is just a translation:


    Oh, never say that you have reached the very end
    Though leaden skies a bitter future may portend
    Because the hour which we yearn for will arrive
    And our marching step will thunder: We survive!

    From lands of green palm trees to distant lands of snow      
    Here do we stand, with our sorrow, with our woe
    And any place where our blood was shed in pain
    There our fighting spirit will rise up again.

    The golden rays of morning sun will dry our tears
    Dispelling bitter agony of yesteryears
    But if the sun and dawn with us will be delayed
    Then let this song ring out the call to you instead

    Not lead but blood inscribed this mighty song we sing
    It's not the caroling of birds upon the wing
    But 'twas a people midst the crashing fires of hell
    Who sang this song, with guns in hand, until they fell

    So never say that you have reached the very end
    Though leaden skies a bitter future may portend
    Because the hour which we yearn for will arrive
    And our marching step will thunder: We survive!

      Every generation has its own style, and the recent trend is towards free unrhymed verse. We heard earlier the "Shirat Hayam" of the bible. In the 20th century the Jewish writer Stephan Zweig retold the story in his own words (originally in German), in a verse-drama titled "Jeremiah":


Voices: Pursuing us
    Came the army of Pharaoh
    Horses and chariots
    And a multitude of horsemen
    With vengeful clamor
    Did they follow after.
    The sea barred our passage
    Death pressed at our heels.

Higher voices: Thereupon the Lord
    Sent the strong east wind
    Dividing the waters
    That the sea might be dry land
    The waters were a wall unto us,
    On our right hand, and on our left
    Thus went we into the sea
    Upon the dry ground

Exultant voices: With the clashing of arms
    And the roaring of chariot wheels
    Our foes, thirsty for blood, followed after
    On the dry ground between the walls of the sea
    They shouted in their wrath
    As they thought to smite us

    But Moses stretched forth his hand
    Over the sea
    And the waters returned
    Covering the chariots and the horsemen
    And all the hosts of Pharaoh
    That came into the sea after them
    Thus did the Lord
    Overthrow the Egyptians in the midst of the sea!

Deep voices: Thus did the Lord
    Deliver us out of danger
    And lead us forth from the land of bondage
    Thus wonderful was the beginning
    Of our happy and unhappy wanderings!

      In the 19th century and early 20th, poems and songs expressed the moods and hopes of America, and then, suddenly, they almost disappeared from the scene.

      I am not sure why; maybe it has to do with the rise of TV and the decline of literacy. Maybe it is because people now rarely sing, but rather listen, to songs which are barely understandable, and when you do understand the words you realize you have not been missing much. Poetry has ceased to be a significant part of everyday life, and we are all poorer because of that.

      It survives, of course, as a cottage industry. People continue to write poems, people like you and me--in no way "professional" poets. How many of you write poems now and then? I do--not many, it is a hard task. But sometimes you need to express yourself--express love, or hope, or frustration--and then nothing else will do. I will finish with an example.

      A week ago something terrible happened here in Greenbelt. A 9-year old boy, Vikram Golla, a very bright child, was accidentally killed by a school bus. His father is a scientist with NASA. You probably heard about it, and maybe also read the article about him in the Washington Post, which included a poem by one of Vikram's teachers, Kathleen Hackett:

    I grieve so selfishly for all of you
    And all that you gave to me
    And all that you were yet to give.

    I grieve for a world
    That needs more boys like you
    And more men like you promised to be.

      That is what poetry is about: sadness, joy, rage, hope, love. If there exists another way of saying it, we have not found it yet.



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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 30 June 2002