Sunday, January 13, 2019

Beshallach (Ain't Nobody Gonna Turn Me 'Round)

I will sing to the Holy One, who has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea
The Holy One is my strength and my song
God has become my liberation. . .
Who is like unto You, among the gods that are worshipped?
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awe-inspiring, working wonders
            (Exodus 15:1-2; 11)

When, precisely, did the Israelites sing these words from the Song at the Sea?
Most readings suggest that they constitute a victory song, offered after we pass successfully through the Sea of Reeds.  We arrive safe on dry ground, watch the demise of Pharaoh and his hosts, then break into jubilant chanting.  The biblical narrative points strongly toward this chronology: “Thus the Holy One delivered Israel from the Egyptians.  And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Holy One had wielded against the Egyptians, they had faith in God, and God’s servant Moses.  Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Holy One. . .”
Case closed, right?
Not so much. 
Some of our tradition’s most important medieval commentators argue against this plain sense of the Torah text.  Both Ramban and Seforno insist that the Israelites actually sang while in the middle of the crossing, while still walking through the Sea, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit.  In other words, as Aviva Zornberg notes, the anxiety of the moment is the engine that drives the song:  
“The meeting of terror and joy, destruction and birth, takes the people beyond the normal places of speech.  And this song is some words of expression, not just of jubilation, but of the human situation of being in the middle, of being full of fear, the sense of life and death in the balance, seeing what can happen to human beings all around them. And that there, but for the grace of God, go I. It's a song that human beings sing in the face of mortality.”
Why do these commentators offer this alternative chronology; why, for that matter, does the timing of the song even matter?  I believe the answer lies in how we understand the power of music to carry us through our most challenging and fearful experiences.  As Rabbi Yael Shy notes: “A liberation song sung from the middle of a terrifying place—from the dead center of a miracle nobody knows will end successfully—is a profoundly powerful song.”
Bernice Johnson Reagon would agree.  She is a founding member of The Freedom Singers, a group of young African-American musicians that sang at countless civil rights gatherings and protests, including the 1963 March on Washington.   Ms. Reagon says that for the demonstrators who risked their lives facing down brutal white supremacists, singing the songs of the black church conferred upon the people a collective conjured strength.  The music created a kind of protective barrier between the demonstrators and the police, allowing the marchers to move beyond their fear.  As Ms. Reagon describes it: “Those songs do something to the material that you’re made of.  The singing connects you with a force in the universe that makes you different.  You become part of a community.  And then they can’t get to you.”
In 2010, Berniece Reagon and The Freedom Singers performed at the White House, as part of a concert celebrating the music of the civil rights movement.  They sang the indomitable anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” which is based on an old spiritual.  It serves the exact same purpose that our commentators ascribe to the Song at the Sea, strengthening the resolve of those who need all of the courage they can muster to remain steadfast on the road to freedom.  Each verse names the obstacles—and denies them their power:
Ain’t gonna let no jailhouse turn me ‘round. . .
Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round. . .
Ain’t gonna let race hatred turn me ‘round. . .

One of the song’s great virtues is its nearly infinite adaptability: new threats can be added and sung away for any occasion.
Then, after each verse, comes the unwavering chorus, which echoes the rhythm of marching feet:
Aint’ gonna let nobody turn me ‘round
Turn me around, turn me ‘round
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round
I’m gonna keep on walking
Keep on talking
Marching up to freedom land

While we hope never to find ourselves pursued by either a vast army or racists bent on our destruction, we all face moments when it feels impossible to move forward, when we are paralyzed by fear.  During those times, both Torah and history teach us that we may find faith and courage in music, especially when it is sung and celebrated in the company of good companions.  When we know that we are not alone, when we share the blessing of song, we embolden ourselves and gird our faith to go on.   This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shira—the Sabbath of Song.  May we find the songs—and the fellow singers—that we need to face life’s challenges bravely and boldly.

For a clip of The Freedom Singers performing “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” at the White House in 2010:

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Bo (Badlands)

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, takes us into the heart of darkness. It opens with the eighth plague—swarms of locusts that darkened the land. Then Egypt is engulfed in a “thick darkness” so palpable that it renders the Egyptians incapable of movement for three days. All of this opaque imagery builds to the final plague when, at the stroke of midnight, God strikes down the firstborn in every Egyptian household. At last, as all of Egypt wails in the darkness, Pharaoh “summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!’”

The darkness of Bo is inseparable from devastation and death. It is, therefore, a source of intense trepidation, not only for the Egyptians, but also for our Israelite ancestors—and for us. When, on the journeys of our lives, we find ourselves cast into dim places, we tend to reach desperately for light. The descent of darkness shatters our illusions of control and reminds us of our own mortality.

Yet Parashat Bo reminds us that darkness is also the incubator of hope, the place where redemption is born. In Egypt, the Jewish people become a nation. We are conceived in the darkness of bondage and delivered in the middle of God’s eternal night of vigil. This ancient poem from the Passover Haggadah recounts our story of miracles fashioned amidst the darkness: Unto God let praise be brought / For the wonders God has wrought / At the solemn hour of midnight.

It is natural to fear the dark. Nightfall is frightening. Still, if we, like our forebears, wish to grow from our experiences, we must learn to embrace the liberating power of darkness. In her book, When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd asks: “Could it be that seeking real light comes only by dwelling for a time in the dark? Whenever new life grows, darkness is crucial to the process. . . . So why have we made God into a rescuer rather than a midwife?”

Parashat Bo challenges us to imagine God as a midwife, to embrace our night vision. The poet Theodore Roethke writes: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” In their Egyptian midnight, our terrified ancestors caught their first glimpse of freedom. In our own midnights, we, too, begin to see—but only if we find the faith to hold our ground despite our fear, to wait patiently in the shadows rather than running prematurely for the light.


Bruce Springsteen’s superb fourth album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is an extended meditation on this theme.  Over the course of its ten tracks, including “Something in the Night,” “Prove it All Night,” and the title tune, which closes the work, The Boss shares his struggle with depression with great poignancy and power.  Yet it is in the opener, “Badlands”, that he most fully connects the challenges of darkness with the possibilities for growth and reemerging light.
In a 2005 interview with Terry Gross, Springsteen reminds his listeners that to properly understand his songs, one must pay close attention to both the verses and the chorus: In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part, is in the choruses.  And your daily realities. . . the details of what the song is moving to transcend—are almost always contained in the verses.

This is certainly true in “Badlands.”  The song begins in darkness: Lights out tonight/Trouble in the heartland. 
The parallels with portion Bo are striking; the narrator is living in a kind of dim, terrifying time, filled with anxious anticipation: Talk about a dream/Try to make it real/You wake up in the night/With a fear so real/Spend your life waiting/For a moment that just don’t come.

We hear echoes of the brutal struggle of the Israelite slaves and the insatiable lust for power that governs every would-be Pharaoh.  Sadly, over three thousand years later, not enough has changed.  Life is still hard.  Unjust.  Dark.

Working in the fields
‘Til you get your back burned
Working ‘neath the wheel
‘Til you get your facts learned
Baby I got my facts
Learned real good right now.
Poor man want to be rich
Rich man want to be king
And the king ain’t satisfied
‘Til he rules everything

And  yet. . .If we can avoid the temptation to numb ourselves, to lie and distract ourselves—if we can muster the courage to confront the darkness head on and push through—then hope and light beckon in the chorus.  When it comes, with the E-Street Band cranking into overdrive, joining Bruce on the vocals with deep-felt urgency, the light is irresistible.  You hear it with your ears and feel it with every bone of your body:

I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the hope that can save me
I believe in the faith and I pray
That some day it may raise me
Badlands, you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
We’ll keep pushing ‘til it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good
Three months after the Exodus described in Parashat Bo, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai. There, too, they encounter thick darkness, in the form of  the “dense cloud” that falls upon the mountain. Torah tells us that this is precisely where God is to be found. Moses bravely enters that divine darkness, twice. He returns bearing the tablets inscribed with God’s black fire.
Out of the darkness—through the darkness—comes both liberation and law. Without the night and all of its terrors, there can be no Torah. Wisdom comes out of the Badlands.  This is the legacy of Parashat Bo.

For a great live version from shortly after the song’s release in 1978: