Sunday, January 27, 2019

Mishpatim (Nina Cried Power)

We will do and we will understand.
                        (Exodus 24:7)

It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.
                        (Hozier, “Nina Cried Power”)

There is power in action.

While not every action yields good fruit, real progress usually begins with the energy of action.  As the all-time hockey great Wayne Gretzky famously noted, “You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.”

Against all odds, the Israelites come to embody this principle at Mt Sinai.  They are among the most unlikely exemplars of action; previously our biblical forebears have resisted Moses’ call to leave Egypt and tarried fearfully before entering the Red Sea.  Later, their failure to muster the courage to enter the Promised Land will doom them to forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  Yet when God asks if they will accept the Torah’s teachings, they respond both unanimously and decisively: “Na’aseh v’nishmah—We will do it and (then) understand it.”  Somehow, in this unique instance, we are all in, together, committed to action before we fully understand what we’ve signed up for.

In the Talmud’s telling, in tractate Shabbat 88a, even God is surprised by this uncharacteristic assertiveness, responding with a startled question: “Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels?”

The brilliant contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg points to this passage in her book The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.  She writes:

In saying, “We shall do and we shall hear!” the Talmud implies that the people assume some of the virtuosity of the angels, who are capable precisely of such a brilliant power of action. Like the virtuoso musician, whose skill makes movement seem to happen before thought (“hearing”) can intervene, the people discover a genius for generous and decisive commitment. All the hesitations that beset the amateur have long been resolved: the fingers fly faster than the eye or ear can observe.

 I don’t think Zornberg’s music analogy is incidental; music still attests to the marvel of “generous and decisive commitment.”  Consider the new song, “Nina Cried Power,” performed by the Irish singer-songwriter Hozier and legendary R&B and gospel singer Mavis Staples.  It is a tribute to Nina Simone and many other musicians who used their gifts to help create social change.

Hozier begins with the declaration: It’s not the waking, it’s the rising. 

From the start, he reminds us, it is all about the call to action: It’s not the song, it is the singing/It’s the heaven of the human spirit ringing/It is the bringing of the line/It is the baring of the rhyme.

And then we get the chorus, in which the artists—belting it out against an explosive background of both vocals and instrumentals—affirm their ability to cry power, inspired by those who came before them, including, among others, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan.

And I could cry power
Power, Lord
Nina cried power
Billie cried power
Mavis cried power

And I could cry power
Power, Lord
Curtis cried power
Patti cried power
Nina cried power

The song builds and builds, crying its own power and then, unexpectedly, the background vocalists and musicians drop out, leaving only Mavis Staples—herself a legendary civil rights activist—humbly reminding all of us:

Power has been cried by those stronger than me
Straight into the face that tells you
To rattle your chains
If you love being free
I could cry power
'Cause power is my love when my love reaches to me

Crying power is not just for the angels.  In the moment of God’s gifting us with Torah, the Jewish people, cried power.  Nina cried power.  And in a world that still desperately needs that power, rooted in love, we can cry power, too.

For a great rendition of “Nina Cried Power,” see: 

1 comment:

B2 said...

Thank you again, Rabbi; Go-'s Love is Irresistible and Unconquerable