I was mesmerized by the tune the very first time I heard it. It was sung quickly and urgently by a teenage boy who had no patience to keep tempo, just as the subjects of his words must have reacted when the sea shook in high towers at their terrified sides. Every March I await the chanting of Az Yashir Moshe, the Song of the Sea, with excitement and trepidation, my understanding of its glory and horror increasing each year as I discover more about the story of my people. I shuddered yesterday morning as the words burrowed into my bones. This is the part, where God kills so we may live, that I have most trouble reconciling with our mandate to heal the world. If we're made in the image of a God who hurled horse and rider into the sea, then potential for violence is on our genes, possible to transcend but never fully eradicate. The rabbi taught this midrash after we sang:
Adonai is a warrior: why does it say so? Because at the sea God appeared to them as a mighty hero doing battle, and at Sinai God appeared to them as an elderly man full of mercy. --Mekilta, Hashirah 4
The Sefat Emet, he added, believed that the image of God to the people Israel changed depending upon their situation. Sometimes they needed a soldier, other times a parent. But I think we look in the mirror and see both, and God doesn't tell us which to focus on. That decision is ours alone.
As a further reminder to choose compassion, Shabbat Behshalah coincided yesterday with Tu BiShevat. I'm an urban creature, not entirely comfortable with this holiday; I struggle to feel at home in nature. At services on Friday night, and a beautiful, mystical Tu BiShevat seder afterwards, I was prompted to remember the trees that helped make me human, that gave me roots and stretched into the sky like my dreams. Trees are God's antenna, said the rabbi. I recalled the tall elm upon which my father and I carved my initials when I was seven, wondering how long it would take for the light green letters to turn brown. And the tallest tree in the world, right outside my window as a child. Close your eyes and watch yourself under its shade, said the rabbi; visit awhile, say hello. In all those years I don't think I ever actually touched the tree, but watched it guard me from afar as I threw snowballs against its bare branches. I wished we had been better friends. I realized, as we sang the Song of the Sea and recalled complicated times when the Jewish people emulated the warrior God and probably forgot about healing the world for awhile, that I can listen to Song of My Tree--the wind in its leaves, the music of its tenant robins--any time I want. I don't need to wait until Tu BiShevat to remember.
At the beginning of Shabbat morning services, in anticipation of the moment when we would rise and imagine ourselves at the mouth of the sea, we sang the prayer Ki Leolam Hasdo--"For God's lovingkindness endures forever"--to the tune of Az Yashir Moshe. Waters may overflow, mountains tumble, kings attack, but I believe the compassionate God of Sinai is just like a tree, changing appearance with the seasons yet always standing upright and steady at our sides in all kinds of weather.