War and Praise

Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen

Professor, Rabbinic Literature
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

posted on January 15, 2011
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

What is it to write a poem about war? About death and destruction? About salvation and redemption? This week's Torah portion contains one of the most famous poems in the Torah - the Song of the Sea/Shirat Hayam. The images and metaphors in this poem are powerful and inspiring. The song imagines both realistically and fantastically the events at the splitting of the sea, it brings the reader to a moment of ecstatic praise, and then supplies the words of praise themselves. The poem moves from description to praise of God deftly and beautifully. (The Song is reproduced in Robert Alter's beautiful translation.)

The framing of the song is communal: "Then did Moses sing, and all the Israelites with him, this song to the Lord." Immediately, we are become part of the community who sings this song. We are ready to sing in praise of God after the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians. Moses does not disappoint:

Let me sing unto the Lord for He surged, O surged -  / horse and
rider He hurled into the sea.
My strength and power is Yah / and He became my deliverance.
This is my God - and I extol Him / God of my fathers - and I exalt

From the start the singer weaves praise of God with descriptions of God's power. There is a surge in the song in the poetic doubling [ga'oh ga'ah] of the surging, and of its effects - "horse and rider" God hurled into the sea. This continues with "strength and power" and "my God... God of my fathers."

This first section ends with the invocation of the martial Divine.

The Lord is a man of war, / the Lord is His name.

The second section begins with the climax of God's battle against Pharoah and Egypt's destruction.

Pharaoh's chariots and his force / He pitched into the sea
and the pick of his captains / were drowned in the Reed Sea
The depths did cover them over, / down they went in the deep like
a stone.

This triplet hints at the actual human cost to the Egyptians of this encounter. However, the focus is more epic. Pharaoh had challenged God and God had destroyed Pharaoh and with him his people. They sank like a stone. As God had surged, Pharaoh had sunk.

The poet then slides into hyperbolic praise of God, invoking the fantastic to give the community the feel of what transpired.

Your right hand, O Lord, is mighty in power. / You right hand, O
Lord smashes the enemy.
In Your great surging You wreck those against You, / You send
forth Your wrath, it consumes them like straw.
And with the breath of your nostrils water heaped up / streams
stood up like a mound / the depths congealed in the heart of the

It is not only that Pharaoh is defeated, but God commands and controls the sea and the depths. The break in the rhythm with the addition of a phrase to the last line of this triplet, points up the enormity of God's power. Streams stood and even the depths congealed.

The poet returns then to the prequel:

The enemy said: / I'll pursue, overtake, divide up the loot, / my
gullet will fill with them, I'll bare my sword, my hand despoil ]
You blew with your breath - the sea covered them over / They
sank like lead in the mighty waters.

The urgent, driven triplet of the enemy's speech: three verbs - simple first person verbs of conquest: erdof, asig, achaelk shalal/"I'll pursue, overtake, divide up the loot," -  followed by another three verbs describing the coming destruction. This whole urgent description of Pharaoh barely able to contain himself in pursuit, is followed by a deliberate doublet of God's measured but deadly reaction. You, God, blew with the wind which caused the sea to cover them over and they sank. This leads the poet to exult:

Who is like You among the gods, O Lord / Who is like You,
mighty in holiness/ Awesome in praise, worker of wonders.

The Song continues with praise of God, the impact of the great event on those in the rest of the world who heard of it, and finally redemption.

You'll bring them, you'll plant them, on the mount of Your estate,
/ a firm place for Your dwelling You wrought, O Lord / the
sanctum, O Sovereign, Your hands firmly founded.
The Lord shall be king for all time.

And there we are, standing on the other side of the sea, singing in great exultation, with the Israelites, of the defeat of the Egyptians who lie, dead, beneath the waters.

So we now return to the original question. What is it to write a poem about war?

Stephen Crane, reflecting on the Civil War in 1899 wrote:

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom - 
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Some of the themes that are present in the Song of the Sea are here, but with the jaded look of a man hardened by the aftermath of war. "War is kind." "These men were born to drill and die." "Great is the battle-god, great (the doubling here cynical, of course, not grand), and his kingdom - A field where a thousand corpses lie." We hear the echoes of the sea and wonder if some long entombed Egyptian bard might not be nodding painfully.

Three quarters of a century later, Denise Levertov writes in anger of another war.

We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good - 

who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Vietnam as I write.

While Crane challenges the very notion of a God who is praise-worthy, Levertov challenges us, reminding us of our culpability (Heschel's famous phrase, spoken of the same war, "In a democracy some are guilty but all are responsible" echoes in Levertov's "we") and the hubris of believing that we mirror God when we act thus. Yet she finishes the poem on a higher more promising note.

Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love;

our nerve filaments twitch with its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in
the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.

With these poems and, perhaps all poetry that describes war and brutality, we must face the question: Are we, in reading and "enjoying" this poem, this art (Picasso's "Guernica" comes to mind) not implicated to some small degree in the inhumanity that was the seed for the poem in the first place? (Theodore Adorno famously said that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric.) And yet, if not, at times, for the artists, the poets, the singers of sacred song - would we ever experience and react to these horrors?

The midrash relates that on the day that the Egyptians were drowning in the Reed Sea, the angels came before God to sing the daily praise song. God responded forcefully: "My creations are drowning in the sea and you are singing?!"

I would like to think that the midrash is representing the dialectic tension which we cannot bridge. We must sing and we cannot sing. We owe praise to God and exult in salvation and we mourn and are struck dumb by the death and destruction. At the same time. In the ensuing silence, after Miriam and the women of Israel put away their timbrels, perhaps we hear the whisper which prophecies: "nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness, the deep intelligence living at peace would have."