When we look for ways to renew and deepen our experience of liturgy, modern poetry in English is a rich source of readings, interpretations, and midrashim that can expand our appreciation of the liturgy’s received texts or “canon.” Poets have wrestled with the texts of our tradition from the very beginning, in tones ranging from praise and devotion to doubt and rebellion.* Many other poems, even if they were not consciously written in connection with any Biblical or liturgical text, explore themes that are found in our liturgy and therefore can find a useful and provocative place in our worship.
But good poetry—like the poetry of the Hebrew prophets—does not necessarily fit easily into its surroundings. Because it deals in ambiguities and layers of meaning, poetry is often challenging, troubling, even subversive. It will rarely fit a narrow devotional agenda. Even when it is uplifting—and liturgical writers are often asked to supply “something uplifting” for this or that portion of the service—a poem will often contain passages that yield more than one interpretation. It may enter areas of distress and darkness even when talking about joy.
And yet this very “trouble” is a major reason why many of us need and want poetry in our lives again and again: not necessarily for words of celebration, affirmation or comfort—though all of these can be found in poems—but for a reflection of the startling ambiguities within ourselves. Here are three examples of poems that have been used in connection with the Ge’ulah portion of the Shabbat liturgy. The traditional text in our prayer books praises God as the Redeemer of Israel who led us from bondage in Egypt to freedom, and introduces the song Mi chamokha, whose words are taken from Moses’ “Song of the Sea” in the book of Exodus.
Any of the poems might be read as settings or introductions to the Ge’ulah prayer before Mi chamokha, or could replace the prayer altogether. When using one of them—or any other poem—a service leader should consider whether the poem itself needs a brief introduction in order to help the congregation listen with more appreciation. He or she should also consider whether there are specific occasions during the year when any of the poems might be especially appropriate. Also, will the congregation get tired of any of the poems if they are used often or all the time? Finally—since poetry is an art form that is meant to be heard—it is particularly important to present any poem in a service with a strong, clear tone of voice. The reader or service leader should become familiar with the poem in advance, in case any passages are confusing or difficult.
The Jewish American poet Muriel Rukeyser’s poem in the voice of Miriam is a fine instance of poetry’s usefulness in introducing new shades of meaning into a service. As with midrash, it teases out and explores the ambiguities in the traditional text. It can be seen as a feminist commentary on the traditionally male activities of migration, conquest and war: one woman standing aside and offering a kind of wry commentary on what it means to triumph over others and become free. We can read in it a lament for the brothers who have in some sense “crossed over” and departed from her, as well as for the purported enemies whose chariots lie at the bottom of the sea. She sings so that the lands can “sing to each other”—a wish for reconciliation and peace that actually contradicts the warlike tone of triumphalism in the “Song of the Sea.” And yet it is also a song of praise and joy that leads very well into the joy of singing Mi chamokha. It is all of these things at once.
The African American poet Lucille Clifton wrote “won’t you celebrate with me…” at the time of her sixtieth birthday. Although she has written widely about the themes found in the Hebrew and Christian Bible, she was probably not thinking specifically about the liberation from Egypt when she wrote these lines. Yet her own experience as a Black woman in America does call to her mind the exile in Babylon—and in doing so, it invites us to look at the themes of exile and liberation in Jewish history from another perspective, and to celebrate more broadly with all people who have become free. In its own way, it is a very Jewish poem, not only in its exultat ion that she has survived all attempts to destroy her, but also in affirming her own responsibility in making freedom happen. We have to shape our own lives; we have to lead ourselves by the hand; we may even have to “make it up,” with help from others or not.
I wrote “The Crossing (Ge’ulah)” for the Friday evening siddur of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a San Francisco synagogue with a special outreach to gay and lesbian Jews. Using a traditional verse form called the villanelle, the poem begins with a close English rendering of Exodus 13: 17-18—in which God leads the people out of Egypt, but not “by the nearer way”—and then takes these words in an unusual direction. On behalf of Jews who have often been excluded from a full participation in synagogue life—and have often had to go well out of our way, through various kinds of wilderness, to live as who we are—the poem recasts the Exodus as a kind of “coming out” story. It suggests that freedom is not simply given to us by God: like coming out about one’s sexuality, it requires choice, courage and commitment. Yet even as it affirms this experience, the poem admits our oneness with the Jewish people, who, even in their season of liberation, complained at times about the circuitous route, half yearning for the old familiar exp erience of remaining unfree. The “outstretched arm” of God must also be our own. The miracle does not happen unless we step forward, and stand fast.
1] Miriam: The Red Sea
High above shores and times,
I on the shore
forever and ever.
Moses my brother
has crossed over
to milk, honey,
that holy land.
I sing forever
on the seashore.
I do remember
horseman and horses,
waves of passage
poured into war,
all poured into journey.
My unseen brothers
have gone over;
deep seas under.
I alone stand here
and I sing, I sing,
until the lands
sing to each other.
—Muriel Rukeyser, from “Searching/
Not Searching,” in Breaking
Open (New York: Random House,
you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
—Lucille Clifton, from The Book of
Light (Port Townsend, WA: Copper
3] The Crossing (Ge’ulah)
God did not lead us by the nearer way
when Pharaoh let the people go at last,
but round-about, by way of the wilderness—
pillars of fire and cloud marking night and day—
to the edge of the flood-tide—uncrossable and vast.
If God had led us by the nearer way,
we cried, we would not die here; let Egypt oppress
us as it will; let us return to the past.
But we have come out, by way of the wilderness,
in fear, on faith—free now, because we say
we are free—no longer the unchosen, the outcast.
God did not lead us by the nearer way,
but into rising waters, which do not part unless
with an outstretched arm we step forward, and stand fast.
Roundabout, by way of the wilderness
we have come here, blessed with love, lesbian, gay,
or sanctified in ways of our own, to bless
our God, who did not lead us by the nearer way,
but roundabout, by way of the wilderness.
—Dan Bellm, from Siddur Le’erev Shabbat (San Francisco:
Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, third edition, 2000).