Poem of the Week / How to Impress at the Seder Table

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Miriam performing “The Song of the Sea,” Exodus 15, 20-21.Etching by Leora Wise.

Psalm 114

1. When Israel departed from Egypt
Jacob’s house from an alien folk

2. Judea became his sacred place
Israel ruled his own

3. The Sea saw and retreated
the Jordan reversed its flow

4. The mountains danced like rams
the hills like lambs

5. What befell you O Sea to make you retreat
the Jordan reverse its flow

6. The mountains dance like rams
the hills like lambs

7. Quake before the Lord O Earth
before Jacob’s God

8. Transforming rock to a lake of water
flint to rushing water

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

This psalm is recited or sung at the Passover table. Each verse consists of two halves, with the second paralleling and amplifying the first; the action specified in the first half is implicit in the second. Thus: “When Israel departed from Egypt – Jacob’s house (also departed) from an alien folk,” and so on. The operative verb “to make” in verse 5 extends through verse 6. In the Hebrew, there is no punctuation as we know it.

Political developments of at least 400 years telescope into a single instant in 1 and 2, while in 3 and 4 we are told of dramatic occurrences in nature at that same moment. Verses 5 and 6 are interrogative (imagine a question mark at the end of verse 6): What caused the cataclysm? Verses 7 and 8 are an exhortation tying it all up with divine causality and harking back to the politics at the beginning by specifying “Jacob’s God,” a national God in what was still a polytheistic Middle East.

Contemporary politics and journalism have worn “earthquake” and “tsunami” so thin we can barely hear them any more as metaphors for human events, but in Psalm 114 the trope is fresh, equating the transformative moment of the Children of Israel becoming a free nation to a massive disturbance in the physical world. In the psalm, water becomes dry land in verse 3, and in verse 8, dry land becomes water; slavery becomes freedom – and by implication, freedom can become slavery.

“Dance” is a joyous, almost mystically erotic verb depicting seismic activity, a kind of terrible beauty. Hills gamboling like the flocks grazing on them are not, however, mentioned in Miriam’s celebration of the event in Exodus 15, “with timbrels and dances,” nor is the Jordan River, which was 40 years away on foot. David or whoever composed the psalm must have known about instances of seismic activity in the mountains and scrubland alongside the Syrian-African fault line and conflated them with the Exodus story. And if it was indeed God Himself who wrote the whole Bible with His own hand or through divinely inspired scribes, it stands to reason He knew all about far-reaching plate tectonics.

Tell all this to your sons and daughters in every generation.
Happy Passover to all.


*Listen to Nir Cinamon and Metal Scent rock the psalm here

“King David” with Psalm 86, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Il Guercino, 1591-1666).Credit: Wikimedia

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