Seventh Day of Passover: Echoing Songs of Liberation

Eyes talked into
Should a man come into the world, today, with
The shining beard of the
Patriarchs; he could,
If he spoke of this
Time, he
Only babble and babble
Over, over,
Again again
(Pallaksh. Pallaksh)
Paul Celan, “Tubingen, Janner”

The Seventh day of Passover is a holiday, much like the first day. This is true of Sukkot as well, where the last day is a holiday as well, however, in that case, it is considered a different holiday with a different context. The seventh day of Passover, is thematically similar to the first day, dealing with redemption, but with another stage of the deliverance from Mitzrayim, that of the splitting of the sea which allowed the Israelites to cross, and then returned to its natural state in order to swallow Pharoah’s cavalry, which had been in pursuit of the former slaves. The goal, of course, of the pursuit was to bring them back to bondage; once the armies were destroyed it was clear to the people that their liberation was complete and their new history had truly begun. As a result of this miracle a song erupted from Moshe and the people, the Song of the Sea recorded in Perashat Beshalach of the Book of Shemot.

Most commentators (myself included) deal with this song in its place as part of the book of Exodus. However, given the return of this theme as central to the seventh day of Passover, there is a tendency to deal again with this song, however, this time, in the context of Passover, which, particularly after the seder, is a context of recreating the process of liberation and redemption. We too, will follow this model and examine the role of poetry as liberation, which follows neatly from a central theme of the seder.

The central theme of the seder, celebrated on the first night, is that of re-experiencing the liberation from Mitzrayim- ‘In every generation a person is required to see ones self as though they were themselves liberated from Mitzrayim’. There is the historical redemption of several thousand years ago, however, in the mystical and Hassidic teachings, this Mitzrayim is equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘meitzarim’, which means straits, or inhibitions. Those aspects of ones life which restrain one’s spiritual progress must be transcended; one must deliver one’s truer self from bondage (which may indeed be generated by the individual him or herself). The Derech Hamelech (better known by his later book, the Aish Kodesh, written in the Warsaw Ghetto) explains this verse with an interesting introduction, which suggests that once an individual chooses a spiritual path, they can greatly exceed their own given ability. Much as a person in an emergency suddenly summons up power and ability they never knew they had, and are able to undertake physical tasks they would never have attempted under normal circumstances, so too the spiritual seeker in moments of exhilaration can reach heights of unanticipated grandeur. If the physical can be exceeded in moments of need, and the body built up through exercise, the spiritual can be progressively developed and at times reach a state where ‘one’s whole self is annihilated, as though exploding from the great light’. This is what is meant by the mystics when they talk of ‘liberation from Mitzrayim’. However, the Derech Hamelech sees a specifically Hassidic message in this verse from the Hagaddah. For not everyone can find this spiritual strength in oneself. Crisis is not always overcome from within, alone. But, teaches the Derech Hamelech, this enthusiasm can be transmitted. ‘In every generation, there is one who can help you find your way, one who has liberated himself’. In an interesting reading of the verse in Shemot 11:2, he continues, that it would then be akin to the exodus from Egypt, when they were commanded to borrow gold and silver from one another. Usually that verse is read as meaning that the Israelites took valuables from their captors, but here he reads that they asked for spiritual guidance from one another (among the Israelites), and thus as a group were ready to experience the Divine manifesting before them at the sea and at Sinai.

In other words, the spiritual quest is not meant for the individual alone, it can and should be transmitted horizontally, to all the community. In fact, we are told that at the sea even the lowliest maid experienced revelation that dwarfed that even of Ezekiel, who saw the ‘divine chariot’. Thus, after the splitting of the sea, the people spontaneously created a poem, known as ‘Shirat Hayam’, the Song of the Sea. The text tells us that after the men sang their song, Miriam, sister of Moshe, gathers up all the women and they go through the song again. The Tiferet Shelomo ponders why the Torah needs to tell us of this repetition. In his reading, this seemingly secondary episode actually is critical to the entire text. For there is an oddity in the opening verse of this song, which begins ‘Then sang Moshe and the Israelites this song, saying’, in Hebrew, laymor, which usually insinuates that there is another listener, another to whom the message is meant to be delivered. If all the Israelites are singing, who else is there?

The answer he gives may be of use in understanding an aspect of poetry suggested by Celan in his talk known as ‘The Meridian’, which is doubly appropriate in the context of the first poem recorded in the Torah. Celan distinguishes between two types of strangeness. One is that of art, which is alienating, an estrangement. It is cut off from life, as in the line from Buchner where he wishes he were Medusa so that he could freeze into stone two lovely young girls sitting on a rock putting up their hair. As Celan explains:

Please note, ladies and gentlemen: ‘one would like to be a Medusa’s head’ to’seize the natural as the natural by means of art!

One would like to, by the way, not “I” would’

Art, to Celan, ‘makes for a distance away from the I’. Poetry, on the other hand, is an Atemwende, a turning of the breath, an ‘act of freedom’, an ‘homage to the majesty of the absurd which bespeaks the presence of human beings’. The strangeness of the poem is based on its ability to speak ‘on behalf of the other, who knows, perhaps of an altogether other’. This altogether other of whom he speaks is turned from “an already-no-more” into a “still-here”:

In other words: language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation which, however, remains as aware of the limits drawn by language as of the possibilities it opens.

The ‘still-here’ of the poem can only be found in the work of poets who do not forget that they speak from an angle of reflection which is their own existence, their own physical nature.

The poem acts as a ‘presence in the present, yet it is ‘en route’, with the author alongside it, going towards another-

For the poem, everything and everybody is a figure of this other toward which it is heading.

Crucial to this argument is the angle of ‘setting free’. The individual moment, that turning of the breath, is set free, out the confines of its moment and the circumstances of the flow of time, to connect with those others who it encounters, or who encounter it. A compelling example is Celan’s poem “Denk dir” (Think of it) from the Fadensonnen collection. This poem is written as a response to the ‘Boergemoor-Lied’, as song composed by the inmates of the Boergemoor concentration camp, a song which survived the inmates and apparently lived on even among the German guards. Celan links it to the mass suicide at Masada, another instance where the only victory available to the victims was the assertion of their own freedom in the one way possible:

Think of it:

The bog soldier of Masada
Teaches himself home,
Most inextinguishably,
Against every barb in the wire.
Think of it:
The eyeless with no shape
Lead you free through the tumult, you
Grow stronger and stronger.
Think of it: your
Own hand
Has held
This bit of
Earth, suffered up
Again into life.
Think of it:
This came towards me,
Name-awake, hand-awake
For ever,
From the unburiable.

Thus, there are whole generations to whom the song talks, none of whom present at the time of the poem’s creation, none even imaginable at the time of the song’s creation, who are targeted when the poem is set off ‘en route’. This is the answer given by the Tiferet Shelomo to the question of why the extra word “laymor”, ‘saying’, found at the end of the verse which opens the song of the sea, the first poem recorded in the Torah. Souls are intertwined; says the Tiferet Shelomo. The actions of every person have ramifications upon thousands of individuals both at the time of the action and through the generations. Every action, every song, every sigh that one utters interact with a whole chain of others, his example is the metaphor that teaches that whenever one says ‘holy, holy, holy’ in prayer, hosts of angels respond. Thus, when the Israelites sang a song of liberation, that song echoes in every heart suffering under servitude yearning for liberation. Thus, he explains, when the text tells us the Miriam led the women in song, he reads ‘women’ as ‘malchut’, the Shechina, the divine presence present in all souls, the gateway to all spiritual growth and salvation. Thus, when the people sang, they sang into the potential deliverance of all those in bondage, a message we ought to hear this very day.

Returning to Celan, I suggest that the metaphor of the eyeless in the poem Think of it, perhaps correspond to those ‘eyes talked into blindness’ from the “Tuebingen, Jaenner” poem cited above. According to Lacoue-Labarthe, this blindness is ‘the empty space between the words’ not having the words to say what is’. He cites Blanchot as explaining the difficulty as ‘the language through which death came upon him, those near to him, and millions of Jews and non-Jews, “an event without answer”. Even the most saintly patriarch with the shining beard is reduced to uttering nonsense in confronting these last generations; all he can say is Pallaksh, Pallaksh. In the German, the word describing the patriarch’s speech is lallen, which means to mumble or babble like a child or a madman; the title of the poem, Tuebingen, is meant to refer to Holderin, thus invoking as a possible response that of madness, madness being, indeed, a rational response to the current situation. Let us hope that the message of justice and liberation can still be sounded, and from the Song of the Sea and the experience of Passover perhaps we can alter Celan’s Pallaksh Pallaksh to Pallashtz, Pallashtz, which would be the acronym of Pithu Li Shaarei TZedek- Open for us the gates of Righteousness’…

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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