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Jewish Thought Special Contributor: Carl Selkin

We are lucky to not only have clergy who can wax philosophical and provoke new thoughts about our Jewish lives, but to also have many community members who have interesting ideas to share. Our goal is to highlight your peers each month by publishing articles written by them on our Flame news page. Our first contributor is Carl Selkin…

A Meditation on The Song of the Sea

I am troubled by the Song of the Sea. Miriam leads the singing and dancing, the joyous symphony of timbrels and percussion, near the bank of the sea in which Pharoah’s divisions have just drowned through divine intervention. Like the song of Deborah in Judges 5 and the revenge of Persian Jews in the Megillah of Esther, rejoicing in the death of others, even enemies, reminds me of one early, indelible interaction with my beloved grandfather who died when I was twelve. He and my grandmother emigrated from Ukraine to New York in 1913, between the revolution and pogroms of 1905 and the Bolshevik triumph in 1917. His political views were never something he discussed directly with me as far as I recall, although I did pay attention as he took me along on weekend walks when he would spend hours in excited discussions at Mr. Fischer’s barber shop, the dairy restaurant on Crotona Parkway, and every other gathering place except shul, where I do not think he ever ventured. Stalin’s anti-Jewish purges and the non-aggression pact with Hitler pitted Grandpa against the Zionist barber.

I was not yet ten years old when Stalin died. I had followed the unconfirmed reports of his death through the denials and confusion for several days. The 2018 film The Death of Stalin is apparently the accurate, absurd backstory. When his death was finally confirmed, I remember so clearly rushing up three flights of stairs to my grandparents’ apartment where my grandpa was sitting at the kitchen table, next to the half-raised window, smoking his Chesterfield, listening to Moishe Oysher on WEVD radio. I was so excited that I couldn’t contain the news. Stalin was really dead. My grandfather looked at me sternly—surprisingly sternly—and said something that still resonates with me as a key to my sense of justice and Jewish values. “Never, ever,“ he said, “be happy because someone has died.” It was the only time he had ever admonished me. He had always been my champion—the one who took me on the streetcar to buy Charlotte Russe, who always found a nickel for an egg cream, the man whom I could count on never to raise his voice or discourage me.

I hear his voice now, interrupting Miriam and the chorus of Israelites, and I think of the wisdom of the Mishnah equating the saving of a life with the rescuing of a whole world, recognizing that to preserve life even the most sacred obligations, observing shabbat or fasting on Yom Kippur, may be superseded by the even higher recognition that each of us brings a world into being and sustains it within us. I doubt my grandfather remembered that lesson from Cheder, if he even attended. Yet, the dignity and value of every person, the sacredness of life, was in every cell of his body. I think of that as something like his Jewish DNA — that which constituted his Jewishness, even without a bar mitzvah or faith in God.

So how do I reconcile this idea of menschlichkeit [humanity] with the words of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the foundational origin stories of our collective becoming as Jews—whether by birth or choice? The songs of Miriam and Deborah are among the most archaic in our tradition. Experts tell us that the Hebrew of the poems and their poetic structure are most likely the remnants of songs transmitted orally, prior to the invention of Hebrew as a written language. However, in both instances, these poems of victory are not the final chapters.

Miriam’s song promises that the display of Almighty power will check the Philistines, Canaanites, Moabites and Edomites. However, God’s display of power does not even keep the Israelites, the direct witnesses, in line. Their complaints that started even before the escape across the sea continue in the desert. Even God is vexed by such intractable obstinacy and disobedience. Their reversion to idol worship and Aaron’s poor excuses result in the destruction of the first draft tablets of the law. Moses calms down and after some conciliatory conversation, God partially relents, enlisting Israelites to carry out the slaughter of 3,000 fellow refugees. Even the omniscient and all-powerful can have a change of heart, can evolve.  Miriam’s song does not entertain the inevitability that God might put Israelites on the receiving end of his Almighty power.

Can we learn from the divine mind as It journeys through its wilderness? When the original creation goes awry and only Noah is deemed worthy to people the earth, Adonai again erases his miscreant creatures, but even so, Noah’s son, Shem, sins.  Indeed, the world after the flood recapitulates the issues that bedeviled Earth’s first inhabitants. Later, Abraham bargains and saves Lot’s life, but even that ends badly. It is in this world that Job confronts an unknowable and seemingly absurd reality where the connection between goodness and reward or evil and punishment is nonexistent, replaced by randomness and chaos. What should we make of God revising first drafts? Does this create a context for our understanding, or at least for our reading, of the Song of the Sea? For my understanding of my grandfather’s respect for individual life, regardless of whether he deemed that life’s work “good” or “bad”?

Maybe “good” is always a work in progress. Maybe it is not God’s responsibility to do all the work. Maybe we are not owed an explanation that could lead to our complacency. What is God up to after all? For some, this quandary leads to a loss of faith and for others a moral compass with no true north.

I think the Jewish way is a third path: neither of blind faith nor the utilization of chaos for one’s own personal benefit in this world or in some next life. My revisionist take on Rabbi Tarfon’s injunction is that while we are not responsible to finish the work of bringing the good out of nothingness, we are obliged by our humanity to keep advancing toward that goal.

Should I question what my grandfather got out of being a good person? I think the more Jewish question is, “What did I get out of my grandfather being a good person?” I think that what I got is a direction, one which I try to follow. After detours, what is important is getting back on track. I am sure that his example allows me to reflect on my life and to strive to make the difference in my life and the lives of others. Justice is not a thing, it is a continuous struggle to see the dignity or at least the humanity of others, even the Stalins of the world. And this struggle gives meaning to each of our lives and the lives of all.  Think of Jacob wrestling with a power he could not understand to be reborn as Israel. For Rabbi Sacks, struggle is the essence of the human condition and the center of Jewish morality. 

I think about my grandfather and his tobacco-stained fingers, his quiet grace, and his too short life, and I wonder how do I become worthy of him? How can I live in a way that values the humanity even of those whose actions are most reprehensible and abhorrent, while wrestling to shed light on darkness? How can I help move the needle of our human moral compass toward good? I believe that if we live the Jewish struggle, we may never, finally, fully vanquish our enemies, but we will certainly be most wholly ourselves, our Jewish selves. That is a song I want to sing.

Carl Selkin

January, 2022

Thu, January 20 2022 18 Shevat 5782