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Shabbat Shirah D'Var Torah - January 29, 2021 - Judy Kramer

01/29/2021 06:00:31 PM

Jan29

A couple of months ago I took a class about the Canadian-Jewish singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who is perhaps best known for the song “Hallelujah.” Calling him a singer-songwriter is probably a bit of a misnomer, as he began his career as a poet and a novelist, and it is indeed the poetry of his lyrics that make his music stand out. He turned to songwriting because, well, it’s hard to make a living as a poet.  It took him five years to write Hallelujah and he wrote about 80 verses, though only a handful were ever recorded and performed. It’s been covered by dozens of artists, including just last week by Gospel singer Yolanda Adams at a ceremony for the victims of Covid the night before the inauguration.  I think Cohen would have approved.


He said of this song: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’  He said “the song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”


Another of Cohen’s songs that is less well known is one called simply “Anthem.”  Its message of hope in the midst of darkness is well captured in the refrain:


Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in


The verses of this song describe in Cohen’s beautifully poetic way the evils in society that tend to repeat time and again. These are the cracks, the imperfections in our world. One verse goes:

Ah, the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove, she will be caught again
Bought and sold, and bought again
The dove is never free.

And another:

I can't run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
A thundercloud
They're going to hear from me.

Although Cohen wrote this song in 1992, there is so much resonance with today’s world,  where wars - military, cultural and political - are still being fought. These are the dark and difficult places, the brokenness in our society and our systems. We have seen up close this past month anger, bitterness and divisiveness, but we’ve also seen hope for a new path forward. For every dark turn, we look for ways to fix the brokenness, to learn from our mistakes and heal.


Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in


This week’s Torah portion, from the book of Exodus, is “B’Shallach” (which means “when let go”). The Israelites have just been set free from Egypt and are embarking on the next step in their journey.  As I have learned from my two Rabbis (See! I was paying attention!), Mitzrayim, the word for Egypt, also means straits or narrow places. Certainly, the Israelites are emerging from the darkest and narrowest of places – generations of slavery and oppression.

 
In this portion they are faced with a series of challenges, not the least of which is Pharaoh’s change of heart and the confrontation with the Egyptian soldiers at the Sea of Reeds. It is a familiar story - the Israelites cross the sea successfully, but the Egyptians are drowned. Celebrating on the other side Miriam leads the Israelites in song and dance, and an extended poem – Miriam’s Song of Triumph – is inserted into the Torah narrative. This is why this Sabbath is also known as Shabbat Shirah – or Sabbath of Song. The poem contains the words of the prayer Mi Chamocha that we say every day.


But much as we like happy endings, the Torah portion does not end here. The celebration on the other side would not last for long. As the Israelites continue their journey, perhaps free from the worry of Egyptian pursuit, they face new and different challenges – finding sources of food and water and confronting new enemies.  For forty years they wander, but with help from God and Moses, they persevere.


Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in


As a people, over the centuries, we have faced so many difficult times – exile, persecution, genocide, discrimination. We have sought safety and freedom in this country, yet hear the drums of darker times echoed on our streets, in our cities, and yes, even in seats of government.


But with every difficult experience, there are insights gained and new understanding. We continue to fight – to look for ways to counter the cracks in our society.

 
It has been a challenging year to say the least, as we have navigated a great many straits and narrow places. Pandemic, political strife and an assault on our democratic principles that I have not seen in my lifetime. We have not yet come out the other side, but we have faced these challenges with resilience, political will and new skills. We have dedicated ourselves to combatting racism and anti-Semitism through social justice initiatives and worked for candidates who represent our values. We have addressed climate change with our new solar array. Many of us have been forced into a new relationship with technology.  The choir selections you are hearing tonight come to you by way of the magic of computers and the persistence, courage, and talents of some very amazing people. 

Life will never be free from trials but getting through the difficult times is how we learn and grow.  To repeat what Cohen said of “Hallelujah”: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess. “


We will emerge from this dark time into the light, and as the Israelites and Miriam did, we will sing and dance together again.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

Below, Judy read's her drash:

Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782