The word shir in Hebrew has a double-meaning, or a double-translation, in English: A shir is both a song and a poem. Whereas we make these two distinct, though often connected, experiences, in Hebrew they remain fused, ambiguous.

It is with that understanding that we begin to think about Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song whose names comes from the most prominent song of the Torah, the Song at the Sea. Or perhaps it is the Shabbat of Poetry, from the Poem at the sea? Our association with song, with music, is so strong that already in the act of translating Shabbat Shirah we slip and don’t give poetry its due.

But let’s think about poetry for a little bit. Poetry is a different way of communicating, a different way of thinking. Prose is powerful because it is linear, because it can lay out an argument and prove it. But poetry has other powers, powers of persuasion that appeal to a different part of our beings. Vladimir Jankelevitch helps us think about the uses of poetry (and music) by contrasting them with the linear, scientific ways of prose: “One would criticize a mathematician or a civil code for saying the same thing twice when saying it once is sufficient. But one does not reproach a Psalmist for repeating himself—because he aims to create religious obsession in us and not develop ideas.”

The Shirah, the Poem-Song of the Sea, does not speak in straight lines. It is built on repetitions and cadences, it is sung to a special tune. Its purpose is not to make a point through logic, but to arouse our passion and speak to our imagination. Foreshadowing the midrash on Revelation we will read next week, the midrash this week memorably states that, at the Sea, a handmaiden saw more than the  prophet Ezekiel. The experience of salvation was prophetic; it was not logical. And so its expression is in poetry and song, not in the linear forms of prose.

Poetry is something of a lost and misunderstood world for most Americans these days. Even in our Torah learning, we look for historical, scientific, rational explanations, and we can feel a bit displaced (or even freak out) when the understandings we explore do not jibe with the rules of science. But to try to explain miracles like the Splitting of the Sea according to science is missing the point; it is using the wrong language.

Parker Palmer writes that the inner truth of the heart “is not well-served by the language of science, social science, or management theory. Inner truth is best conveyed by the language of the heart, of image and metaphor, of poetry, and it is best understood by people for whom poetry is a second language.” What is poetry, he asks, “if not, among other things, an instrument that helps us take readings of our own hearts?”

As we talk this week about how to talk better, how to understand one another, how to be a more civil society, perhaps we should also be considering what poems we can read, what songs we can sing, and what other forms of communication we can explore to express ourselves and understand one another.

Shabbat shalom.

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