How Deep? How High?

How much do I love you?
I’ll tell you no lie.
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?

Irving Berlin wrote the song, How Deep Is the Ocean? in 1932. It consists mainly of rhetorical questions that point towards the unmeasurable depths and heights of love. I apply that song in ways both seriously playful and playfully serious to the story of Israel crossing the Sea of Reeds. I am not the first to apply a love song to that crossing. And I follow a long tradition of reading the story of crossing the sea in ways that rely on our precious capacity for imagination; an endowment that flourishes and makes meaning at the intersection of the playful and serious.

Israel, standing at the Sea of Reeds, reminded an ancient sage of the Song of Songs: O, my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice! For your voice is sweet and your face is lovely (Song of Songs 2:14).  Rabbi Eleazar interpreted this verse as referring to Israel standing by the sea: O, my dove, in the cranny of the rocks—for there was Israel hidden among the coves of the sea. Show me your face—as it is written: Stand and see the salvation of the Lord (Exodus 14:13). Let me hear your voice—that refers to the song sung at the sea. For your voice is sweet—that also is the song. For your face is lovely—this is Israel at the sea looking up in the direction of their pointing fingers as they were saying: This is my God whom I will glorify (Exodus 15:2).  

Rabbinic imagination has long been drawn to, and through, the split parts of the Sea of Reeds. Tales of the depth of the sea and the height of the watery walls attempt to measure the miracle of this unmatched story of redemption and love. How deep? How high? According to one ancient retelling of the story, the walls of water were 13 miles high!

One of the oldest rabbinic Torah commentaries imagined the splitting of the sea as an event that rose above history. It was the redemptive moment “seen ‘round the world.” For it was not merely the Sea of Reeds that was divided when Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. In addition, every natural body of water split; along with the water in every cave, pool, and cistern split in concert with the Sea of Reeds. Not only the waters on earth, but the waters above the heavens and beneath the earth parted, giving cosmic dimensions to the moment of redemption. Then, when the people of Israel had safely crossed, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and all of the waters returned to their places.

The Passover Hagaddah presents more imaginative and erudite play aimed at estimating the immense power of the sea splitting. If the finger of God (Exodus 8:15) represented the 10 plagues of Egypt, then the (5 fingered!) hand of God manifest at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:31) was 5 times mightier—a 50 “megaton” plague. Other sages imagined that the splitting of the sea was equal to a 200 megaton, or a 250 megaton plague.

With every Passover comes the challenge for each person to see oneself as if he, or she, had come out of Egypt. For some, the miracle of the sea is an impediment to living in the “as if” moment; personal imagination does not flourish in the world of the miracle story. For others, the elements of a fantastic story easily hold the plot and features of an individual’s life. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, gave voice to both dispositions.

Since ancient times, word-images have led the way through the split parts of the sea. Those texts provided the necessary ground for other artistic imaginations. For example, consider the work of Daniyel Reuven Rosen (my grandson!) who saw Moses and the people of Israel walking on a seabed so miraculously dry that grass has already sprouted. They walk between very high watery walls; the blue glass-like edge holds back water that churns and rages above their heads. 

Daniyel saw a deeply cut, straight channel through the sea. The artist of the 14th century Sarajevo Hagaddah imagined a shallower path in which the curves of the road might have demanded more faith from travelers who could not see the far end of the journey. The small bit of a second arcing path through the sea, crowded with people, is visible on the top left of the picture. Here is the hint of another fantastic elaboration of the sea crossing. According to an ancient story, a recalcitrant Israel would not cross until there were twelve crossing paths—one for each tribe! 

Consider another artistic presentation that uses the words of a text not only as written narrative, but as a visual, story telling images—the Torah scroll itself. The song sung at the sea (Exodus 15) is always written in a brickwork fashion, a line consisting of two “bricks” of text alternating with a line of three. The most prominent calligraphic layout of the last line presents the words, the sea, as a “brick” on the right margin and the sea on the left margin; between the two, appear the words, and the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the middle (Exodus 15:19)! Here, scribed into the text, are the people walking on dry ground with a wall of water on each side. 

With a teacher, a student, or a partner-in-imagination, open a Torah scroll to the song sung at the sea and watch the story of the crossing come to life! There they are! There we are, in the middle of the story!  Above the text, the sea-foam white rolls of Torah parchment have parted to the right and to the left, revealing the letters that depict in word and image, the travelers and the parted sea. The black letters glisten as though still wet. Imagination deepens the sea-bed and raises the walls of water towards the sky. Imagination, at the intersection of the playful and the serious, keeps us within the story even as it keeps the story within us. May we never lose the capacity to imagine our story in seriously playful and playful serious ways!

And if ever I lost you, how much would I cry?
How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?

This entry was posted in Holidays, Midrash, Passover, Poetry, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

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