A d'var Torah presented March 11, 2023
What caught my attention this year, though, and what I’ll comment on, is an exchange between Joshua and Moses. And I should let you know now that in thinking about that exchange I’ve been led to some thoughts about the recent and obscene settler pogrom in Hawara. I don’t as a rule bring political questions into shabbat davening; but at this moment I felt I had to.
The calf has been cast, or – as Aaron claims – has spontaneously emerged, the unfaithful people are rejoicing, dancing, exulting, and the noise of their doings is heard by Joshua and Moses. Joshua says, I hear the sound of war in the camp. Moses responds, Not the sound that sings of triumph, not the sound that sings of defeat, rather the sound of responsive song, i.e., song for song’s sake. They are, we presume, hearing the same thing, but read or interpret it differently.
What, though, is the difference in question? What is the difference between the sound of war – kol milchamah – and the sound of responsive song, kol anot? The immediate biblical context offers little help here, i.e., it does not even tell us that the rebellious children of Israel are singing, only that they are dancing; the sound of what they are doing is evoked only in the comments made by Joshua and Moses.
There are not so many accounts of song in the Five Books. The one that comes most forcefully to mind here suggests that this question isn’t easy to answer: the Song of the Sea, which we leyn when the time comes round but choose not to include in our liturgy – as one member likes to say when we get to the point at which the Song would be chanted, “we now pass by the ghost of az yashir.” It is a great song for whose can exult in triumph, there are voices and instruments and dances, and it has many of the elements of what one might call, lehavdl, the Song of the Calf. It is also, in some way, a song of war – what Moses calls kol anot gevurah, a song of (military) triumph or victory – and its unstinted delight in triumph, in the slaughter of the antagonist, is of course why we don’t, in our ordinary Saturday morning davening, sing it. And it is absolutely a responsive song, if we understand Miriam’s song as a kind of choral refrain within the verses of the song of Moses.
Which is to say, maybe both Moses and Joshua are right, because maybe figuring out the difference between the noise of war and the noise of song isn’t so easy. I wish it were, I confess – as a long-time pacifist and singer, I’d like to pretend that the difference is clear, that war is the antithesis of music and vice-versa, but that is preposterous. What Moses is hearing is the rhythmic, joyous aspect of the singing, and surely that was there, in the Israelites’ ecstatic if idolatrous relief at having something tangible, golden, luminous, and present to worship. What Joshua hears is the anger at the absent Moses, at the God who refuses to be present in visible form, the anger of rebellion that is indeed joyous but also rebellious. They’re both right.
Which brings me, alas and as noted, to the recent settler pogrom in the Palestinian village Hawara. Some of you will know of this, some won’t. I quote excerpts from the account given by David Shulman, an Israeli peace activist I admire and trust:
Some 400 Israeli settlers from Itamar and nearby outposts enter the village of Hawara, supposedly to avenge the murder of two settler brothers that day in Hawara . . .Many of the marauding settlers are armed with automatic weapons; many are masked. They spend five full hours in the town. Israeli soldiers are there, mostly standing idly by. By all accounts—and there are many first-hand witnesses—it was a night of terror in Hawara. The settler terrorists tried to break into houses and successfully set fire to some 40 homes, in nearly all cases with families huddling inside. Mothers tried to hide their children in the bathrooms or storage rooms; husbands who were coming home from work were unable to get through the vicious settler bands and received desperate phone calls from their wives: “They are here, dozens of them, trying to break down the door. They have broken the windows and they’re throwing flaming torches inside. The smoke is choking us. We can’t see or breathe. We’re going to die. Where are you?” By a miracle none of the children and women and elderly were killed. I guess God exists, sometimes.
What has this to do with my theme? This: that during those five hours, the invading settlers ceased wreaking havoc and chanted ma’ariv. There is video footage of this. It is brief. You can hear the sound of voices, though, and they are singing, and presumably they were singing for as long as ma’ariv lasted.
If we had been there, what would we have heard? The sound of war in the camp, as was I imagine the experience of the inhabitants of Hawara, hearing the voices of those assaulting them raised in song? The sound of song, sung with the meditative intensity that we as Jews bring to davening, and which with all my revulsion at their actions these Jews, too, brought to their davening? Would we have heard what Joshua heard, or what Moses heard, or both?
What is the sound of war? What is the sound of singing?