Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of December 30, 2012-January 5, 2013

“The Scream and the Niggun”
By Rabbi Eli Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud

The Scream, a highly evocative painting by the Norwegian artist Edwin Munch, was recently purchased at Sotheby’s for 120 million dollars!  Its mood is terrifying as are its colors.  It portrays a fearful man alone in a world awry.

Munch tried to explain the experience he sought to portray.  “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly the sky turned red as blood…tons of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord…I lagged behind shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

And so the figure stands trapped upon a bridge with nowhere to turn.  His hands are glued to the sides of his distorted face as a scream emerges from his mouth.

Verily, 120 million dollars is a high price to pay for such agony!  One could say it is a classic case of oisgevorfen gelt (or “needlessly squandering money”).

The Hebrew word for scream is tze’akah, and it appears in this week’s Torah portion.  The context is the indescribable brutality of slavery experienced by our ancestors.  “And the children of Israel…cried out (lit. “screamed”) and their cry came up unto G-d.”

Both the Torah’s account of Israel’s servitude in Egypt and Munch’s painting bear witness to the truth that a scream can be a call to G-d from a world gone mad.  It constitutes a wordless prayer but an exceedingly eloquent one.

G-d hears the cry of the Israelite slaves and brings forth their exodus from servitude.  Today’s Torah reading screams of terror will be transformed a few weeks and chapters later into songs of thanksgiving at the Red Sea.

A joyful niggun is also a prayer/song without words, and it too is similarly endowed with intense power and pathos.  It emotes an ecstatic sense of gratitude, wonder and appreciation that the words of our limited emotional vocabularies cannot begin to convey.  However, the mood of the niggun is one of “faith” not “fear”.  What emerges from the niggun is a song not a scream.

Standing on the threshold of the new year of 2013 we are confronted by terrors and anxieties that grip our world.  May we pray that our deep, wordless, emotional expressions for the coming year will take the form of niggunim, songs of faith and gratitude, not screams of terror.  May the expressions of joy adorning the canvases of our faces and those of our loved ones be worthy of fetching priceless sums at Sotheby’s.

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