The Parting of the Red Sea: Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent”

Contrary to the common wisdom, the Israelites were not liberated from slavery at the time of the Exodus. Many midrashim and commentaries stress that what actually happened was a change of ownership: they had been slaves to Pharoah, and then they became slaves to God.

When I was younger, this interpretation rang false to me. The opposite of slavery is freedom, and freedom means being able to do whatever you want, with no master to tell you otherwise. The claim that true freedom lay in subjugation to God seemed oxymoronic. But later I came to understand the rabbis’ meaning, in part with the help of Robert Frost’s exceptional poem “The Silken Tent.” (You can read it here and hear it read here.)

This year the seventh and final day of the Pesach holiday coincides with the Sabbath. The reading from the Torah for this day is the parting of the Red Sea and the Song at the Sea, and in the Ashkenazi tradition we’ll also chant the Song of Songs. So it’s appropriate to use another poem, from another tradition, to understand the relationship between God and Israel that is expressed in these two great biblical poems.

Frost’s poem is an extended simile, comparing a woman–a wife and mother, specifically–to a silk tent pitched in a field. The tent stands, stable and firm, held up by its poles and by the ropes that anchor its corners and sides to the tent pegs in the ground. So stable it seems that, at first glance, it seems that it stands of its own accord, and that the ropes and pegs are superfluous. But the force of the wind pushes at the tent, revealing that its strength depends on the bonds that hold it.

The poem is a sonnet, and it comprises a single, flowing sentence. This structure reflects the theme–the poem is a whole, yet it is bonded by the rules of the sonnet structure.

Its pinnacle, Frost rights, reaches heavenward, and is “loosely bound . . . to every thing on earth the compass round.” While the primary metaphor clearly relates to a woman, these words seem to indicate a secondary metaphor that refers to the relationship of the human and the divine.

The tent is freestanding–it “sways at ease” and possesses “sureness of the soul.” Yet this freedom derives from the bonds that tie it–“countless silken ties of love and thought.” Its bonds make it free.

Love, as described in the Song of Songs, is liberating, exhiliarating, and passionate. Yet, by its nature, this liberation come from the lovers being tied to each other, from being unable to free their thoughts of each other.

In the Song at the Sea, the Israelites tie themselves to God. Six weeks from now, on the holiday of Shavu’ot, we will celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the culmination of the covenantal process by which the Jewish nation accepted subjection to God’s laws, and by tying themselves to the commandments made themselves free.

Love, whether of a man or a woman or of God, is bondage, but unlike bondage to Pharoah, it is not a bondage of oppression, but of liberation. It’s an oxymoron, but it is true: to be liberated, we must be constrained by love and the rules and duties that come with it.

More on poetry from South Jerusalem:

The Sinews of Our Souls: C.K. WIlliams’ “Dissections”

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