Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pinchas (Cozbi and Zimri)

This week I am cheating and using an old poem that I had written which will appear in the upcoming edition of the Mima'amakim journal this fall. It is an off-kilter sonnet voicing my discomfort with the massacre of Cozbi and Zimri by Pinchas. Viewed allegorically, much like the conquering of Eretz Israel in the book of Joshua, I have no problem with this narrative. These heroic though violent figures are extirpating the negative aspects of their own personalities and those within our communities. They are doing a reparation, a tikkun, by destroying the impulses that drive our animal soul.

Well, that works on a figurative, Kabbalistic level, but if we view Torah as a living history, how can one reconcile murder in the name of G-d? On top of that, Pinchas, a Kohen, is rewarded by HaKadosh Baruch Hu. In an age, in this way similar to all others, in which fundamentalists claim the right to exercise violent action based on divine authority (think Taliban, Saudi Arabia, GW's holy war which we continue to wage in the Middle East, Homophobes sanctioning hate crimes, a handful of militant Zionist settlers--NOT the Israeli majority-- who continue to decimate certain Arab populations because they believe it to be the will of G-d) and it becomes an even more frightening contemporary issue.

Please forgive me for getting so political for a moment, but this poem presents my, perhaps all too American, fear of what happens when religion and politics, or religious and political power become too much intertwined. Granted, I understand that there is a political vision presented by the Torah; however, that vision is not only political but spiritual. The just society that we will finally enjoy in the time of Mashiach will create an environment in which every person will have their material needs met, live in temporal and physical ease so that we can spend all our time connecting with the Divine. Perhaps Pinchas, though overly zealous, represents the singleminded person who only lives for that future time of redemption and his real shortcoming is wanting a future reality of justice so much, that he is willing to sacrifice the here and now, i.e. his relationship to those still created in G-d's image who do not share this vision. Who knows. Please enjoy and I welcome and encourage your thoughts and comments on the poem, or the politics...I guess.

Shabbat Shalom!
--
Cozbi and Zimri (in memoriam)

A sharp removal: triceps return flesh,
Burgundy triangle lance dances slow
Above the broken vessels—seeping thresh.
Pinchas ruffles his priestly brow, eyes low.

How can those holy fingers elevate
After slicing through missteps of the dead—
Cozbi, a woman who germinates bait,
Easily bitten off by the prince, red—

Weak. Night quivers, like a bonfire’s embers.
Broken bottles, casks, grapes in the dirt,
Swallowed by earth, preserved in the amber
Like mosquitoes, ink on parchment—inert.

Pinchas, we dance through raw desert, lovesick—
Our shipwrecked race...yet, a reward for this?

Balak

Coming Soon!

Chukat

Coming Soon!

Korach

Beha'alotcha (Wicks in the Wind)

I am indebted to a connection pointed out to us at Yeshivat Hadar by my teacher, the brilliant Dr. Devorah Steinmetz. In her literary approach to the narratives of our tradition, Dr. Steinmetz pointed out that the use of the word matar in most instances in the Torah are a type of punitive dew or rain. That is, something Ha---Shem sends as a punishment for haughtiness or some other infraction committed on either divine kingship or, in modern parlance, the categorical imperative.

Using this as my starting point, I've constructed a poem as a dialogue between Ha--Shem and B'nei Israel with HaShem instructing us to be holy, to keep moving toward Him and evolving, and with us kvetching about our material needs and dwelling in the constricted and limiting idealization of a past reality, rather than embracing this moment. B'nei Israel have a ball recalling all that was so glorious in Egypt, but, as Proust reminds us in his A la recherche du temps perdu memories are hardly ever authentic or truthful. A spiritual teaching that I have always sought to embrace is that this moment is really all that has significance and our halacha, whether obviously or not, imputes this message as much as any other.

Shabbat Shalom!
--
Beha’alotcha (Wicks in the Wind)

G-d: in your making go up,
into clouded cover,
night fire.
It’s all but a parochet,
a veil,
to tear through.
It’s all but a
hymen
To tear through,
To seduce Me.

Linger,
Rest as wick; I’ll be your oil.
Stand wax still
O ye vessels
For My flame—
Spots for My sun.

B’nei Israel: Great…but who might feed us meat?
zacharnu et-ha eating!
Gah-gah-gah garlic, free-fish,
Cucumbers encumber mind’s eye in
Watermelon leaking leeks,
Hills of coriander seed.
Let’s grind it in a mill
like oil cake
drenched in morning dew.

G-d: Wicks in the wind!
Wicks in the wind!
If not... I’ll damn you in dew.

Shelach Lecha (The Woodgatherer)

I often find myself struck by the starkness of the biblical narrative. In Erich Auerbach's seminal work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, the German-Jewish literary theorist and critic notes the salient difference between the detail of motives and description of action in Greek epic on the one hand, and the vague hyper laconism of the bible on the other. Auerbach attributes this distinction to the purposes set forth by the two texts; that is to say that the Greek epics were originally oral works open to the poet to embellish, but wholly a work of entertainment. Granted, one can glean moral teachings from Achilles' modus operandi in battle situations, or Ulysses journeying back to Ithaca, but the real meaning lie in those texts presenting a rubric from which the talented poet could improvise for the enjoyment of his spectators.
The Bible, on the other hand, is a legal text interspersed with narratives that expound the laws contained herein.

This idea, astute and yet somewhat obvious as it is, has never helped me to fully connect with biblical narrative. But it was also one of the catalysts for my undertaking the project of poem ha-shavua. What is interesting, at least artistically, about what the Torah is not saying? How are these figures thinking in the time of narrative, existential, and spiritual strife? As far as I am concerned, it is within the silence of biblical personages (our ancestors, paradigms of righteous and errant ways) where we find the Torah's true meaning. It is in the inscrutability or occasional unjust nature of things that happen that truly teach Jews and the Umot Ha-Olam how to live. That is because, quite simply, these moments where something happens and we have no idea of a personage's thoughts in that moment require us to ask ourselves "why," and search for the answers whether we find them or not. Perhaps this is the greatest gift of our sages in the Talmud when they expound upon our tradition with discourse and more than a few "Frank" interrogative terms.

This week's parashah is a wonderful and somewhat disturbing example of this economical narrative that forces us to drash as much as we can. The mekoshesh etzim "woodgatherer" punished for collecting wood on Shabbat. We ask might ask ourselves if he knew it was indeed Shabbat, or if he had been a tzaddik or malach simply
doing G-d's will in order that G-d could teach Moshe and B'nei Israel how to punish someone for transgressing the Shabbat.
All of these questions and many more are addressed in the commentaries. However, in my poem this week, I used the example of the woodgatherer as a meditation of the nature of Shabbos. Is it an ontological reality that we simply acknowledge and observe, or rather is it something that we must build or do (as the Torah reads with la'asot et ha Shabbat) with no intrinsic value beyond our spiritual striving? Could the woodgatherer feel the presence of Shabbat, or was he simply disobeying G-d without any repercussions but for his later punsihment?

I hope you enjoy this poem. I have fallen behind in this endeavor but hope, B''H, to be caught up in the next couple weeks. Please keep checking in. Shabbat Shalom!
--

Shlach lecha (The Woodgatherer)

Is there indeed a difference in the way
this lumber wilts,
today
As
knotted
tassels
between
my withered
fingers?
Today,
unlike other days,
each pile
I make slides to a pool… an ocean… submerging
my blackened feet…a wave of wood… the jellyfish smart—
of stones.

Beha'alotcha

Coming Soon!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Naso: La traviata

In this week's parshah, we read about the sotah, the woman who is suspected of having illicit relations with a man outside of her marriage and the ritual undertaken to determine whether or not she is culpable. Two things struck me about this narrative in the torah portion. First of all, it evoked some of the work that I had done in anthropology in which African tribes (such as the Azandi) perform certain rites to discern whether or not an adultery has occurred. Determining a human beings fate is left to chance as determined by poisoning a chicken and whether or not it survives. Having spent a lot of time in Salem as a child, it also drew a comparison to the witch trials of the the New World in the late 17th century and onward.

Secondly, I was struck by the silence of the accused adulterous woman during this whole procedure. Feminists often critique the lack of female perspective in Jewish texts, including the TaNaCH (Hebrew Bible) and that is readily apparent here.

This week, I attempted to write a poem using the Korean poetic form of Sijo, which was introduced to me by my poetic Rebbe, Dena Weiss. However, it didn't seem to fit the emotion I was trying to capture or the mystery as to whether or not my narrator was actually culpable of the crime. I wanted to describe the experience of the sotah ritual from the perspective of the accused but, in Michael Hanneke fashion, leave the outcome of the poem open-ended. The Italian title follows the famed opera and is the cognate of the Hebrew word, sotah, which literally means "the one who went astray."

Shabbat Shalom!
--
La Traviata

Where did I walk? face all flush without witness.
The desert whispers in your ear.
Bring a hint of barley, on parade before the priest.
His cauldron boils from the Temple floor.
If not, not. If so, may goddess gates sag, womb wither.
If so, let smoke blow each curse away--
along with a name.

BaMidbar

In the wilderness, I count my breath…
1
(2)
3
(4)
5
(6)
7
(8)
9
1…

inhale
You on the even; exhale myself
and the air tastes of 3.14159265 et al.

This body--a mountain--
Har Sinai,
Breath, but the free wind,
Mind, but the sky.

I let each cloud pass--
A blip in my count.

Parshat Behar/BeChukottai

I was amazed by the prevalence of conditional phrases in this week's parshah. To me, they seemed to emphasize the fact that all of mitzvah observance, and further, all of life exists in the realm of potentiality. All objects are hylic matter, while all existence might be potentiality that needs to be wrought into a coherent, beneficent, or (G-d forbid), malfaisant form.

My poem this week plays with the nature of potentiality in Jewish theology. Emily Dickinson was my poetic inspiration for the tone, language, and form of the piece. Gut Shabbes!
--
Everything Waits in open If

Everything waits in open "If,"
dangles varicose as toes perch
atop darting, crackling cliffs.
Back and forth, these dust bodies lurch.

"You sow, reap, you eat, you manger.
You jubilee, every seven.
Sit still with Me-- sudden strangers
just passing through--I own heaven."

Every If very well may Be,
birthed in potentiality,
Even the fertile land He gives
Fallow as dust, in breath it lives.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Parshat Emor

In this week's parashah, we are confronted with the figure of the Mekalel, a person born of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man who is stoned by the community after cursing G-d. My contribution this week is an attempt to understand why this person, on the fringes of the community, would come to curse another Jew with the holy Name and why that infraction merited death.
Shabbat Shalom!

--
Aren't I My Mother's Son

Aren't I my mother's son?
with G-d, half-wrestled,
wending narrow cyphers
between stares.

The heavens are black
rocks hurled drown the sun.
Their palms foil my
erratic eyes.
Claw my fountain face.
Stain my melting skin.

Shut up, you desert!
You parched witch!

I hear your rictus,
sharp and salty,
buzzing the Name.
Buzzing the name
that I uttered--
hardly heard.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kedoshim (Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself)

Neighbor, you are nearer to me
than my own name.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Acharei Mot

As a student of the classics, I love Latin and Graeco-Roman mythology. Yet, as a Jew, I can't help but be slightly frightened by some of their imagery and ideas, especially the perniciousness of seemingly idolatrous ideas. This week, I attempt to have a imagist dialogue with myself on some of the classic visuals of idolatry and juxtapose them with the biblical promise of covenant.
--
Not after sylvan satyrs shall you stray!
ecce turba Maenadum irata et insana
in green glen, dark as raven,
built with semen, silt hills
of grape leaves, appled orgy skin.
Nix the goddesses,
her chalices,
baby-blooded Molech fundus.

Big I has new paradigms!
Big I has new paradigms!

for your Midas touch,
your boys, your girls,
strangers, wilted dust
exsanguinous
synergistic condition
so that she may not
spew you out--
this honey milk land--

upon your death.
--
In addition, I have written written a mirror sonnet from the perspective of the famous (drum roll!!!!!)--

Scapegoat.
A Taxonomy of Sin

Poison seeps
from horns
to ear--
tongues slithered
their confessions.
I can still feel
his hands--
clammy and cold--
as I wander through
this wilderness.
Wilderness?!
this cold as
wandering hands,
through clammy cans
still-eyed feelings
confess to a slither--
horns, ears,
seeping poison.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tatzria and Metzora

What if Langston Hughes were Jewish and wrote a poem every week based on the parshah? This week I attempted to answer that question with one of the most redundant of biblical portions.

Shabbat Shalom!
--
Unclean

Unclean, unclean, unclean!

Spots-
skin,
Spots-
white,
Spots-
swelled,
dim,
blight.

Spots-
hair,
Spots-
round,
Spotted,
red
oozing
mounds.

Unclean, Unclean, Unclean, Clean.

Spotted-
garments,
Spotted-
hours,
Spotted
dancing
April
flowers.

Spotted-
starlight,
Spotted-
birth,
Spotted
legends
preaching
mirth.

Cleaning unclean--
uncleaning the clean.

Spotting-
seraphs
Spotting-
gods
Spotted
memories
shred
ether
to stars.

Parshat Shemini

Dear Readers,

I hope you had a meaningful Pesach and are enjoying stuffing yourselves with all the chametz that you missed for a week. Sadly, I lost my grandmother, Ruth Virginia Snowden, the second day of Yom Tov. She raised me, taught me to read, write, cook, be polite, came to all of my concerts, and listened to even my worst poetry. She was the person other than my wife, Asia, to whom I have always felt closest and it is a generally difficult and challenging time for me.

Since sitting with a meditation chavura/sangha at Manhattan's JCC before Pesach, I have been engaged in deep questioning of what are my own narrow places, my Mitzrayim (Egypt) from which I must escape. There is an old adage that goes loosely like "too much of a good thing is a bad thing." Perhaps too much love can even be negative because it forces us to be attached to things. If HaShem is clear about any lesson that He teaches us, it is that we mortals must not be attached to anything at all. Perhaps a cold reading of our confined places or metzarimare people and things that we are too attached to. Perhaps HaShem is a tyrant asking us to serve Him above all else, as many biblical narratives suggest.

The love that I shared with my grandmother was one of, if not the strongest, positive force I have ever experienced in my life. But after her 87 saintly years, HaShem called her home. Granted this is a solipsistic view of the death of a loved one, but death itself reflects a theological problem. Why has HaShem created death but to make us need Him and not any of his creations, including people. Perhaps I was too attached.

What is interesting about this is the beginning of this week's narrative regarding Nadav and Avihu. These are two figures who are chastised for their very attachment to G-d and performing seemingly additional, or at least unfitting service in His sanctuary. The narrative demands us to ask why should we also be punished for seeking G-d too much? This is a problem I grappled with this week, have yet to solve, and attempt to explore in the poem. That having been said, I will also contrast their spiritual lust with the reaction of their father, Aharon, upon learning of their death who does not respond but is simply quiet.

As a mourner myself, I feel there is a deep meaning to this narrative for those who are grieving. Namely, sometimes there is pain that is so poignant, so scathing, that the only consolation or condolence can be found in the quiet, i.e. that which cannot be expressed. Further, conversation with that kind of quiet only comes from relinquishing our own desires and attachments. Aharon understood this; his children did not.

Shabbat Shalom!

--
Nadav and Avihu

We only wanted to drink a case of you,
sip the rising smoke as if it were more,
more of your cloudy, far away breath.

But this foreign flame
lapped the trickling liquor
of our melting dreams.

Even on the altar
noi, l'allegra brigata,
cannot escape the plague.


And Aaron Was Silent

My offspring have melted,
swallowed by flames;
silence is my savior.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tzav: Soul Soaring Silvery to Heaven

Rashi's first comment on this week's parashah is a midrashic interpretation of the eponymous first action word tzav. Rashi explains that this words carries with it the connotation of zeal. The fact that sacrifice should continue burning through the night also carries with it the implication of the zeal of both this generation and subsequent ones.

Like many religious people, I have been zealous to varying degrees throughout my life, this month, today, this second.
At times, being religious and my love of G-d have been the only things that have sustained me. At other times, I felt that my religious practice, as meaningful as it is (and it is continuously paramount in my life) is a hindrance to other aspects of my experience. Indeed, the rigidity of mitzvah observance, even for the devoted, is sometimes referred to as the yolk of the mitzvot ol ha mitzvot for a reason--they can be quite cumbersome.

Having learned parts of the seminal text of the RaMChal, z''l, the Mesilat Yesharim(Path of the Just) I was always struck by the fact that the first middah (quality, measure, virtue) Rabbi Luzzatto discusses is that of zarizut (zeal).

I have come to understand this teaching as referring more to a willingness to do things in their proper time, than an emotional desire to do things. Although this sounds quite misnagdish coming from an avowed neo-chasid, zeal might be the ultimate manifestation of the negation of the self and non-attachment. My poem this week plays with these concepts to create a picture of zeal as doing what is proper in its proper time.

Shabbat Shalom ve chag kasher v'sameach!
--
Tzav: Soul Soaring Silvery to Heaven

I smoke body
to cinders
atop
kindling-altar--

as commanded.

No spate
could slake
this mounting miracle,

this soul
soaring silvery
to heaven.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

VaYikra: Reyach Nichoach (A pleasing scent)

In our non-anthropomorphic conception of the divine, it is difficult to conceive of a G-d that can smell. Yet, as the many sacrifices and their minute details are enumerated in this and the upcoming parshiot, we are forced to confront a (at least textual) reality that our sacrifices of flesh or grain create a pleasing odor or reyach nichoach for Ha--Shem.

I had always been troubled by this idea until studying one particular Rashi this week. Rashi explains that the odor is pleasing to Ha--Shem because "as he spoke, so the sacrifice was performed." In other words it was not the sacrifice itself that pleased G-d but that it was performed in accordance with divine will. This is a more pleasing explanation for me and sheds light on much of mitzvot observance.

Still, why these particular smells? Why these specific sacrifices? Why not the smells that I or many associate with pleasure, namely: flowers, burning leaves, the scent of a woman's shampoo, etc.

This poem tries to illustrate the vast difference between divine and human taste and volition. I hope you enjoy.

Shabbat Shalom!
--
What scent doth seize the snout of All?

What scent doth seize the snout of All?
Not lavender wafting wild in July,
Not leaves burning auroral the bitter sky,
Nor the stale spice of some lady's shawl

Nor simply the first fruit, hatched
above bark.

But this scent--

thews,

sinews,

fat and flesh--

Slays celestial lament
with smoky searing
that blinds mortal eyes
in victuals

and death
in
time.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ki Tissa

Is it the cleanliness that is truly next to G-dliness, or rather is it the fulfillment of Ha-----shem's demands that defines our level of kedushah? Ki Tissa begins with two seemingly odd requests seem to implicate that the answer resides in the latter. My poem this week wrestles with this question using the image of the Kohanim washing their hands and feet before the mishkan (tabernacle) following Rashi's directions of how this would take place. Shabbat Shalom!

--
Ki Tissa

Before the porch
In which all dwells
Sons stoop to gem
sole in palm—
Right on right,
Left on left.

Wash
Lest you die!

These rules
Cellar blazes
Rising
In Myrrh,
Rhymes of olive oil,
Cinnamon,
Name noise
That splits coins
To sodder
Them back
Into
One.

Prepare.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tetzaveh: Costumed Man

During this week in which our parshah is in direct dialogue with the Megillah narrative, an image that stands out for me is that of the ornate robes worn by the kohanim and those that are worn by Achashverosh and later Mordechai in the Purim narrative.
Do clothes make the man? The 19th century transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote "I have heard with admiring submission the experience of the lady who declared that the sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow," and the combination of the Megillah and the parshah seem to further this view even in a religious context. Indeed, clothes are donned to create a sense of propriety, and the Kohen must get his assemblage in perfect order, lest he die.

As a former fashion addict, I was taken by this idea. And what better way of expressing religious obligation through fashion than by invoking one of my favorite French poets, Mallarmé. Mallarmé, that most obscure and musical of 19th century symbolist poets was the editor for a time of a Paris fashion magazine. His approach to poetry let the images speak for themselves in a highly musical context. This is the approach that I have chosen to espouse for this week's poem. Thanks for reading and Shabbat Shalom!
--
Costumed Man

Costumed man--
blue, silver, gold,
ringéd Promethean petals
glow.

Through a curtain,
stems twitch where
dew withers--
in a frontlet,
in an ephod,
in a wave that crashes to earth--

like a royal scepter.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Terumah: Between Me and You (The Love Song of the Cherubs)

Terumah: Between Me and You (The Love Song of the Cherubs)

Between me and you—
only ten handbreaths.

I see your face across the sweet smoke of incense,
I see you rising like reverse rain.
I see your face in the flapping of our wings
above the smolder, before the ark,

Shielding you from me, me from you,

rainbow blues.

Between me and you—
only shooting stars and elements.
Fire, water, man, unmanned, horizons and sunsets, almond blossoms and anointing oils.

Between me and you—the crack of the atom, the fraction of the self, a single talent of gold.

Between me and you—

different faces of the same chlld.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mishpatim: Pierce Me

I am trying to make sense of the Torah's mandate of slavery and how it leads off this week's Torah portion. Judaism is obsessed with freedom. Our liturgy seems to mention yetsi'at mitzraim (the exodus) as the eternal paradigm that we must constantly remember and be aware of. The exodus is not only a historical leave-taking, not only the intervention of G-d into history, not only the quintessential moment in the trajectory of the Jewish people, it is also the mythic symbol of our own weaning away from the metzarim or boundaries (read: objects, desires, ego) that inhibit us spiritually.

Why then does Parshat Mishpatim begin with the laws of bondage of another Jew? There are many explanations of this including that slavery was a given in that society and the Torah simply legislates the most ethical way of doing this. Although this appeals to me on the spectrum of morality and with the argument of historical development, my inclination to try and see the spiritual meaning in all pesukim led me to this poetic treatment of the law of retz'ia or marking the ear, as treated in masechet kiddushin 16b and 21a. . Thank you for reading and Shabbat Shalom!

--
Pierce me

Pierce me
with shards of mountain air
with clouds of fire.

Pierce me like a shriek
Through the still, sleeping tents.
Like the truth to a liar.

Pierce me through the ear,
And I will be your servant
Even after six years
Of bondage.

Pierce me,
so I may better hear
the sound of freedom.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Yitro: Yitro's Epiphany

As a convert to Judaism, I am often confronted by traditional paradigms of the righteous convert. Although Ruth is often listed as the ger tzeddik (righteous proselyte) par excellence, the Ruth narrative never personally moved me as a powerful vision of what joining the most spiritual of nations could mean. I have always been more attracted to spiritual seekers such as Avraham Avinu, traditionally known as the first convert, or Yitro, Moses' father-in-law whom some sources hold converted to Judaism.

Yitro is known as a Midianite priest, and our tradition (via Rashi) holds that he worshipped every form of idolatry or dabbled in every foreign spiritual practice before finally embracing Judaism. As someone who was born into a culturally-Christian environment (my father is Catholic, my mother protestant; I was raised as a Unitarian-Universalist) who came to embrace Zen Buddhist practices before seeking a theology and more theistic tradition and converting to Judaism, I can relate to exploring spiritual traditions.

This week, I have written about Yitro's epiphany that Ha--Shem is greater than any of the other gods (that is to say, Ha---Shem Is the ONLY G-d). How can one characterize a ailing moment but by paradox and the beauty of sounds? This poem utilizes a number of images and palindromes to some effect. I hope you enjoy.

Yitro's Epiphany

Through this
t r e s s e d d e s e r t,

Your people are a sand dance
that parts strips of hungry straps

and
ease
the
sea.

I beg you!

S t r i p


this priest
who has knocked on wood,
and revered rivers.

Sold I idols!

But

Now I know,

the Highest of all G-ds
Sits in stillness--
like a shadow
wed to dew.

Wow. Now I know.

No one;

only

ONE.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Beshalach: Song of the Sea

Could the sea hear
the sound of its waves
crashing on the shore?

Vayera: Une poignée de suie

Lately I have been very taken by the work of Rabbi Alan Lew, z''l, called the "Zen Rabbi." In his book, The Sound of One G-d Clapping he discusses how his ten years of Zen practice came to influence his subsequent years as a traditional Rabbi.

Having practiced Zen in my late teens and in college and coming to do so again within a normative Jewish framework, Rabbi Lew's work has had an especially profound influence and effect on how I have begun to view Judaism, through the lens of mindfulness and seeing Torah as often functioning on a symbolic level in much of the same way as Japanese ko'an (paradoxical stories that confound students in order to facilitate mindful insights and awareness).

This week I have written a poem in tribute to Rabbi Lew, may his memory be a blessing to all of B'nei Israel and Kol Yoshrei Tevel.


Une Poignée de suie

Une poignée de suie de fournaise
est lancée très haut vers le ciel.
Elle s’étend en poussière,
Sur tout le pays d’Egypte,
Comme du sang en coulant
Dans la mer.

Rashi expliquait plus tard « pour lancer quelque chose
avec force, il faut le faire d’une seule main »

Et je me demande
en attendant de ne pas attendre,
quel est le son d'une seule justice
en frappant?
--
A Fistful of Soot

A fistful of soot from the hearth
is thrown on high, toward the sky.
It extends before exploding in dust
Onto the entire land of Egypt--
like blood flowing through the sea.

Rashi would later explain "to throw something with force,
one must do so with a single hand."

I ask myself, while waiting to not wait,
what is the sound of singular
justice striking?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Parshat Bo-"Moon of the World"

In this week's parashah, the narrative of Ha--Shem's smiting of the Egyptians nearly reaches its pinnacle. In addition, B'nei Israel receive our first exclusive mitzvah in the Torah, that of sanctifying Rosh Chodesh--the new month announced by the emergence of a new moon. The Zohar comments that Israel is asked to sanctify the moon because we are "the moon of the world." Further, Chassidic commentaries remark that the first thing created was time itself, thus it is logical to make the first mitzvah time related.

I have been playing a lot with the idea of "no self" and the illusion/delusion of self identity. Of course, there is no self, but we constantly are , of course, an individual, an entity unto ourselves as paradoxical as the statement seems. I am fascinated by how Judaism's emphasis on nationhood, the tribe, and Jewish community very much act as mystical mechanisms for reinforcing the self. Our prayers are almost exclusively spoken in the first-person plural (we) which taken literally may appear simply national, but I believe the work this does goes beyond historical narrative. Praying in the "we" forces us to downplay the "I" and strive for the lack of self that leads to devekut , nirvana, revelation, what you will. As I learned in a beautiful parable this week, a big wave was depressed because he could see the shore of the ocean and knew that eventually he would crash into the beach. He warned a little wave about his inevitable fate and began crying out about it. In response, the little wave replied to him. "You are not a wave, you are WATER." In Judaism, through our prayer we constantly assert, we may be Ploni Almoni but we are also a member of a nation. The nation constantly humbles the self.

This is an idea that I play with in the poem. I've attempted to write verse in terza rima, the rhyme scheme invented by Dante Alighieri to compose my favorite poem of all time, La Divina Commedia.
Please enjoy and Shabbat Shalom!

Moon of the world,
When midnight comes,
Darkness unfurls

Trumping the sun,
Humble yourself,
The self is done,

And seize that wealth,
That melts like hail.
But not in stealth--

Squirm like a snail,
Not a locust--
Swallowing, frail,

Wings flicking dust
of pharaoh's fruit--
But naked trust

As east winds hoot,
And hum like sparks,
In darkness mute.

Be a skylark,
Severe your voice.
Suckle those sparks.

This is your choice,
Moon of the world.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Shemot--The day the Water-Drawn Was Born

In this week's parshah, we are introduced to the narrative of Moshe Rabbeinu. The Parshah is rich with imagery and an intriguing story of the Hebrew in disguise who sees injustice as an outsider and, as HaRav Michael Rosenberg shlt''a suggested in a drasha this past Shabbat, in a place without a leader Moshe was a leader.

My poem for Shemot plays upon a midrash related in Sotah 12b. In this text, our sages relate the verse in which Moses is born and his mother "sees that he was good (Heb. tov)" to the beginning of B'reishit in which Ha--Shem creates light and sees that "it was good." This beautiful gezerah shavah gave a wannabe mystic like myself a lot of fodder for the poetic fire.

I used a fairly new poetic form called a Dorsimbra-- The form utilizes both traditional and modern media to create a lively tone. Please read and as always I appreciate your sincere and thoughtful commentary and additions. Shabbat Shalom!

The Day the Water-Drawn Was Born

Our hut was filled with blinding light
The day the water-drawn was born,
As if the flowing sun’s might
Exploded into reeds and thorns.

This light—a light in every stone,
In every wave, in every wad
Of spit, splinters, bone and bark,
In every stream that sings the Nile.

This baby voice just like a man
will mutter cursed and holy murder,
curses with a name so bright
that fill our hut with blinding light.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Va-Yechi: Restless like Water

In doing this poem ha-shavua learning experience/writing exercise, I have resigned to not further publicly disclaim weeks when my writing represents a cop out or some sort of laziness. Rather, I will craft a haiku and have you, my erudite readers, connect the dots.

I have not written a haiku since B'reishit when that powerful form was utilized with great thought and intention. This week, despite learning the parashah very well with various commentaries, the poetry of the various blessings and curses spoken by Joseph were so vivid that I really couldn't come up with anything that stood out on its own. I was, however very taken by the Midrash that the Egyptians had built a bronze coffin for Joseph and sunk it in the Nile to bring blessing upon the confining spiritual locus of Mitzrayim. I found this midrash very beautiful and the juxtaposition of the heavy coffin sinking beneath the surface of the water with a culturally conflicted tzaddik within, and the description of Reuven as being "restless like water" in Jacob's final blessing/curse as being related in some way.

Ultimately, perhaps my use of haiku was not at all a cop out, rather an attempt to comprehend what that connection may be in this most perplexing and potent of forms. Also, I am ever curious about the connection between the righteous who have passed and the living who aspire to fill their earthly shoes and how that plays out. Another question I asked is why would the Egyptians venerate or maybe defame the body of a righteous man in the way that the midrash suggests? Lots of thoughts percolating on my end, hopefully next week the creativity will as well :-)

Shabbat Shalom!


Restless like water,
Heathens craft a bronze coffin
To sink in the Nile.