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.