Thursday, June 24, 2010

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!
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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.

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