Sunday, January 31, 2010

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Bava Batra Perek Bet: לא יחפור

A person may not dig a pit
Near his neighbor’s – don’t get close to it.
Or a cave or a trench
Or a thing that makes stench
Keep it far, lest your friend have a fit.

Must the damager stay far away
If he fails, is it he who must pay?
Or is he who’s alarmed
By how much he is harmed
Is it he who has not been okay?

Can you pee on your neighbor’s own wall?
Can your neighbor respond with a brawl?
If it’s only your pee
Go ahead. But stand three
Tfachim off if you’re pouring for all.

A window’s made smaller in size
When a thing on the windowsill lies.
What’s impure, like the dead,
Through blocked windows won’t spread
Blocked with non-Jews or chickens in ties.

If your friend’s storehouse rests right on top
Of the place where you open a shop
Don’t do baking or dying
Your friend will be crying
“The smoke and the stench! Have him shot!”

“I can’t sleep ‘cause your baby’s so loud
And your hammering hurts, I avow!
And I’m losing my mind
From that millstone you grind”--
Is his neighbor’s behavior allowed?

Yehoshua ben Gamla made schools
So that kids would be students, not fools.
From age six or age seven
They study, thank heaven
With schools in each town, and strict rules.

When scholars are jealous they learn
Better. Jealousy’s not to be spurned.
If a teacher knows more
Then it’s he we want for
Our kids’ teacher. So give him his turn.

A storekeeper may not give out
Roasted nuts to kids running about.
For he’s surely predicted
Those kids get addicted
Then parents must buy more, no doubt.

Ezra ruled: All those peddlers, they may
Wander hawking their wares in the day
Selling jewels to the city
So girls will look pretty
We want our girls pretty, he’d say.

Rav Dimi bought dates from abroad
To sell them. His plan, though, was flawed.
For Rava, discerning
He lacked in his learning
Said: Dimi, your sales are outlawed.

A dovecote may not be built near
Any town. It’s the doves that we fear.
They might up, fly the coop
And above our fields swoop
Eating seeds from the plowed earth. Keep clear!

A barrel of wine floats at sea
Near a town with a majority
Of Jews. We assume
It is kosher. There’s room
For doubt. Shmuel cries: I disagree!

There are four winds that blow every day
But the north wind is crucial, they say.
It blows calmly. The west,
Common more than the rest
That’s where God is. We face there to pray.

A tree full of fruit may not be
Cut down, axed, in its prime suddenly.
Said Hanina: My son
Lost his life, Came undone
When he chopped down a blooming fig tree.

A tree overhangs in a space
That is public. A most public place.
We trim off one side
So a camel can ride
Past without getting whacked in the face.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Songs of the Plagues of Egypt

I cannot enter into Sefer Shmot without being swept up by the inexorable rhythms of Natan Alterman’s Shirei Makot Mitzrayim (Songs of the Plagues of Egypt). This extended poem cycle was first introduced to me three years ago by Hillel the Younger, who gave me the precious gift of a first-edition copy with an inscription (in Hebrew) that haunts me to this day:

Ilana! Although the language of our communication is English, it would not be appropriate to dedicate a book by Alterman in a foreign tongue. Remember always that beneath every cry of freedom on Pesach lurks an Egyptian cry that does not find its place. May your reading be pleasant and fearsome—
H.M. (Jerusalem, the Holy City, Shvat 5767)

Since then, I have picked up this book each year on the eve of Parshat Shmot and tried to wrap my mind around its complex imagery, its tense dialogue, its drive to inevitable destruction. The poem vividly and terrifyingly depicts the Egyptian experience of the ten plagues in Egypt. As Professor Ariel Hirshfeld has explained, Alterman, who wrote and published this poem during the Shoah (1944), turns the plagues into a parable of destruction. In the opening poem, we are introduced to the Egyptian city of No-Amon, which is soon to be convulsed by a series of plagues that unfold with constant regularity, climaxing in the plague of the firstborn. This introduction is followed by a sequence of ten highly regular poems, each with six stanzas of four lines, corresponding to each of the ten plagues. In Alterman’s poems, the plagues are not just physical disasters, but also a gradual erosion of the mental state of Egyptian society. Blood, notes Hirshfeld, is not necessarily water that has turned to blood, but rather the color red which floods No-Amon with conflagration and carnage.

Throughout the poems, we hear the direct dialogue between an Egyptian father and his firstborn son, who bear witness to the terror around them. Their dialogue, as I noticed for the first time this year, is strikingly reminiscent of the language and tone of Goethe’s ballad Der Erlkönig, about a boy assailed by a supernatural being as his father carries him home on horseback, most famously set to music by Schubert:
(Has anyone else noticed this parallel between Alterman and Goethe, I wonder?? And lo and behold, I just discovered – it was Alterman who first translated this ballad into Hebrew!)
As in Goethe’s ballad, the poems are shaped by the increasingly fearful cries of the son to his father, and the father’s faltering responses. “My father, my father,” cries the son in Goethe’s ballad, “the Erlkönig is grabbing me now! He will do me harm!” Likewise, in Alterman’s tenth poem in the cycle, the firstborn son, his face suddenly pale, calls out: “My father, where is my father? My bed is darkness.” The boy’s father answers him with a testament to the enduring strength of man: “My firstborn, my firstborn son! Darkness will not divide us, because father and son are linked by the tangles of darkness.” The concluding poem that follows the cycle of ten, “Ayelet,” ends with this glimmer of hope. The poem invokes Ayelet HaShachar, the last star seen before dawn, and appeals to the human ability to maintain hope in the face of pain and destruction.

After reading a brilliant d’var Torah by Rabbi Benny Lau dramatizing the Egyptian experience of the Israelites in their midst, I was inspired by my annual re-reading of Alterman to translate two sections into Hebrew: a part of the introductory poem, and the blood poem. May your reading be pleasant and fearsome!

En Route to No-Amon

No-Amon, with your axes of iron
Your gates, uprooted by night
They will come, plagues of Egypt, upon you
To mete out to you justice by night.

No-Amon, then it rose to the moon
The first cry, with no one to hear,
And the strong man who ran to the gateway
Collapsed, while still running, from fear.

Shrouded in cries, the king's city
Tossed forth in a wondrous hurl.
From chambers of grandeur to salt grains
From crown down to rags cast aswirl.

Among oft-told traditional stories,
Your cast-aside story burns fierce
Like a far-afield great conflagration
Past the thick clouds of time that you pierce.

Like the memories of sin, retribution,
Like a shirt steeped in red-blood libation
You rose-crept, with no mold encrustation
To the first of the paths of the nations.

1. Blood

Your night revealed, Amon, the stranger’s star above
And shown in light of fire, the face of wells and shores.
Entranced Amon you rose, a blood-red diamond stone
From tresses of a maid to pennies of the poor.

The poor man’s coin is gleaming, and drowning in red ink.
A damsel drawing water, her lips in fear assailed.
Her arm outstretched, extended: Come mighty Lord, come save!
The pail flies down, descending; and as it drops it wails.

As scarlet strikes the faces of those who sleep and wake
The maiden’s braids fly downward, like twine that ties the well
The lashes of all flesh flash flames. Through burning lips,
My Father, cries the son. Firstborn! he sounds, a knell.

I’m dizzy, Father, dizzy, and not from dancing rounds.
My breath, my Father, wheezing, my nostrils stuffed with sand.
Hold me close, support me, and clasp me till I fall,
Hold me as I, Father, draw water to my hand.

My Son, my Firstborn Son, the water’s turned so red
Pure blood poured out like water, and water poured like blood.
The well has depths of darkness, the beast – red eyes that flash.
For silent is the city, convulsed not in the flood.

My Father, is there no end to parched lips and to thirst?
The stranger’s star, Firstborn, shines forth above the land.
The waters, Father, rise, like fire in our jugs,
Our blood is redder, Son, and we are in their hands.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Divrei VaYechi: The Motive for Metaphor

Much of parshat Vayechi consists of Jacob’s blessings to his sons, introduced by the verse: “And Jacob called to his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come.” Jacob wishes to reveal his sons’ destiny to them. And yet what we find in the coming verses is not a revelation of the future, but a description of each of the sons in difficult Biblical poetry that is rich with imagery and metaphor. Reuven is “unstable as water”; Yehuda is “a lion’s whelp”; Isachar is a “strong-boned ass”; Naphtali will “yield rich dainties.” Why does Yaakov, in spite of his stated intention to bless his sons, in fact go on to describe them poetically? And how to account for this turn to richly metaphorical language at this point in the Torah, at the end of Sefer Breishit?

In Rashi’s first comment on this parsha, a Rashi that I have studied on many occasions with Avivah Zornberg, we find one answer to this question. The answer, says Rashi, is because Yaakov wished to reveal to his sons the end of days, but the shechina departed from him. He lost his connection to divinity, and could no longer reveal the future. Or, in more modern terms, his internet connection suddenly died on him. Now I don’t know about you, but when my internet connection dies—when I can no longer answer emails or read articles online or connect to the world outside myself—I tend to start writing poetry. In fact, for a long time I had no email at home just so that I would discipline myself to write more. And so identify with Yaakov’s turn to poetry at this moment when his own divine internet suddenly dies on him.

Rashi brings this comment about Yaakov’s desire to reveal the future in response to a different question – the question of why this parsha is “stuma,” closed. Rashi is commenting on the fact that the new parsha of Vayechi is written without any break from the previous one – there is no white space between the two parshiyot. Yaakov feels blocked; there is no white space in which to breathe free. And so what does he do? He composes in language that involves that maximum amount of line breaks and white space, that is, poetry. In a novel that I am reading now, The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, the author describes reading a poem in the New Yorker, and highlights this very feature of poetry:

"Let’s have a look at this poem. You can tell it’s a poem because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows that it’s a poem. All the typography on both sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they’re saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here the magician will do his thing. Here’s the guy who is going to eat razor blades. Or pour gasoline in his mouth and spout it out. Or lie on a bed of broken glass. So, stand back, you crowded onlookers of prose. This is not prose. This is the blank white playing field of Eton."

Poetry allows for maximal white space. It is an atteempt to fight the blockage. Perhaps this is the blockage that comes with old age; Yaakov knows that he is to die soon, and death is the great unknown. This might explain why both Yaakov and Moshe turn to poetry at the end of their lives – Yaakov at the end of Sefer Breishit, in parshat Vayechi; and Moshe at the end of Sefer Dvarim, in Ha’azinu and V’zot Habracha. Perhaps we feel a natural affinity with poetry at the end of life, when it becomes clear how much of the future will forever be blocked to us, because we will be cut off from it. This hypothesis reminds me of a theory of my professor Elaine Scarry, who argues in her book Fins de Siecle that the end of a century inspires poets to great heights. Scarry shows that a surprising number of history’s great poets did some of their most important work in the final decade of a century – from the 22 plays written by Shakespeare in the 1590s; to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the 1290s; to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in the 1790s. She argues for an inherent link between poetry and endings, a link that I would posit has as much to do with the end of life as it does with the end of a century. At the end of life, when we are drawn to reflect on the past and compelled to resign ourselves to what we will never know of the future, the soul turns to poetry to stave off blockage.

Of course, the knowledge of the future is not the only blockage. In parsha 11 of Kohelet Rabbah, the rabbis assert that
שבעה דברים מכוסים מבני אדם
Seven things are concealed (or kept secret) from a person. The Talmud goes on to list these items:
Yom HaMitah – the day on which we will die
Yom HaNechama – the day on which we will be consoled – or, in more human terms, the day on which we who are down and out will finally begin to feel better again.
Omek HaDin – The full depth of justice. A judge can never know whether his ruling is completely fair – at some point he makes a judgment call.
BaMeh Hu Mistaker – How a person will one day make a living, or, as we would put it in colloquial terms, “What am I going to do with my life?”
Mah B’libu shel chavero – What another person is thinking. You can never really know what is going onj in someone else’s head!
Mah B’Ibura shel Isha – What is inside the belly of a pregnant woman.
And finally, the emphatic, impassioned finale:
Malchut Zeh Shel Edom, Ematai Nofelet – When will this kingdom of Rome finally fall? Or, to quote my chevruta Sara, who tried to put this in more relevant terms when we learned this parsha on Thursday – “When will the bus finally come?!”

Now all of us are familiar with these unknowns. We all know what it is like to feel so distraught that we cannot possibly imagine when and how we will begin to feel better. We know what it is like to feel like you would to anything to know what another person is thinking! For better or for worse, our knowledge is inherently limited as human beings. We do not see the world through an Aspaklaria Me’ira, through a clear, illuminated lens. Only Moshe was able to see the world thus, as the Talmud tells us in Masechet Yevamot (49b). But even Moshe had his moment of blockage at the end of his life, as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains:

"At the end of Moshe’s days, the wellspring of wisdom was blocked off from him. And with this you can understand something wondrous: Why, in the song of Ha’azinu, the prophecy of Moses is so blocked? This is different from what we find in the rest of the Torah. Because Moses’ prophecy was generally through a clear illuminated lens, whereas all other prophets saw through an unilluminated lens. Thus Moses had the power to say what he had heard from God without any adornment through parables or riddles."

The Kedushat Levi actually criticizes Moses for his turn to poetic language, for he views that as the sign of a flaw in Moses’ prophetic ability. If only Moses could still see through the Aspaklaria Meira at the end of his life, he would not need to resort to the impenetrable poetry of Ha’azinu! Likewise, we might add, if only Yaakov did not have the Shechina Mistalek from him, he would have been able to reveal the end of days to his sons and not resort to such difficult poetic language.

Unlike the Kedushat Levi, I must admit that I’m rather happy that Moshe and Yaakov had their moments of blockage, because I am a lover of poetry. As a person who sometimes tries to write poetry, I know that it is in the moments of blockage and darkness that poetry is born. When meaning eludes us, we turn instead to language. When we are unable to focus on what we want to say, we focus on how we want to say it. When the view through the Aspaklaria window is unclear, we dress the windows in fancy curtains of similes and metaphor. Blockage, then, is an occasion for poetry. I think this notion is best captured by Wallace Stevens in his poem “The Motive for Metaphor”:

You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.

In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon--

The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were not quite yourself,
And did not want nor have to be,

Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,

The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound--
Steel against intimation--the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

The season for poetry is not the summer solstice, or primary noon, when the sun is high in the sky. Poetry is born in the shadows of autumn and the half colors of spring, when the obscure moon lights an obscure world, and the unknown and variable X replaces the clear and predictable order of ABC. This is a time of obscurity and shadows, when the Aspaklaria is only partially illuminated. At this moment when things will never quite be expressed, we cannot know what things are, but only what they are like. This is the motive for metaphor, and this is when poetry is born. None of us can know the future. But as I have come to learn in recent months, that inability l’galot et ha-ketz does not need to paralyze us or prevent us from getting married or moving forwards or blessing those we love. Rather, it can become, and often is, the impulse for poetry.