Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group (aka Amichai Study group) is currently reading “Once I wrote Now and in Other Days: Thus Glory Passes, Thus Pass the Psalms” from the book Open Closed Open. (Visit Temple Micah’s webpage for links to the text, the group and more.) This past Shabbat, we read the stanza beginning “I want to live till even the words in my mouth are nothing but vowels and consonants…” (#7 in the English; #8 in the Hebrew), and I found the connections to Psalm 19 striking.
The poem begins, as just noted, with a reference to the disappearance of words; it continues with a discussion of of sacred numbers and how the numbers in his life should be counted among them; it ends with the following:
And the days and nights are without number — but
they too shall be numbered–
even infinity will be sacred, and then
I will find perfect rest.
Psalm 19 (using translation in Kol Haneshamah begins:
A song of triumph. A psalm of David.
The skies recount [mesaperim] the glory of divinity,
God’s handiwork the heavens’ dome declares.
Day after day pours forth its evidence,
night after night expresses knowledge of it,
yet without speech and without words,
without their voice being heard.
Through all the earth their chord goes forth,
and to the farthest reaches of the globe, their phrase.
The Hebrew verb mesaperim (“recount”) carries, as in English, meanings associated with both “telling, narrating, informing” and “counting [numbering].” Psalm 19 and Amichai’s poem incorporate both senses of “counting.” However, Psalm 19 has days and nights recounting “the glory of divinity” [kavod-el], while Amichai’s poem seems to leave open the question of whose glory is referenced.
Our discussion left disagreement on whether “even infinity [ein-sof, “without end,” a name for God] will be sacred” means that God is not yet sacred. Or, will Amichai’s life — which is [in this poem] not yet finished and not yet completely (re)counted — become sacred only once all has been told/counted? Is “perfect rest” in the complete telling?
Our group also discussed numbering years as in Psalm 90:12, frequently read in connection with mourning and often translated as something like, “Teach us to number [count] our days rightly, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.” But there is no “mesaperim” in the Hebrew here.
Many of us loved the liminal line — between sound and numbers — “The soul inside me is the last foreign language I’m learning.”
For more on Psalm 19, see “Shelach: Great Source(s)-1”