August 7, 2009

Amichai and Deuteronomy

excerpted from Yehuda Amichai’s

“My Parents’ Lodging Place”


In their great love my parents saved me from disappointment,
from pain and sorrow. Now I am left with their savings
plus the pain I would like to spare my children.
…My parents always told me, “I’ll show you”
sometimes threatening, sometimes in a voice of sweet love:
I’ll show you. Just you wait, I’ll show you.
“Someday you’ll learn,” sternly. “Someday you’ll learn,”
in a soothing, reassuring voice….

…My mother was a prophet when she taught me
the do’s and don’ts of everyday, paper verses
for one-time use: You’ll be sorry,
you’ll get exhausted, that will do you good, you’ll feel
like a new person, you’ll really love it, you
won’t be able, you won’t like that, you’ll never manage
to close it, I knew you wouldn’t remember, wouldn’t
forget give take rest, yes you can you can….

My father…
…chanted “remember” and keep”
with the same tune,…
…and said, I would like to add
two more commandments:
the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not change,”
and the Twelfth Commandment, “Thou shalt change. You will change”…

in Open Closed Open. Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld. Harcourt, 2000. (Citation to the Hebrew and other resources — including Temple Micah’s discussion group — at Yehuda Amichai)

Remember and Keep

The sparse footnotes for Open Closed Open include citations for “remember” (Exod. 20:8) and “keep” (Deut. 5:12) the Sabbath, along with a remark that this is “from ‘Lekha Dodi,’ a hymn welcoming the Sabbath.” It was noted in Temple Micah’s discussion group (see link above), though, that the hymn speaks of “remember” and “keep” in “dibur echad” — usually translated as “a single word” — while Amichai says that they were in one “tune.” We also considered that the ordinary trope — used during Torah study, not the public reading — for the two phrases is identical.

Experience and Change

Our study group found this poem instructive to read in parallel with Moses’ long speech in Deuteronomy/Devarim. Amichai’s parents and Moses seem to share the common parental desire to impart lessons that, in reality, must be learned through experience. On the other hand, Moses keeps telling the People to remember that they did experience the Exodus and the wanderings, etc. — even though the generation that experienced these things directly has reportedly died out; Amichai found that he neither escaped his parents’ pain nor was able to spare his own children.

We wondered if “change”/”do not change” is simple acknowledgment that practicalities ensue; parental regret at letting a child grow, and go; and/or a reference to the instruction in Deuteronomy/Devarim 13:1: “The entire word that I command you, that shall you observe to do: you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it.” Or is it all of the above, as parent, Moses and God realize that life means change?

Persistence of Teaching

Another theme we discussed in regard to this poem — which may or may not relate to Deuteronomy — is that the mother’s “paper verses” for “one-time use” seem to be the ones that stuck with Amichai:

And when my mother died, all her little predictions came together
in one big prophecy that will last
until the vision of the end of days.

Several participants found that this resonated with their own experience: The daily, mundane repetitions — often from mothers and frequently “the voice from the kitchen,” as family members run in and out — become so much a part of us, we have no choice but to “fulfill them,” whether it’s “you’ll be cold (bring a sweater)” or “you’ll get hurt (watch out).”

The eternal commandments, taught with such care by his father, do not seem to have persisted in the same way for Amichai:

Thus spoke my father, and he turned and walked away
and disappeared into his strange distances.


Agreement, for Once

It was remarkable, for our discussion group, that this poem seemed to generate universal recognition without major arguments of the theological, literary or political sort.

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Devarim, poetry

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