Mouse and Menorah

In Perek Shira, as noted in the previous two posts, verses from Psalm 30 join a chorus of praise in which “each of God’s creatures, plants and animals, mountains and rivers, sings out to its Creator in a special way.” Our prayers, are part of a “cosmic symphony” says Rabbi Arthur Green:

The prayers of Israel are recited in a special language and a distinctive form. There is a way in which they belong to the Jewish people and to us alone. But prayer is also a universal act, one that binds the whole human community together with all of nature, calling forth in us an appreciation of life as an ongoing celebration of the gift of being.
— from Kol Haneshemah (citation below)

This idea leads to the commentary in Pesikta Rabbati — medieval commentary on the holidays — which tells us that there were seven dedications, channukot, from dedication of heaven and earth in Breishit to the “dedication of the world to come, because even that has lights…”

More on the seven dedications as November (National Novel Writing Month) ends and Chanukah begins.

20 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.

Mouse and Menorah.jpg

NOTE:
Comment appears on page 704 of Kol Haneshemah: Shabbat V’chagim, the prayerbook published by Reconstructionist Press, 1996. Full citation at Source Materials. For more on Art Green, visit his website.

Kol Haneshemah includes select verses from Perek Shira as an alternative P’sukei D’zimrah. Among them is the first Mouse verse, translated as follows:

The mouse says: “I shall exalt you, O REDEEMING ONE, for you delivered me, and gave my enemies no joy on my account.” (Psalm 30:2).

Kol Haneshemah does not include the verse-conversation when the mouse is captured by the cat. See “And the Mouse Says” and “Glory and the Swallow” for more on Perek Shira.
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And the Mouse Says…

In addition to the swallow, the mouse [עַכְבָּר] also speaks a verse from Psalm 30 in Perek Shira:

עַכְבָּר אוֹמֵר. אֲרוֹמִמְךָ יְיָ כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי וְלֹא־שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי׃ (תהלים ל ב)
And the Mouse says, “I extol You, O LORD, for You have impoverished me/lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me.” (Ps. 30:2)
— Perek Shira, Chapter 5; more on the Mouse below

As with “kavod” in verse 13 — which, as previously discussed, is translated in many ways in addition to “glory” — דִלִּיתָנִי [dilitani] has a number of translations. But the one used in Nosson [Natan] Slifkin’s 2003 translation of Perek Shira stands far apart:

    • The 1917 JPS has “Thou hast raised me up” for “dilitani” in Psalm 30;
    • The 1985 JPS has “You have lifted me up”;
    • Other translations use “delivered,” as well as “lifted” and “raised”;
    • Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has the less usual, “you set me free so that my enemies could not gloat at my troubles”;
    • Slifkin alone has “impoverished me.”

…The Hebrew word for “impoverish” (decrease, deplete, etc…), דִּלֵּל (dileil), shares a dalet-lamed pair with dillitani. Possibly Slifkin is following a line of commentary that uses the similarity to translate the verb as “impoverish.” In the context of Perek Shira, some version of lifting would seem to parallel the warning, “from there I will bring you down” (Obadiah 1:4) which is uttered by the Cat. (See note below for links to the whole conversation between Cat and Mouse.) For the purposes of “Thirty on Psalm 30,” however, we can return to the ways dillitani is understood in the context of the psalm itself….

A Few Notes on dillitani

The Hebrew word here comes from a root meaning “to draw water” and probably originally referred to drawing water up from a well. It may have retained this connotation when this psalm was written: water and well imagery abounds in the Bible…
— Joel Hoffman (“What the Prayers Really Say” commentator), My People’s Prayer Book, vol.5

The following quotation is from The Jerusalem Commentary (broken up here into easier to read lines but otherwise unchanged:

You have lifted me up,” is derived from the root דלה, DLH (see Exodus 2:19: “And he also drew water [דָּלֹה דָלָה daloh dalah] for us”), whose primary meaning is “drawing water from a deep place.” [NOTE: OUr verse is the only example in the Bible of the root דלה, DLH, in the pi’el conjugation.] The expression, “You have lifted me up,” bears various interpretations:

  • …from my humble position (as in Psalm 113:7: “He raises the poor from the dust”);
  • You have lifted me up from my sickbed;
  • You have raised me from the underworld, as is stated in verse 4, below…
  • You kept me alive, that I should not go down into the pit” (the word דִלִּיתָנִי, dillitani, hints at the pail [דְּלִי, d’li] which is used to draw water from a well);
  • You have granted me victory over my enemies.

At all events, the word דִלִּיתָנִי, dillitani, corresponds to the word אֲרוֹמִמְךָ, aromimkha: You have lifted me up, and I will extol You (lift You up).”

More later.


19 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.

NOTE
In fact, the Mouse is one of the few animals who speaks more than one line in Perek Shira. The others are the Rooster, which speaks eight times, and the Cat, which speaks once before and once after catching the Mouse.

After being captured by the Cat —

וְעַכְבָּר אוֹמֵר. וְאַתָּה צַדִּיק עַל כׇּל־הַבָּא עָלַי כִּי־אֱמֶת עָשִׂיתָ וַאֲנִי הִרְשָֽׁעְתִּי
And the Mouse concedes, “You are just for all that comes upon me, for you have acted truthfully, and I have been wicked.”

This second Mouse speech is a singular version of the plural expression of Nehemiah 9:33:

וְאַתָּ֣ה צַדִּ֔יק עַ֖ל כָּל־הַבָּ֣א עָלֵ֑ינוּ כִּֽי־אֱמֶ֥ת עָשִׂ֖יתָ וַאֲנַ֥חְנוּ הִרְשָֽׁעְנוּ׃
Surely You are in the right with respect to all that has come upon us, for You have acted faithfully, and we have been wicked.

There is undoubtedly a lot to pursue here. But it’s tangential to Psalm 30 — and Perek Shira is not something I’ve studied before.

See the whole exchange between Cat and Mouse at Sefaria. The dialogue appears in a slightly different order in this (PDF) booklet version, Perek Shira (Slifkin).
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BACK to translation discussion

Glory and the Swallow

Ps. 30:13, discussed in several post here, appears in Perek Shira, a long, ancient hymn to creation in which the earth, ocean, lightening bolts, dew, and many creatures each speak a verse from Tanakh. Many of the quotations are from Psalms, but also Job, Song of Songs, the Prophets, and other texts. Ps. 30:13 is attributed to the swallow:

The Swallow is saying, “So that my soul shall praise You, and shall not be silent, God my Lord, I shall give thanks to You forever.” [30:13]
— Chapter 4, Perek Shira

Links to the full text in Hebrew and English and a few more details below.

In “Glory versus Silence,” the most recent post in this series, I asked if we can find our own glory if others are silenced, given that our liberation and joy is bound up together. I confess that I had in mind human “others.” Perek Shira reminds me that my liberation and joy is also bound up with with the rest of Creation….And this image reminds me that praise and prayer come in many formats and languages.

Golondrina


Psalm 30, because of its language about healing and rescue, is often linked with prayers related to these concerns, as is Perek Shira. “El Sabor del Rimon,” the blog offering the beautiful series of images linked to Perek Shira, also shares reflections on many related topics. Among those are thoughts on prayers for healing when they do not appear to be answered in the way that was hoped. One teaching suggests that such prayers might be helping someone else in the community — which brings us back to the concept that we are all connected and no one’s liberation, joy, or healing happens in a vacuum.


18 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.


NOTE
The entire “Chapter of Song,” translated by Aharon N. Varady and R. Natan Slifkin, as well as some introductory material from a 1967 facsimile edition, appears at Open Siddur. The text and similar translation is also on Sefaria, without the introduction, in another format. (The psalms citation to the Swallow’s verse is wrong there — if anyone knows how to correct it, please advise or just contact Sefaria.)
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Perek Shira Saved
There is also a custom, among some Jews, to recite Perek Shira for 40 days in hopes of an engagement, or help with business problems, as well as for healing. Some include in their intentions a promise to publish positive results….

…Seems to me I recall Catholics did something similar with prayers to St. Anthony, maybe, with praise published in the classifieds. (Anyone know about this?) Photo above came from Judaism StackExchange.
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Say Uncle for the High Holidays

I found the poetry collection, Say Uncle by Kay Ryan, at my local library and thought two of the pieces useful for the season of returning and repentance:

“Failure 2”
There could be nutrients
in failure–
deep amendments
to the shallow soil
of wishes.
Think of the
dark and bitter
flavors of
black ales
and peasant loaves.
Think of licorices.
Think about
the tales of how
Indians put fishes
under corn plants.
Next time hope
relinquishes a form,
think about that.
— p.69

“Don’t look back”
This is not
a problem
for the neckless.
Fish cannot
recklessly
swivel their heads
to check
on their fry;
no one expects
this. They are
torpedoes of
disinterest,
compact capsules
that rely
on the odds
for survival,
unfollowed by
the exact and modest
number of goslings
the S-necked goose is –
who if she
looks back
acknowledges losses
and if she does not
also loses.
— pp. 32-33
Say Uncle. NY: Grove Press, 1991

Also of possible interest, as we prepare to begin anew in head the book of Genesis, “A Certain Kind of Eden.”

Here is general information about the poet and the Library of Congress resource page. The latter includes a video farewell reading program, from the conclusion of Kay Ryan’s term as poet laureate.

Finally, just because it tickled me — A previous reader of the library volume I borrowed had circled three phrases in red. Together they form a sort of meta-poem or mangled haiku:

elfin tailor

weakness and doubt
are symbionts

that’s water under
the bridge, we say

Maybe there’s a message for the new year in this odd mash-up of Kay Ryan lines.

May we all be inscribed for a good and sweet year to come.

Rivka Miriam: at age 13 and 60+

A 13-year-old poet wrote one of the pieces recently enjoyed by the Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah (DC), I was surprised to learn.

The poem “Still” opens the collection called These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam, and it was one of the first we discussed by this poet. This review excerpt includes lines from the 1966 “Still,” contrasting it with lines from a poem written in 2009 and published in the two-volume Collected Poems [Kol Shirei Rivka Miriam] (2010):

Here, for example, are lines from an early book and a recent one: ‘God knocked on my window/ and the skin of my face shone . . . the walls were too narrow/ so he left my room and fled/ into the fields’ (tr. Linda Zisquit). And then: ‘It seems that not only God is hiding/ the earth is hidden too’. God who is present and disappears, and his existence beyond the field of vision though on some perceptible wavelength, are motifs running through all of Miriam’s work. While the second quote was written when she was 57, the first she wrote when she was merely 13. Her first book, My Yellow Dress, was published when she was 14.
— Erez Schweitzer (translated by Lisa Katz)

“A School of her own: on Rivka Miriam’s Collected Poems [excerpt],” originally in Haaretz (16 Feb 2011), can be found on Poetry International.

Poetic Developments

Schweitzer points out central themes in Miriam’s work: womb and grave; the presence and absence of God; laughter and tears as the foundation of spiritual experience; history as a continuous present, adding:

exactly because of its unity of theme and style over so many years, her body of poetry may be read in an attempt to extract the developmental, biographical and artistic processes in it.

Our poetry discussion group has only begun reading Miriam’s work. And we are somewhat divided regarding the relevance of a poet’s biography to their work and vice versa. But this background is a welcome addition to the little bit that is available (or that I have found, so far) in English.

Additional Resources

Here is a short biography of Rivka Miriam.

Here, is a TLV1 Israel in Translation podcast, including the poems “Elul” and “In the Beginning God Created.” (I found its title, “Rivka Miriam on asking forgiveness,” misleading.)

A gender-neutral translation of “In the Beginning God Created” appears in Siddur Lev Shalem:

In the beginning God created
the heavens that actually are not
and the earth that wants to touch them.
In the beginning God created
threads stretching between them —
between the heavens that actually are not
and the earth that cries out for help
And God created humans
for each person is a prayer and a thread
touching what is not
with a tender and delicate touch.
— Rivka Miriam, trans by David C. Jacobson

Extending the theme of creation, Rabbi Steven Sager translates and discusses Miriam’s poem, “Created on the Second Day.” Search the the Sicha, “Continuing Conversation” site for more from Rivka Miriam in the context of various midrashim and other topics.

INVITATION: Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah meets first, third, and fifth Saturdays after Shabbat morning service. All welcome. Discussion in English, poems explored in both Hebrew and English.

These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam. New Milford, CT: The Toby Press, 2009.
The collection clearly identifies “Still” as from her first publication (1966), but I somehow failed to notice the date, and I know our discussion of the poem never touched on feeling the poet was young or the material immature.
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Chana Bloch: Her Memory For a Poetic Blessing

Chana Bloch, poet, translator, and teacher, died on May 19, 2017. Among her major translation projects are the Song of Songs with Ariel Bloch (then husband) and, with Chana Kronfeld, Yehuda Amichai’s Open Closed Open (NY: Harcourt, 2000). For several years, she edited Persimmon Tree, a publication of the arts by women over 60.

Bloch’s poem about beginnings, “Chez Pierre, 1961,” appeared in Poetry Magazine (1990) and in the more recent collection Far Out: Poems of the 60s. Her final literary work, The Moon Is Almost Full, is due out in September of this year.

“Questions of Faith” a substantial interview about Bloch’s experience of Judaism.

May her memory be for a blessing

Obituaries:
Jewish Weekly
Tablet

Amichai’s Love and the Entwives

A highway detours in order to give two lovers some privacy in their “bit of eternity,” in the opening stanza of Yehuda Amichai’s “Pinecones in the Tree Above.” Several stanzas later, “she is the walled public garden of the city, and he, the road which moves away from her” (Abramson, p.101 — see notes below).

YA 46
from “Pinecones on the Tree Above” in Collected Poems

Like Pine Cones, Ents and Entwives

The “Pine Cones” series is the second set of love poems [after “Six Poems for Tamar”] published in a collection called “Now and in Other Days” (1955). The garden/road stanza is, as Abramson notes, one of eight short portraits of the same lovers: “like two associations in one mind: as he is referred to, so is she; they are like two lightbulbs in a lamp each one alone too dark but together lighted they are a festival of light….They are like two stones at the bottom of a hill, secluded and alone…”

Each stanza consists of rhymed couplets, which, Abramson continues: “affirm the isolated perfection of love; yet even at their most serene the lovers are separate entities, two lightbulbs, two stones, two numbers. The poems offer an apparent affirmation of love, yet separateness and isolation are implicit in them.” (Abramson, see below)

Considering this stanza, readers find many contrasts, some of them Freudian, between the movement-oriented man and the enclosure-focused woman. For me, the contrast Amichai draws is reminiscent of Tolkein’s wandering Ents and their inability to connect with the more settled Entwives (The Lord of the Rings — full citation below)

Ents are Middle Earth’s very old, male, tree-like creatures who have somehow “lost” their female counterparts, the Entwives. They’re not dead, just missing and missed, Treebeard (AKA Fangorn) tells the hobbits:

…the Ents gave their love to things that they met in the world, and the Entwives gave their thought to other things, for the Ents loved the great trees, and the wild woods, and the slopes of the high hills…But the Entwives gave their minds to the lesser trees, and to the meads in the sunshine beyond the feet of the forests…Entwives desired order, and plenty, and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them). So the Entwives made gardens to live in. But we Ents went on wandering, and we only came to the gardens now and again.
The Two Towers

“They walked together…”

Treebeard’s description of the old days for Ents and Entwives sounds a little like Jeremiah’s prophetic vision of God and Israel, together in the desert just after leaving Egypt:

When the world was young, and the woods were wide and wild, the Ents and the Entwives – and there were Entmaidens then: ah! the loveliness of Fimbrethil, of Wandlimb the lightfooted, in the days of our youth! – they walked together and they housed together.
The Two Towers

The devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride— How you followed Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown.
— Jer. 2:2

The “Pine Cones” lovers reflect the togetherness of the above metaphors — when the lovers appear like two stones, e.g., together resting at the bottom of a hill, watching seasons pass. But they do not find Amichai’s concept of “true love,” according to Abramson: “Ahavah be-emet [true love], the coupling of both spirit and flesh, is still undiscovered and it is only for a brief moment that the bulbs achieve a “festival of light,” unbounded unity in each other…”

And that undiscovered territory, she argues, has additional implications:

The notion of separateness offered by the couplets in “Pine Cones,” implying that the lovers have failed to achieve perfect unity, indicates their separation also from God.
— Glenda Abramson. The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach.
Albany: SUNY Press, 1989, p.101

“Our hearts did not go on growing in the same way,” Treebeard says of Ents and Entwives. The prophets of Israel, Jeremiah included, tell us that reconciliation between God and the People is still possible, although disappointment and anger have reigned for centuries. And what of Amichai’s lovers? Our study group still has four stanzas of “Pine Cones” to translate and discuss, but I do see that the last word of the poem is הפרידה [separation]. Stay tuned.

Notes:

Abramson, Glenda. The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach. Albany: SUNY Press, 1989.

Amichai, Yehuda. Collected Poems [5 vols.]. Jerusalem: Schocken, 2002-2004 [Shirei Yehuda Amichai]. “Pinecones on the Tree Above” i

Harshav, Benjamin & Barbara. Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry 1948-1994. NY: Harper Collins, 1995. NOTE: the “highway” stanza is included in the Harshavs’ selected translations; the garden/road stanza is omitted.
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Tolkein, J.R.R. The Two Towers (Book 2 of 3, The Lord of the Rings). London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954.

For more on Ents —

  • Tolkein, Christopher. Treason of Isengard: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part Two (The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 7). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
  • Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Middle Earth blog), particularly “What Happened to the Entwives

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Distance, part 2

The distance between people and God, and if/how that distance may be bridged, is a major question in theology, philosophy, and the arts, including contemporary Hebrew poetry. The previous post looked at related ways that “touch” [Hebrew: נָגַע] occurs both in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and in some verses from Yehuda Amichai. The distance between people and God is explored in a different way in the poetry of Leah Goldberg, according to Rabbi Dalia Marx in “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God.”

Goldberg’s God

Marx’s essay explores three Israeli poets, all considered “secular” rather than “religious,” in order to show that “religiosity and engagement with God are not limited to classical forms of prayer and to ‘religious’ circles.” In addition to Goldberg, poets discussed are Yona Wallach (1944-1985) and Orit Gidali (b. 1974).

Marx analyzes several Goldberg poems, including the series “From the Songs of Zion.” This four-poem series, Marx tells us, looks at the question raised in Psalm 137: How can we sing God’s song in a strange land? It concludes with “Journeying Birds” (translated here by Marx):

That spring morning
heaven grew wings.
Wandering westward,
the living heavens recited
T’fillat Haderekh: [22]
“Our God,
bring us in peace
beyond the ocean
beyond the abyss,
and return us in fall
to this tiny land
for she has heard our songs.” [23]
— Leah Goldberg IN Marx, pp.188-189

The essay continues:

Unlike Goldberg’s other poems discussed here, “Journeying Birds” reflects no distance from God — who appears like the God of tradition and who is addressed in a heartfelt prayer for a safe journey. Yet the prayer emanates from the mouth of birds, not the poet’s. What is impossible for her, who does not possess the language of prayer, can be uttered freely and naturally by the birds.

This is not a typical poem for Goldberg in the sense that she uses a familiar liturgical phrase, T’fillat Haderekh, even drawing upon its contents, which, traditionally, asks God “to bring us to our destination for life…and peace…and to return us to our homes in peace.” Like traditional Jewish prayer too, the birds speak in the first person plural [24]. Goldberg, by contrast, could only address “my God,” not the “traditional God” of common Jewish prayer [25].

…Goldberg often writes about birds, who symbolize, for her, joy and freedom. [26]. In this very native and local poem she allows birds to address the ineffable with a joyful prayer that she cannot make herself.
— Marx, “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God,”
IN Encountering God, p.189

The comment above about Goldberg’s use of “my God” refers to two poems also discussed in Marx’s essay: “I Saw My God at the Cafe” and “The Poems of the End of the Journey, 3.” The former does not address God, but describes “my God” in the third person. The latter begins, “Teach me, my God…,” and remains singular and personal throughout:

Teach me, my God, to bless and to pray
Over the secret of the withered leaf, on the glow of ripe fruit…
…Lest my day become for me simply habit.
— Goldberg, from “The Poems of the End of the Journey”
Poems II. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame’uchad, 1986

NOTE: See Marx’s essay for her translations and discussion of these poems. The full three-part “Poems of the Journey’s End,” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back, appears as a Haaretz poem of the week. (Requires a little patience with ads, but the poem will show up, free of charge).

Tradition and Alienation

In “Poems of the Journeys End,” Goldberg “negotiates with the living God from whom she feels alienated,” Marx tells us: “Traditional prayers are a manifestation of faith; this one is a supplication for faith to arise” (Encountering God, p. 188).

Perhaps it’s a question of chicken and egg, in terms of who picks up a siddur in the first place. But traditional prayers, in contrast to Marx’s declaration, are filled with words and imagery meant to spark a prayerful attitude…a sense of faith, one might say, which the siddur does not take for granted. (Imagining that we are imitating choruses of angels, joining our voices with “all living things who praise,” outright begging God to “open our lips.”)

Moreover, far from being new or unique in Goldberg’s poem(s), a feeling of distance or alienation from God is a major theme in the Book of Psalms. The Jerusalem Commentary on Psalms, e.g., includes a category called “descriptions of the spiritual distress of the psalmist, who feels himself far away from God” (p.xxiii).

It seems hard to believe, in fact, that Goldberg’s “Poems of the Journeys End” is not in active in dialogue with these themes in the psalms:

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that brings forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither;
and all that it produces prospers.
— Psalm 1:3

So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.
— Psalm 90:12

But, somehow, her poetry seems to be read as oddly disconnected from the tradition that helped forge it:

As the orison of an ever-receding horizon, Lea Goldberg’s poems blur the line between the secular and religious divide. They reach for a “contiguity” (Dan Miron’s term) between tradition and a breach with that tradition, awakening anew the religious power of the Hebrew language. And so, this volume of poetry speaks uniquely to this generation of Jewish readers. It should be kept by one’s bedside, read as meditations, “blessings” or “hymns of praise” each morning and night, just as God renews Creation each day (Psalms 104), in the glory of dappled-things, a “withered leaf” or “ripe fruit”, reviving “all things counter, original, spare, and strange” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”), so that your words do not blur in vulgar gibberish, so that your days not turn mundane.
— Rachel Adelman, 2005 review of a Goldberg volume

Hers? Mine? Ours?

Psalms are an odd hybrid of poetry and prayer. It’s not clear where they would fall when Marx declares, in “Israeli ‘Secular’ Poets Encounter God,” that prayer and poetry share an affinity but differ in essentials. But it seems odd that Marx makes so much of Goldberg’s shift from first-person singular to plural in the three poems discussed, without even mentioning that the psalms also include first-person singular and plural language, for both narrator and address to God.

Marx concludes her essay by reiterating the hope, expressed by poet Avot Yeshurun, that “Hebrew literature should renew prayer.” And she does make her point that ‘secular’ poets participate in a “vivacious religious sentiment…far richer and more bountiful than initially expected” (Encountering God, pp.196-197). But her decision to contrast poetry with “traditional prayer,” without mentioning psalms serves to dissociate Goldberg’s work from its background.

Psalms have, it seems, been considered somewhat old-fashioned for millenia —

When the sages in the Second Temple period composed the prayers and blessings that all Jews are obligated to recite, they created new texts rather than selecting chapters from Psalms….The main reason for this tendency seems to have been that the psalms were written in an ancient poetic style not easily understood in the Second Temple period. The rabbis used a style similar to the spoken language of their day, so that ordinary Jews could understand them.
Jerusalem Commentary on the Psalms, p. xliii

— but also demand their own renewal: “Sing unto the LORD a new song” (Psalm 149:1).

Goldberg’s “withered leaf” and desire to avoid the mundane are a fine example of renewing an old theme — except when authors, like Adelman, fail to mention the theme being renewed.

NOTES

“Israeli Secular Poets Encounter God” by Rabbi Dalia Marx
IN Encountering God: El Rachum V’chanun: God Merciful and Gracious. Lawrence A. Hoffman, editor. Woodstock, NY: Jewish Lights, 2016
Full paper also posted on Academia
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Marx’s end-notes:

22. T’fillat Haderekh (literally, “the Road Prayer”) is the title of the traditional prayer for beginning a journey.

23. Leah Goldberg, Milim Achronot (Last Words) (Tel Aviv, 1957) reprinted in Poems II, 221 (my translation, DM).
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24. Talmud, Berakhot 29b

25. For another exception, see Amir, “Prophecy and Halachah,” 52-53.
[Yehoyado Amir, “Prophecy and Halachah: Toward Non-Orthodox Religious Praxis in (Eretz) Israel. Tikvah Working Paper 06/12 (New York: NYU School of Law, 2012)]

26. Lieblich, Learning about Lea, 237
[Amia Lieblich, Learning about Lea (London: Athena Press, 2003)]
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Roads, Birds, and Distance: Amichai, Goldberg, and the Rambam

“Touch” [Hebrew: נָגַע] is a word-of-the-week, as my study partner and I plow slowly through Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. This common verb, as it happens, is central to a Yehuda Amichai piece Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group discussed this past Shabbat. The two explorations of touch shed a little extra light on one another — and on the Leah Goldberg poem, “Journeying Birds,” which our group also considered. (more on Amichai and the Hebrew Poetry group) Note: this post updated slightly 5/18/17.

Highway to Heaven

Maimonides’ non-stop stress on God’s non-corporeal nature might seem, for contemporary readers, like way too much attention on the obvious. Until very recently, I confess, I thought The Guide for the Perplexed was engaged in page after page of beating a horse long-dead, if ever it lived: After all, who among us, in this day (or in 1200 CE, for that matter), is convinced that the God of the Jews has literal feet? But I’ve come to appreciate a subtle truth in The Guide that shares a lot with Amichai’s use of playful irony and with Leah Goldberg’s God-approaching themes.

In Chapter XVIII of The Guide, the Rambam discusses the verb “touch” [נָגַע] and two others:

The three words karab, “to come near,” naga’, “to touch,” and nagash, “to approach,” sometimes signify “contact” or “nearness in space,” sometimes the approach of man’s knowledge to an object, as if it resembled the physical approach of one body to another.

…Wherever a word denoting approach or contact is employed in the prophetic writings to describe a relation between the Almighty and any created being, it has to be understood in the latter sense.
— Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed
(M. Friedlander, trans., pp.50-51)

The path “nearer” to God is a “spiritual approach, i.e., the attainment of some knowledge, not, however, approach in space,” Maimonides explains, citing these texts:

The LORD is near [קָרוֹב] to all who call Him,
to all who call Him with sincerity
קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו– לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.
— Psalms 145:18

Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
For what great nation is there, that hath God so nigh [קְרֹבִים] unto them, as the LORD our God is whensoever we call upon Him?
And what great nation is there, that hath statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
— Deuteronomy 4:6-8 (The Guide cites 4:7)

But as for me, the nearness of God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים] is my good;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works.
— Psalms 73:28

Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways; as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of Me righteous ordinances, they delight to draw near unto God [קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים יֶחְפָּצוּ].
— Isaiah 58:2 (Yom Kippur’s “Is this the fast I require?” passage)

—-“spiritual approach” citations from The Guide, chapter XVIII

While the philosopher often speaks of “knowledge” as essential in “spiritual approach,” his illustrative texts here suggest that the real requirement is intention or focus.

Bow Thy Heavens

Maimonides closes his chapter on “contact by comprehension,” with a return to the verb “touch.”

In the passage “Touch (ga’) the mountains, and they shall smoke” [Ps. 144:5], the verb “touch” is used in a figurative sense, viz., “Let my word touch them”….as if he who now comprehends anything which he had not comprehended previously had thereby approached a subject which had been distant from him. This point is of considerable importance.
The Guide, p.51

The verse Rambam cites —

יְהוָה, הַט-שָׁמֶיךָ וְתֵרֵד; גַּע בֶּהָרִים וְיֶעֱשָׁנוּ
O LORD, bow Thy heavens, and come down;
touch [גַּע — ga’] the mountains, that they may smoke.

— is often linked with Exodus 19:18 with its smokey revelation: “Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire.”

Maimonides has already gone to great pains to explain that God is no nearer “whether a person stand at the center of the earth or at the highest point of the ninth sphere, if this were possible.” But he doesn’t argue that asking God to “touch the mountains” or “bow the heaves” is meaningless. To the contrary, he takes the verse’s extreme imagery as a comment on the power of God’s “touch,” understood as comprehending a “subject which had been distant.”

For Maimonides, any biblical images of God “approaching,” “nearing,” or “touching” serve to emphasize change of human cognition. In a similar literary move, Amichai gives agency to a paved road in order to emphasize a human couple’s state of mind.

Highway Decision-making

While most of his later works use free verse, some of Amichai’s earlier pieces, including “Pinecones on the Tree Above,” rhyme. This long piece begins with a few verses about a highway and two lovers:

[It] reached (הגיע) almost here — but thinking of
The bit of eternity that a lover and his love

Found here, close to their everyday drone
Made a detour and left them alone.
— Amichai, “Pinecones on the Tree Above”

IN Yehuda Amichai: A Life in Poetry, 1948-1994
Benjamin & Barbara Harshav, translators (NY: Harper Collins, 1994).

The highway’s apparent consciousness — making the decision not to touch the couple — is happily accepted within the context of the verses: The playful image only enhances the reader’s understanding that it’s the couple who feel that the road, and world beyond, cannot touch them for the moment.

My contemporary Bilingual Learners Dictionary notes that the Hebrew verb naga’ — nun-gimmel-ayin — means “touch,” “concern,” and “connection.” A more prosaic description of Amichai’s scene might have said the road “didn’t concern them” or that the couple’s intimate connection dis-connected them from the nearby road. The couple’s state of mind, their lack of connection/concern with the road, is only emphasized by poetically giving (their) agency to the highway.

Should a reader object to the playful granting of decision-making ability to the highway, the poetry would cease to function. The poetry would equally fail for a reader who somehow believed that roads do, in fact, make choices. In a similar vein: Should a budding philosopher object to a God capable of sky-bending and mountain-smoking, Psalms 144:5 would lose its power. The verse also fails when such extraordinary imagery is taken as even potentially factual.

God Approaches

I’m still at start of The Guide, and remain pretty seriously perplexed, but I am increasingly sympathetic to Maimonides’ approach and find it oddly poetic — or, perhaps, oddly “Amichai-ish.” In approach, that is, not in content. (Although Amichai’s themes sometimes involve God and the distance between man and God, I don’t think “Pinecones on the Tree Above” is intended to explore this territory.) Leah Goldberg’s “Journeying Bird,” on the other hand, shares some of the philosopher’s quest for understanding how humans and God might approach one another. [Next post]

Rivers of His Hands

“The rivers of his hands [נהרות ידיו] poured into his good deeds,” reads the Yehuda Amichai poem “My Father.” The Hebrew Poetry group at Temple Micah discussed this poem on Shabbat, and I later recalled some background which seems related.

Rabbi Meir says in Pirkei Avot:

Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things…and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop [וּכְנָהָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ פוֹסֵק]…
— Pirkei Avot 6:1, from Sefaria

In addition, the biblical concept of “נָהָר — nahar” provides further relevant background.

A River Goes Out

River images are pretty common in biblical text. The word “נָהָר — nahar” is used 120 times in the Hebrew bible, with 98 uses translated as “river,” according to this concordance . (The word is also rendered “flood” or “floods” or “streams.” Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance is widely available on the web and very handy; here’s more about this Christian resource.) But the first “nahar” in particular seems related to both the verse from Avot and Amichai’s poem.

“A river comes forth from Eden to water the garden.”
V’nahar yotzei me’eden lehashkot et hagan
וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן
— Genesis 2:10

Noting that the river “yotzei [goes out, comes forth]” from Eden, a contemporary teacher writes:

How ironic. Wouldn’t the river be more likely to water the Garden if it flowed INTO the Garden? The deepest answer is that Torah is compared to lifegiving waters. The more one gives Torah over to others the more watering comes back in return. The more one teaches, the more one learns. The more we give of ourselves to others, the more we get back in return.
blog of Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Amichai’s poem, “My Father,” says nothing about Torah. But the images he shares seem consistent with — and I’d argue, built on — biblical and rabbinic ideas of rivers sustained by their “going out.”