Sunday, September 5, 2010

This is the Blessing

Friends, I'm going to cheat a bit this week. The parasha is Ha'azinu, which takes us almost to the end of Deuteronomy. The last bit, V'Zot ha-B'rakha--"This is the Blessing"--is read on Simchat Torah. But I'm going to jump ahead, wish you a very happy new year, and close "My Portion" with this poem. Thank you for reading along with me.

In the same way Moses lived his life in the public sphere as leader of the Israelites, so he concludes it in a public way by blessing the people according to their tribes. [“This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died” (Deuteronomy 33:1).] There is no mention in his farewell address of his own two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

I ask a blessing in the name of Gershom,
about whom we know only: he did not succeed
his father; a prayer for Eliezer, who is no more
than a “begat.” If Asher dips his foot in oil
and Joseph reaps the bounteous harvest
of the moon, let the sons of Moses stand
for all of us whose names are just recorded
in the family Bible with no deed inscribed
beyond birth and dying. Say of us:
The Lord has sent them rain in its due season
and when it pocked the grapes with mildew
and set the corn to germinating in the ear.
The Lord has smote the loins of their foes
and cut their own sons down on the fields
of Degania and Lachish*. They have rested
between His shoulders and fallen beneath His feet.
He has tested them at the waters of Meribah**
and with the blood libel at Kishinev***.
They have invited their kin to the mountain
and the stranger to drink the finest wines.
They have born sons and daughters who know
but do not speak the name of God.

*Degania was a kibbutz, attacked by the Syrians in 1948. Lachish was one of the fortress towns protecting the approaches to Jerusalem, laid siege to and captured by the Assyrians in 701 BCE.
**The “place of testing,” where Moses is told to call water from the rock but instead strikes the rock with his rod.
***Site of a pogrom, or anti-Jewish riot, that took place in 1903 when the Jews were accused of killing a Christian child to use his blood in the preparation of matzos.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Portion

When people are bar or bat mitzvah, they chant a section from the Torah, which then becomes “their portion.” The chanting is done according to an ancient notation system called Torah trope. The mnemonic power of such chanting is foreseen in this week’s second parasha, "Vayelekh," where G-d tells Moses, “Therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel…since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring” (Deuteronomy 31: 19-21).

No occasion, no feast or fast
marks this Sabbath or the passage
I will chant, as did my fathers.
G-d’s word advances on kadma. *
I lavish, as darga requires,
a trill on “write this song”;
as gershayim—drive out—predicts,
I chant the people's “turn to other gods.”
This is a different path to knowing:
a detour to scatter notes—zarka;
a reach, as for a bunch of grapes—
segol. So much attention heaped
on single words—“Be strong"—as if
we must add music to make sense
of the pedestrian commands,
as if the most mundane detail,
warmed by our absorption in it,
might burst out in dazzling song.

*The Hebrew words in this poem are names of tropes, which either refer to the shape of the notation or the way it sounds.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Sometimes the morning crashes through the blinds,
noisy with light; today, fragmented by fog,
it must be reconstructed as the eye
pieces together the bed, the man beside me,
the dear faces in the silver frames.
This is the life I’ve chosen so easily
that even a stormy dawn like this one fails
to ready me for your call, your small request:
a reason not to end your life at the end
of our conversation, one oval analgesic
after another. You know how to do this
having learned from previous attempts,
but nothing prepares me to explain why
the same pale capsules on my shelf promise
a more benign relief. Through the curtain
of rain, persimmons glow in the leafless tree.
Every year, warblers puncture the skins
and feed. As sad as I have ever been,
such recurrence cheers me. Your brand of grief
is out of my depth. You want the ordinary:
husband, child. How can I, who have both,
swear I’d manage on the thinner broth
of friendships like the one I offer now?
Even the rainbow, flung between our houses,
is just a promise that the world goes on.
I don’t know how you make yourself go on;
the truth: I only know I want you to.