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.

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