Peace Be Upon You, Traveler

Peace be upon you, traveler,
through night’s fevered exhale
or sun-charred road,
to lover’s threshold
or the white citadel!

Perhaps you drive through the bank at midnight
because your daughter has a cough
or to hasten morning’s commute.
But maybe you bear
as rushing blood
to foreign lands
circulating dollars
through Taipei’s tunnels
or the flowering alleys of Sao Paulo.

You did not ask my permission,
did not show your face,
real and stubbled red as Capistrano,
or smooth-chinned as the Lotus Temple,
and risk the fleeting.

You were wiser –
like rain cobbling the paths at Sarnath,
like feet smoothing the slopes of Jerusalem,
you chose eternity
and did not show your face.

That’s alright.
This, too, is just a game
of hopscotch
with G-d clapping the time.
If-you-miss-one,
that’s-o-kay,
your-life-leads
else-where
a-ny-way.

Leave.
Forget the rules
and the electric bill!

Can I really blame you
for sneaking out
when all implied authority,
though not declaring it illegal,
finds this smuggling, well,
irresponsible?

Do not fret at our parting.
Your headlamps thirst for the mile;
your ticket pulls you forward.
There is an edge even to this circle;
bless me, and traverse it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Maamar I Do Not Understand

The sukkah is makkif, and we bring it b’pnimius.
Ignorance, young man, is no excuse.
Run your fingers across the footnotes’ gleanings, and realize you ought to pray.
What affliction, bread of hunger —
eat it, and you are eaten away —
the vodka laps you,
and in understanding is a leather sole on your forehead.
The holiday is just a break-tide
set against the year-sea.
Sit within it,
weave its six-fold gestures.
It won’t help.
The year will flood us,
the ark will not be ready,
and salt water will get in your porridge.
Climb into the words,
wrap them around yourself,
and ignore the ravens insisting
that G-d wills your drowning.
You cannot stop the crowing.
Wave the white flag tied to the olive branch,
never write the damn book,
and retreat beneath the sheets.

 

Dream the night is full of holes,
a smashed idol.
The father of the inch of you that will not settle
makes a promise, and we are its words.
His wife slays a snake
with a laugh.
They are larger than time
and heavier than the earth,
but their eyes sparkle.
They,
–in your dream, of course;
do not settle–
dry you with scorching niggun,
explain the suffering,
and reject it all the same.

 

Choices must be made;
____  believes in you.
You wake not because you must,
but because you should;
your family misses you.

 

Trust me: One day it will all stop lying,
and show you your true worth.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

For the Messiah, or Whomever

Some aren’t born to yearn or fear,
nor to grip the grasping thought,
but to place their dead bones here
and ignore what through them’s wrought.

Some live not as noble force,
acceleration summed and formal;
they find once they’ve run their course
they were friction and the normal.

Some don’t sup or pray
with half their parents’ devotion;
they will not see the sun-soaked bay,
only mud’s erosion.

They are tossed as pebbles beneath the tide,
weight against the flow,
and when dead rise it’s their only pride
that when pushed they did not go.

Not all stories share the wisdom of the sages,
nor all tales speak of ancient lovers.
Some yarns don’t deserve the pages,
but are bound to knit the covers.

Our hearts numb at the end of time,
we are prepared to wait for never.
We are the death that comes for death;
we fight for the Messiah, or whomever.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Midnight Prayer

There is a profound hope we dare not utter
and a light of which we dare not speak,
and we ask you,
King of Concealment,
Master of dark technique,

to open the locks between the stars
and set out your final feast
where we will eat the distance that bars,
and smash goodbyes under our tankards,
and from the book You will read us our own story
and we will laugh at its glory
and cheer ourselves as we cheer the blindfolded.

The feast will go on and on,
and we won’t mind,
because the night is Yours and light,
and together our fear is delight
as long as it doesn’t have to end.

But until we hear Your answer,
ends do us ensnare,
and everything must finish,
even this small prayer.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Joseph, At The End Of History

If we must understand
the world and dangle
it from our fingers
like a porcelain mug,

then our eyes
will always hook
its angled handles,
our desires
bowed and arrowed,
tabled and listed,
slapping each other like
the numbered tiles
guiding through the prayers
the congregation
integer by integer,

and we will act
most madly
to discover ourselves
in the counting,
pulled along by motive motors
like perps weighing gains
and losses
the way the police psychologist
would have told them to.

But if we needn’t know,
and let the cup fall,
we find all the stories
like neat chainmail
cannot wall off the bolt
that slew history
when she was a maiden —

That’s right! She has been
only a ghost:
The UN’s foul choice came
to answer the Zionist voice
which in turn was born
to a people torn from
the land to carry truth
forlorn in galuth
since G-d’s sacred domain
was by Romans profaned,
holy tablets displaced
long after deserting the wastes of Sinai
which never would
have happened
if history weren’t dead
because —

One morning,
rather than rattle against
his own meninges
or dwell on a decade’s pain,
the young Hebrew,
abandoned in Egypt to rot,
somehow chose
in a mind bound not
by money, biology, or electrons,
to ask two others
about their long faces,
and set in motion history,
the story marching
from the mystery
behind his eyes,
all explanations slain,
dead as
shards
of pottery.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

All That Matters

All that matters is we should be together.

But this, we cannot be.

You are over there, and I am over here.

These words do not approach giving you who I am. And, when it comes to everything that is important…words fail.

So:

When we sit in the dead of night and listen to F♯A♯∞ with near-religious reverence, or take in the kids tobogganing down Central Park hills, or even look each other in our red eyes,

I do not know what you see.

I do not know what you see.

I tell you that the Hopper painting is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, that the light in that frail building’s crooked arm is the soul Adam bore out of Eden against the looming dark.

But you don’t understand what I mean.

You protest that we see the same picture. But that’s wrong. The picture is there for sure. There’s only one picture. The picture I can know, a little bit. And so can you.

But you cannot know what it is to be me, looking at Edward Hopper’s painting.

And I cannot know what it is to be you, doing the same.

And no matter how much they’ve tried, or how many words they’ve spilled, or how much they’ve insisted that I am one with them,

I have not believed them.

I am trapped outside of believing them.

Though the words make us feel less lonely, they are only the gossamer structs we’ve carved from the air, and they will melt away by morning, and I am I, and you are you

and I cannot know

if we have

ever

met.

I have not met you. And I have not met Hopper.

There is only one way to meet you, my beloved.

We each have to trust.

I have to trust that there is a someone behind those eyes

a someone like I am someone

and that their knowing

is my knowing

far, far beyond

what any poor word can hope to hold.

But how can I trust you?

How can I believe in you, when I can’t say why you should believe in me?

Maybe that’s what so many of us are waiting for.

Maybe I am standing at the station, baggage in my hand, waiting for a train unlisted on the schedule, whose arrival will be the end of me and the beginning of us.

Maybe that’s the color of the uncoiling love that’s supposed to protect us like whispered cartel promises in young, desperate ears,

the love uncaused as Gd falling like a brick from the blue that we cannot search for but hope to find.

I am waiting to find it.

It is not, I imagine, the love we shape from the clay we breathe into. It is not either that wishful love, a colorful bird brightening the drab webs at the creases of our imaginations. After all, these are words in their own ways, images, bodies, and that which is incarnate is lost, lost, lost.

I am waiting to break free of these transistors and sail the black static between your stars.

No; we wait for the love that we cannot know until it is who we are, the love of being with another, it (beyond description) itself the one word in the dictionary of the infinite tongue, the bluntest language and the only true one, whose grammar we violate at the risk of nonexistence.

I am waiting to hear it spoken.

I am waiting.

I am waiting because there is nothing else to do.

I am waiting because I trust, for some reason, that there is more than I’ve so far found.

Until Gd unprevented draws our sparks together, I’ll just sit here and wonder why I am typing these words,

wondering: Do you believe in me?

Do you, too, wait on the teeming shores of your island unchartable resenting the extent of the sea?

Please, don’t answer.

I don’t know whether I can believe you.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why Can’t A Nation Of Talmudists Write A Poem?

It’s funny that the same people that obsesses over a Tosfos can’t seem to warm up to poetry. The two forms are similar in their constrictions and have parallel goals, and both have historically been part of Judaism. What allows us to attack one with vigor, and never consider the other?

1. Talmudic Tribulations

What’s Tosfos? A Jewish religious text with multiple authors. One of the most challenging books ever written, and one of the most beautiful. A tour de force. Tosfos takes thousands of pages of Talmud – myriad opinions, legal positions, stories, practical advice, arguments, questions, answers – and dares look at the whole mess as an organized whole that ought not contradict itself. Then Tosfos plays different parts of the book against each other, searching for meaning in seeming contradictions. And what Tosfos says (and not in the easiest Rabbinic Hebrew, either) is only the beginning.

To wit: a certain Rabbi will opine in one tractate contrary to his opinion elsewhere. Tosfos will explain how it’s not really a contradiction with a dense five-line paragraph. From the beginner level of knowing basic Hebrew and Aramaic, it probably takes six months to a year of serious study to be able to understand those five lines.

But really it takes a lifetime.

Because those five lines aren’t five lines. They’re all of reality. Because Rashi, the commentary that chronologically preceded Tosfos and was available to the Tosafists, clearly has not just a different opinion, but the opposite opinion. It’s not as if Tosfos was working in a vacuum. For some reason Tosfos decides Rashi is wrong. So you dig deeper. Maybe you turn to later commentaries. Maybe you just rely on your own head. Turns out there’s a whole world here, grounded in the Gemara like an integral in its derivative, but operating at an entirely separate logical level. You find that Rashi and Tosfos disagree on this issue not just here, but in five other places spread across thousands of pages of Talmud. Not only that, but to understand their disagreements elsewhere, you must examine those tractates and dive into their flow. Now you have six different pieces of Talmud, each made of countless tiny pieces, and you have six opinions of Rashi and six of Tosfos. Tosfos doesn’t have to be internally consistent, as it has multiple authors (though of course it’s more elegant to explain it so if possible), but Rashi does. So first, you have to make all these Rashis internally consistent, and find the underlying logic that informs each of them. This is useful for the next step, because if Tosfos disagrees everywhere, their logic must be different. In the end, they have two completely different ways of reading all these sections of Talmud, internally consistent ways that fit into the exact same words of the Talmud equally well.

Tired of all this theorizing, you go to the codifiers, who take the whole mess and decide which position is more logical, and lay down the law for all generations. And there in Rambam (Maimonides), you see fell words, words that chill your blood: the great lawmaker seems to have borrowed freely from both Rashi and Tosfos; his ruling follows both of them, depending on the case. Rambam must have a way of reading the Talmud that’s completely different than both Rashi and Tosfos that allows him to mix these apparently contradictory opinions…

And so on, for the rest of your life, if you learn Torah.

The Talmudic novice often has a funny conception of Tosfos; he thinks it exists to make life more difficult. Everything was beautiful before they hacked away at it and rearranged it and insisted the whole thing had to make sense with itself. The Talmud (and with it, Judaism – in case you were thinking detachedly) is a shambles in its wake.

Of course, the student only appreciates the beauty of the Talmud at his own level. The ocean is indeed beautiful at the surface. Why is Tosfos bothering me with trenches and reefs? Who ever heard of a fish?

No, Tosfos is not here to destroy, but to lead us to deeper truth. It is only by disabusing us of the illusion of simplicity that it can then show us the light.

2. Poetic Parallels

These same Pharisees who study Talmud all day long can’t seem to appreciate a scrap of poetry. King David wrote poetry, it’s true – some of the greatest of all time, to this day, and even better in the original than in translation. King Solomon his son certainly wrote poetry. Many of Rashi and Tosfos’s contemporaries wrote poetry, religious poetry. But today, to my knowledge, very few religious Jews write poetry.

This, despite poetry being the Tosfos of reality.

Both poet and Tosfos plumb G-d’s work, and respect it. Both must find expression in small paragraphs. Both are plagued and vivified by the limitations of words and both must master these fragments of meaning if they hope to succeed. Where Tosfos sees edges of thought and logic and sharpens them against each other, the poet sees existential realms that must be interwoven – self and society, life and death, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow. What Tosfos reaches through analysis of the brain, the poet reaches through the deep appreciation of the heart.

Their instructive forms parallel each other. Beginners at poetry don’t understand why the poet cannot say his words directly and clearly. Why the strange line breaks, the odd rhythm, words no one uses, the otherworldly metaphors that menace even in their sweetness? Surely the poet is mocking reality, creating falsehoods? The rose is pink. Just say so. No need to tell me it’s like the blush of the palms of a newborn’s feet.

No! Just as with Tosfos, the goal here is to appreciate the Truth. And just as with Tosfos, the deeper truths cannot be brought in through the mind’s front door, and must be smuggled ‘round back. Our tendency is to see a rose for a rose. But G-d “blushed” both the flower and the child, and both of them grow, and both of them are born and then wither and fade away, and both of them call to mind love and family.

A rose is not just a rose. A statement in the Talmud is not just a statement. Nothing is just anything. And that’s why poetry and Tosfos, in their own realms, lead us beyond base contingent realities, beyond that which is for no reason, to the causal truth. To the sublime.

3. A Pervasive Coldness

Why don’t exegetes appreciate a form of expression whose axiomatic foundation is that if it can be said straight out, it’s not worth saying? Why don’t we tease at the surface of reality the same way we tease our texts? Why, in a word, aren’t we poets?

It’s not just the religious who no longer appreciate poetry. The secular Tosfos, so to speak, is ascendant as well. We moderns are awash with analysis if not outright skepticism, and our tendency is to question before we appreciate. And if we question and never come to appreciation, no one loses sleep over it. Read your Facebook feed. If it’s not some throwaway piece of humor or cheap inspiration tarted up for mass consumption, it’s endless politics and debate and disagreement. (Not that everyone must agree. There is beauty in diversity, as much as that word leaves an exit wound. It’s all valid. There is nothing wrong with using our minds and having opinions.) The model of the thinking modern man is the scientist, who understands by taking apart and reassembling, by digging at what things are rather than accepting that they are.

This approach prevents us from seeing the poetry. We exercise doubt before appreciation. Better to be the hard-nosed skeptic who believes nothing than the fool who believes everything, we think (in exact contradiction, incidentally, to something Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said). In the sense of intellectual consumption, what we cannot digest, we discard.

Tosfos and the poet both aim at the truth, but Tosfos gets there through contradiction, with the cry of how can this be true?, and we relate to that in our confusion and alienation. To write poetry, we must be in the position to say how great is this truth!

Learning Tosfos and writing poetry both demand a taste for abstraction while adhering to the facts. But for Tosfos, the facts are ultimately the limiting force on the truth behind the text. To get carried away defeats Tosfos’ purpose, and this seems logical to our empirical common sense. For the poet, the facts are merely a gateway, and oh, to be swept off one’s feet!

In terms of outlook (though perhaps not raw intellectual acuity), it takes more work to be a poet. Whether the religious with their ancient texts or the secular with their scientific understanding, the idea of Truth as a subject of appreciation rather than dissection has fallen out of fashion. Even frum Jews tend to raise shields against life, to run everything through the microscope and the chromatograph-spectrometer until the mighty, raging love that pervades reality becomes a trickle that might wet our parched hearts.

4. An Example and a Prayer

If you’re still skeptical (heh), I place before you two quotes. They both describe the same creature. They both use objective facts, though in different ways. The first is about two-hundred words long. The second is about forty. The first categorizes and dissects. The second doesn’t even name its subject. The question is simple: Which one captures the truth?

 

Sample A:

Eagles are large, powerfully built birds of prey, with a heavy head and beak. Even the smallest eagles, like the Booted Eagle (Aquila pennata) (which is comparable in size to a Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) or Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis)), have relatively longer and more evenly broad wings, and more direct, faster flight – despite the reduced size of aerodynamic feathers. Most eagles are larger than any other raptors apart from some vultures. The smallest species of eagle is the South Nicobar Serpent Eagle (Spilornis klossi), at 450 g (1 lb) and 40 cm (16 in). The largest species are discussed below. Like all birds of prey, eagles have very large hooked beaks for tearing flesh from their prey, strong muscular legs, and powerful talons. The beak is typically heavier than that of most other birds of prey. Eagles’ eyes are extremely powerful, having up to 3.6 times human acuity for the martial eagle, which enables them to spot potential prey from a very long distance. This keen eyesight is primarily attributed to their extremely large pupils which ensure minimal diffraction (scattering) of the incoming light. The female of all known species of eagle is larger than the male.

Sample B:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

 

Tosfos is beautiful, and it’s G-dly, and it’s perfect. Our scientific minds can discover plenty. But, G-d: If there’s no poetry between us, if I can’t learn to appreciate you as much as you appreciate me, if I can’t learn to love all the gifts you give me, chiefest among them life itself and your presence which are one, then how will we ever bring this long story to its sweet conclusion?

 

Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.