My first class of the semester began last night, so I wanted to spend part of yesterday afternoon on poetry as a way of reaffirming that my rabbinic work needn't keep me from giving time and energy also to poems. I found myself somewhat obsessed with the reality of school about to begin, though, and had a hard time focusing enough to get into my usual poetry headspace.
Following the dictum of "whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work," I took my fixation on starting school and used that as the springboard for this poem: a rabbinic school sestina.
I'm a big fan of sestinas. (I posted one here a couple years ago.) The constraints of the form are like a word game -- one that works neatly with free verse, which is what I generally write. Of course, what I generally write is still pretty different from this, so this may or may not appeal to those who like my other poems. Still, I figured I'd share; I hope you enjoy.
RABBINIC SCHOOL SESTINA
Brace yourself, folks! My fall semester is on the verge of beginning.
Monday nights: Jewish identity in modernity, a.k.a. enlightenment history.
Wednesday mornings: liturgy of weekday and Shabbat, the nuts and bolts of prayer.
Sunday evenings: a study of Hasidic texts and how they shape spiritual practice.
As-yet unscheduled: a tutorial in Rashi, the classic medieval commentary,
And the exegesis of the Me'or Eynayim of Chernobyl, a Hasidic rabbi.
I used to blush every time I said, "I'm going to become a rabbi."
It was like saying "I'm getting married" -- that sense of rightness, beginning
An adventure I'd been yearning toward. This may be commentary
On how long I wait before I leap, my complicated history
Or maybe on my eagerness for sustained and sustaining practice,
How grounding and electric I find Renewal prayer.
Even back in high school, I used to get jazzed about prayer
Though who imagined then I would aspire to become a rabbi?
Like meditation or karate, Judaism is at its best a practice,
Something that shapes me as I shape it -- or at least, I hope I'm beginning
To learn its building-blocks and its syntax, its long unfolding history.
If this tradition is our text, our lives are embodied commentary:
Think Hillel: "do unto others...all the rest is commentary."
Of course, he added "go and learn," and I don't have a prayer
Of mastering everything in the tradition. That notion is honestly history,
But I work toward it anyway. That's part of becoming a rabbi:
Coming to terms with the journey, the sense of perennially beginning.
We aren't obligated to finish the task, but each of us still has to practice
The balance we aim for. (Like the joke says: "Carnegie Hall? Practice!")
Every day we write the book (pace Costello.) Lived commentary
Is a canon that's never closed. Here's the cool thing I'm beginning
To understand: no smicha is needed to lead a community in prayer,
Those gates can be opened by anyone. It doesn't take a rabbi
To marry, to teach, to grant a new name, to bear witness. Ours is a history
Of regular Susans and Shlomos empowered to create our own history,
To be the victors who tell it like it is, every day another shot at practice
For the final accounting that awaits us, layperson and rabbi.
The margins we inhabit are home because they're where we scrawl commentary.
Our sitting, our standing, our walking and cooking: each one of these can be prayer.
We turn and the story turns us: from Torah ending, to "in the beginning..."
Someday the semester I'm just now beginning will be a part of my history.
My studies are a kind of prayer, my schooling is part of my practice --
And the rhythm of my everyday is commentary on becoming a rabbi.