Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths... (Deut. 31:19)
וַיִּכְתֹּ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וַֽיְלַמְּדָ֖הּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites. (Deut. 31:22)
These are two verses from this week's Torah portion, Vayeilech.
The classical commentators have various theories on what it means that Moshe wrote down "this poem." Does that mean that on that day, Moshe wrote down the entire Torah? Does it mean that he wrote down some specific fragment of Torah, from this verse to that verse, but not the whole thing? I admire their commitment to detail. But what strikes me is the fact that Moshe uses the word poem in the first place.
To be sure, there are portions of Torah that are clearly poetry. Some of them are even written on the scroll in unusual ways -- like the Song at the Sea, a very ancient poem that is written in an interlaced pattern that evokes brickwork, or perhaps the waves of the sea. But over the course of this week's Torah portion, Moshe refers to what he's saying sometimes as a Torah, which we could translate as a Teaching; and sometimes as a שירה / shirah, which is the Hebrew word for poem.
Moshe seems to be saying that the entire Torah is, in some way, a poem.
When I was a chaplaincy student, during my first year of rabbinical school, I learned to think of hospital room visits as opportunities to encounter the "living document" of a human soul, the Torah of our lived human experience. Each life is a Torah, and delving in to the meanings we find in our lives is a kind of Torah study.
Of course, our tradition mirrors that metaphor in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which describes the Book of Memory opening. That Book "reads from itself and the signature of every human being is in it." We write the Book of Memory with our every choice, our every action, our every word.
Moshe says the Torah is a poem. And my chaplaincy supervisor taught that each human life is a Torah, a book that we write with our actions and our choices, worthy of study. From these two teachings, I come to the inescapable conclusion that each human life is, therefore, a poem.
Here's a thing I know about poetry: it benefits from revision.
We live in linear time, which means we can't revise the actions and choices we made yesterday -- we can't go back in time and edit out the things we now regret having said or done, or left unsaid or undone. But we can revise ourselves. We can revise our habits and our hearts. Indeed: that's precisely what the work of teshuvah is about.
If there were ever a time to look at the poem of our lives and figure out where we need to revise and reshape, now is that time. It's Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. I want to offer an alternative name for this Shabbes, in keeping with our Vision theme for the Days of Awe this year: the Shabbat of Revision. Re-Vision: seeing ourselves anew. Revising ourselves into a new form. That's the work of teshuvah, and it is always open to us.
The poem of your life is in your hands. How will you revise yourself this year?
God and I collaborate
on revising the poem of Rachel.
I decide what needs polishing,
what to preserve and what to lose;
God reads my draft with pursed lips.
If I really mean it, God
sings a new song, one strong
as stone and serene as silk.
I want this year’s poem
to be joyful. I want this year’s poem
to be measured like flour,
to burn like sweet dry maple.
I want every reader
to come away more certain
that transformation is possible.
I’d like holiness
to fill my words
and my empty spaces.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
who will be a haiku and who
a sonnet, who needs meter
and who free verse, who an epic
and who a single syllable.
If I only get one sound
may it be yes, may I be One.
This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) The poem was written in 2004 and can be found here, along with my other new years' poems.