Knocking from Inside, by Tiel Aisha Ansari

This week's portion: Tzav, "command"


A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. --Lev. 6:6

First you dress in linen
then scoop out the ashes.
Stop and wash with water,
then you change your garments

and scoop out the ashes.
Lather, rinse, repeat;
then you change your garments.
No one said it was easy.

Lather, rinse, repeat;
out here in the wilderness
no one said it was easy
to keep the fire burning.

Out here in the wilderness
there's little wood to scavenge
to keep the fire burning
all night until morning.

There's little wood to scavenge
and you want perpetual motion
all night until morning—
that's the ritual of the offering.

You want perpetual motion
but fires don't burn forever
and the ritual of the offering
is this lesson from the waters.

Fires don't burn forever
(except for that holy pillar)
so take a lesson from the waters
and the reeds you sludged across.

Remember that holy pillar
like a beacon in the darkness
and the reeds you sludged across
each shaky step toward freedom.

Like a beacon in the darkness
God's instructions on this are clear:
each shaky step toward freedom
keeps the fire burning.

God's instructions on this are clear.
Stop and wash with water.
Keep the fire burning.
First you dress in linen.


This poem is a pantoum, one of my favorite verse forms. Because it makes use of repetition, it seemed like a good match for this piece of Vayikra (Leviticus); the same repetition that's a little frustrating in prose feels fruitful and intriguing in poetry.

This week we're in parashat Tzav. When I reread the portion, 6:6 leapt out at me and became the epigram for the poem; the rest of the poem followed from there. Again, if you can see the embedded audio player at the top of the post you can listen to the poem; alternately you're welcome to download tzav.mp3.

I hope y'all are enjoying these Torah poems. They work for me on a different level than do prose divrei Torah; the process of writing them is showing me sides of these Torah portions I hadn't seen before.


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.



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