And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break. --Leviticus 11:33
The heart is an earthen vessel,
the body an urn: made from dust
and patched with slip,
divine fingerprints everywhere.
Clay is permeable. What you see,
what you touch changes you.
The small grey kitchen mouse
with its neck snapped, dry and grisly
or the body losing integrity, blood
welling someplace it shouldn’t
or the friend who lets you down,
the fierce hope that withers away:
each of these charges the heart
with uncanny energy, untouchable.
All you can do is break the clay
wide open, crack the very housing.
What hurts is what draws you
ever nearer to what we can’t reach.
This week's parsha, Shemini, begins with an account of Aaron and his sons making a sacrifice; then the painful story of Nadab and Abihu offering alien fire, and dying; then instructions on which animals the children of Israel are permitted to eat or to touch, and which are forbidden.
My poem arose out of the line that now serves as its epigram. The mention of breaking earthenware vessels reminded me of the Talmudic teaching that if an earthenware vessel becomes tamei (ritually impure), the way to make it tahor again is to break it and then glue it back together. The Hasidic tradition sees this as a metaphor for the human heart.
In my own experience, contact with death and sickness -- and with loss, which can feel like a kind of death -- can make the heart feel tamei. This poem offers my hope that through our brokenness we can draw nearer to our Source.
As usual, if you'd like to hear this poem aloud, you can click on the audio player embedded at the top of the post or download vessel.mp3.
Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.