This week's portion: Naked (Acharei Mot)
April 16, 2008
NAKED (ACHAREI MOT)
The high priest's garb was whitest linen
and separation was what made him holy.
He needed to be clean to make the offering,
to step into the shrine behind the curtain.
There was risk in excess and in being naked
and daily he walked the line between death and life.
He must have prepared to do it his whole life.
He knew how to gird himself with linen,
so he wouldn't even accidentally be naked;
how to sluice himself with water and become holy,
stay safe even when he dared to broach the curtain.
What mattered was how he made the people's offering --
a bleating goat, a bull. The point of offering
was the atavistic way a single life
could substitute. Inside that holy curtain
it was his only job to dress in linen
and make expiation, calling on all that's holy.
One Hebrew word for "shrewd" also means "naked"
(like the snake who rendered Adam and Chava naked...)
Is that why we circumscribe touch and vision, offering
this thicket of instructions for becoming holy?
How Noah's sons transgressed: exposing his life
instead of shrouding it respectfully in linen.
The terror of realizing that behind the curtain
is always just ourselves. What could curtain
the shock of waking to that dream of being naked?
I can't blame my ancestors for preferring the linen
weave of regulations, familiar ways of offering
contrition for iniquity and gratitude for life.
A nation of priests, we're commanded to be holy
now as we were then, so what is holy?
What if I choose to draw aside the curtain,
if I aim to dwell in God's tent every day of my life?
Am I allowed to stand here even if I'm naked
bearing my heart, the melodies I bring as offerings,
the weave of my tallit, the rush of linen?
In linen or in leather I believe we're holy.
Bring yourself as offering. Part the gauzy curtain.
Trust yourself to be naked. Emerge into life.
This week's Torah poem takes one of my favorite forms: a sestina. (I've posted a few of these before: Sestina using six words Blogpulse chose for me, Rabbinic school sestina.) When I was a student at Bennington there was a sustained love affair with the sestina (I credit/blame my dear advisor David Lehman) -- at one residency, I heard, there were spontaneous readings of sestinas in the laundry room! Anyway, I like them a lot, and when I set out to write a poem arising out of this week's portion the form came naturally to mind.
This week we're in parashat Acharei Mot. Acharei mot means "after the death," and refers to the death of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu who brought strange fire before God and were incinerated instantly. (We read about that a few weeks ago.) At the start of this week's Torah portion, God instructs Moses on what to tell Aaron after the death of his sons, and how to offer sacrifices in a way that's officially-sanctioned and safe. This portion also contains the "holiness code," which contains a lot of material about sexual ethics and behavior -- including that infamous verse about lying with a man as one lies with a woman.
This year I had the honor of writing a d'var Torah about this portion for the Torah Queeries project at Jewish Mosaic. (That should go live on Friday.) It was a terrific experience not only because it prompted me to wrestle with the portion anew but also because making philosophical and exegetical points in prose meant I felt free to let the sestina highlight the portion in a different way.
As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of the post or if you'd like to download the recording, you can do so here: naked.mp3
Edited to add: this poem is now available in print as part of 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011).
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