THIS POEM (VA-YELEKH)
That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites. (Deuteronomy 31:22)
This poem aims to cover everything
that could ever happen to you. It includes
instructions for celebrating festivals,
the manumission of slaves, building altars,
the punishment of disobedient children;
descriptions of how the cosmos came to be
and how our holiest sites should recapitulate
the orderly progression of God's attributes.
This poem seems to have all the answers
but it doesn't even have all the questions.
This poem doesn't tell you how to feel
when you're sitting in shul and wishing
the sun would break through the clouds.
This poem contradicts itself often.
This poem has a lot to say about television,
the internet, the stories we tell ourselves
about who we really are in the world
though it says all of these things obliquely.
Those who understand, understand: that's
the way this poem shakes out. This poem
is written in intricate code, each letter
secretly a number and each number symbolic
of something incredibly important, though
we've forgotten at least half of the meanings
we once upon a time knew by heart. This poem
weighs heavy on our shoulders, it ties
our insides in mystical knots. Sometimes
this poem tastes like wildflower honey
and other times like homemade ink
dissolved in water that hasn't been stirred.
This poem is old-fashioned. This poem
is being written right this second,
each breath a new letter on the unrolling page.
This week's portion, Vayelekh, is the shortest portion in the Torah: just the thirty verses of Deuteronomy chapter 31. It's part of Moshe's final address, and the thing that really leapt out at me as I read it this year is that it refers to itself both as "this teaching" (the Hebrew word is Torah) and as "this poem" (the Hebrew word there is shirah, poem or song.) The use of the word Torah isn't all that surprising. But the use of the word poem fascinates me. So that's what sparked my poem this week.
There's something slightly overwhelming about a week in which we communally read the story of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael (Rosh Hashanah Day 1), the story of the binding of Isaac (Rosh Hashanah Day 2), and this section of Moshe's final speech to the Israelites. But that's part of the rollercoaster ride of reading Torah. It's always a narrative running from beginning to end, and it's also always something we can dip into and out of asynchronously.
And, like poetry, Torah may speak to us in different ways at different times, depending on where we're at and what we bring to the experience of reading or hearing the text. I hope this poem speaks to you this week.