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This week's portion: charge



And God said to Moses: speak
to Pharaoh and tell him to send
the Israelites away. I will harden
the chambers of his heart
and he will not see the sign
of holiness upon your hand.

For him power is close at hand:
all he has to do is speak
and his people obey. By design
no one questions. To send
his workers away would take heart
he doesn't have to spare. Harden

yourself against them; harden
your compassion. You are my hand
in the world; I'll hold your heart
in safekeeping as you speak
truth to power, as you send
this nation into turmoil, a sign

of my disfavor. Bind me as a sign
upon your arm, learn to harden
your eyes, your speech. Send
locusts and lice, every hand
scratching in agony! Speak
to Pharaoh of freedom, your heart

bursting to serve. Brave heart,
take courage: I will be your sign.
My voice emerges when you speak.
For history's sake I will harden
his hearing and stay his hand.
The world must know it is I who send

you on this errand, I who send
Israel out from here, every heart
yearning to be free. Hand by hand
you'll build new signs
of my mercy, but first: harden
your tremulous voice, and speak.

Tell Pharaoh I send you as my sign.
His heart cannot help but harden.
My hand pulls your strings: now speak!

This week we're in Va-era. God tells Moshe about the names through which God has been known, offers lineage for Moshe and Aharon as if to enshrine their position within society and within this story, and then tells Moshe to go to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh let the Israelite people go. From there we move into the tale of the first several plagues, with the refrain that Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not let the people go.

The idea for this week's Torah poem came from a footnote in Everett Fox's The Five Books of Moses translation. Fox notes that the episode where God reminds Moses of his mission (to speak to Pharaoh and seek liberation for the Israelites at God's command) "contains a virtual glossary of Exodus words." He lists eleven of these recurring words; I chose the first six in his list and used them as teleutons for a sestina. I haven't written a Torah sestina in a while, and I love the way this form lets me play with the words which repeat in the Torah text too.

One of the mysteries in the story is why God chose to harden Pharaoh's heart. One traditional answer is that God hardened Pharaoh's heart in order to create the situation in which the Israelites' dramatic, peoplehood-solidifying Exodus might take place. Another is that Pharaoh's heart was inclined toward hardening because of who he was. Because of the cruel and unethical choices he made every day, his heart was already weighted with misdeeds, and a heart which has already begun to calcify tends to continue in that direction.

But Pharaoh's hardened heart leads to deep suffering on the part of his people: plague after plague, ending ultimately in the deaths of the first-born sons, a sick reflection of how he had ordered the Israelite firstborn sons murdered at birth. Killing begets killing -- it's almost karmic, and it's a horrific set of images. In our day can we be wiser than Pharaoh, more attuned to the voices of liberation, so that our earth need not be ravaged and our sons need not die before we accept the need for freedom to come?


ETA: the folks at readwritepoem launched a sestina challenge right after I posted this. Hooray for my favorite form! The other submissions are linked in the comments of this post.

Edited to add, 2: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.