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A sermon in poetry for parashat B'ha-alot'kha

Here's the sermon in poetry which I offered at Temple Beth El and at Temple Chai this past Shabbat. One of the poems is a revision of a Torah poem from a few years ago; one is a Torah poem which appears in 70 faces; and the rest are brand-new, written for this occasion. Enjoy!


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, "When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand." —Numbers 8:1-2

One for each day of creation
and a seventh for Shabbat,
the pearl in the crown
the flowering apple tree
the culmination.

One for each blessing
your children will recite
beneath the chuppah
marveling at what they find
in one another's eyes.

Colors of the rainbow,
weeks of the Omer,
days of mourning.
In this menorah you'll find
the bush which burned but remained.

Even now, with our portable
dwelling-place for God
long vanished irretrievably
into the attic of memory,
these lamps still shine.

This week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha, begins with the instruction to kindle seven lamps in the portable Tabernacle. The Torah is filled with detailed instructions for the construction of the mishkan, the place where God's presence dwelled among us. Of course, even if the mishkan's construction is a historical reality rather than a spiritual and literary one, centuries have passed since it was built. What can this verse about a golden lampstand tell us about our spiritual lives today? When I look at the verse through the prism of poetry, I find metaphors which hold meaning.

The tradition of responding to scripture with our own creativity -- writing interpretive texts which explore questions, close loopholes, and ponder implications -- dates back at least as far as the third century of the Common Era. We call these stories midrash, from the root lidrosh, to seek or inquire. One midrash holds that the Torah is written in black fire on white fire: the black fire are the letters, and the white fire the holy spaces between the words. Our own creative responses to Torah are part of that white fire.

A poem about glory:


As the sun descends the desert cools.
The stone named for this city
turns rosy in the early twilight.
We fill this rough ampitheatre with song.

But we don't have permission
to pray here all night: still singing
we follow our leaders in and down
to a windowless room deep in the earth.

Melody ripples in the tiled stairwell.
Our voices richochet and interweave.
The voice of God is in the waters!
Our call-and-response rolls like gospel.

When the psalm ends there is silence
and Ruth says what you just felt -- that's glory.

Thats a true story about a kabbalat Shabbat service in Jerusalem several summers ago. About a moment when I felt drenched in God’s presence. The silence in the room after we stopped singing felt suffused with glory.

This week's Torah portion speaks about two manifestations of divine glory. One of them is the cloud which hovered over the mishkan. When it lifted, the Israelites broke camp and traveled; when it settled, for one night or for a year, they stayed put. Here's one way of imagining that:


The cloud covers the mishkan like a prayer shawl.
By night it burns like fire, a low crackling
you can hear throughout the encampment.
The children are used to it, though the goats
still spook if they wander too close

when the cloud lifts we fold our tents
and strap the babies to our backs
as the men disassemble the mishkan
stowing its pegs and tapestries
the troops move out, tribe by tribe

all the desert looks the same to me
sand and scrub, wadis and hills, though
they promise somewhere ahead we'll find
pasture to make the goats' milk rich
and dates to pound into sweetness

footsore and hungry we make camp
and I hold my breath, wondering
whether the cloud will settle over the tent
giving us time to do the laundry
before our wandering God uproots us again

One of the most powerful sections of this week's Torah portion is the story about how the Israelites, frustrated with their diet in the wilderness, groused to Moshe that they missed the meat they had eaten in Egypt. Here's a poem which arises out of that story -- which can be found in 70 faces, my new collection of Torah poems:


The people wailed
every clan apart

no one sought
her sister's arms

bundled in nostalgia's
snug swaddling clothes

until God rose up
in our whining image

and quail rained down
we ate ourselves sick

too busy gorging
to be grateful

shreds of bitterness
in our clenched teeth

If we read that story as prose, there's something vindictive about God’s response to the people's whining. God reminds me, in this story, of a parent who has endured too many toddler outbursts and finally -- against her better judgement -- snaps and punishes the kid far more strictly than he really deserves. "You want meat?" God says -- "I'll give you meat until it comes out your nose." This is not a manual for great parenting! But when I look at it through the prism of poetry, I find something I recognize in the people's behavior -- and in God's.

I want to lift up, through poetry, one more episode from this week's parsha. I said earlier that this week's portion contains two depictions of divine glory; this is the second. Moshe gathers seventy elders and stations them around the Tent of Meeting. God descends in a cloud and speaks to Moshe. And then God draws the divine spirit down and places it on the elders, who begin to speak in tongues. An assistant runs out and tattles to Moses: "Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!" And Joshua son of Nun, Moses' assistant, chimes in, "My lord Moses, restrain them!" But Moses says to him, "Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all YHVH's people were prophets, that YHVH put the [divine] spirit upon them!"


If only we were prophets
cloaked in holy spirit

old men in bolo ties
and little girls in Mary Janes

mothers and fathers
and those childless or childfree --

if the Breath of Life
breathed vision into us

we'd see creation redeemed:
a world where no child

would crawl into bed
aching with hunger, where

no one would have to choose
between rent and medical bills, where

no one would be beaten
for daring to love a boy or a girl

where mistrust would evaporate
like early mist in the sun

but who would listen
and believe

May we be blessed to know ourselves as prophets. May we be infused and suffused with God’s presence and spirit. May we experience glory. May the poems I've shared here partake in the light of those Tabernacle lamps, still illuminating our paths and helping us to walk in God's ways. And we say together: Amen.