On holy anniversaries
Shavuot 5771 / 2011

This week's portion: cloud of glory





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

As I noted last week, this coming Shabbat I'll be offering Torah poetry at two San Antonio congregations -- a sermon in poetry at Temple Beth El on Friday night, and a sermon in poetry (along with leading the whole Shabbat morning service) at Temple Chai on Shabbat morning. My sermon in poetry will feature several Torah poems, all arising out of this week's Torah portion, B'ha-alot'kha. I'll share the one that's in 70 faces, of course; and I'll also share this one, which is new this year. (It's part of a pair of poems sparked by the verses about the cloud which rested over the mishkan; to hear the other one, you'll have to come to synagogue!)

The mishkan is the portable tabernacle which the Israelites carried through the wilderness. (The word shares a root with Shekhinah, the immanent divine Presence of God.)

This poem riffs off of the Biblical vision of the land to which the Israelites are journeying. Most of us, hearing the phrase "a land of milk and honey," probably think of cow's milk and of honey produced by honeybees... but it seems possible that the original readers of this text would have imagined goat's milk and date honey. (Indeed, Rashi argued -- about a different mention of honey in Torah -- that the word dvash in Torah usually means date honey; for more on that, here's Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky on Milk and Honey.) Then again, there is archaeological evidence for beekeeping in the Jordan Valley several centuries before the Common Era, so who knows.