Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light
The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary American Jewish Poetry (including mine!)

Judith Sarah Schmidt's deep Torah poetry for this week's portion, Toldot

Longing_for_the__521e13a4f08a2In 2003, as I approached my seventieth birthday, I decided to be bat torah. The Torah portion I received to live with for that year was Toldot: Generations. I spent the year deep in study, reading many sources that informed me and inspired me. This study was absorbed into my midrashic meditations on the portion...

The "voices" of Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Esau contained in these pages are the voices I have heard as I lived, this past year, with the Torah portion of Toldot. I have not only turned it and turned it; more often than not, it has turned and turned me. Our Torah opens ancestral doors through which I find them and also find myself in them and through them.

That's Judith Sarah Schmidt in the introduction to her book Longing for the Blessing: Midrashic Voices from Toldot, published by Time Being Books.

I spent a few years writing weekly Torah poems (the best of which -- and a full cycle of which -- are collected in my book 70 faces: Torah poems, Phoenicia 2011.) But my practice involved writing one poem each week during that week's parsha. I would live with the parsha and its commentaries and my responses to both for one week, and then I would move on, as our Torah reading cycle moves on. I am moved (and more than a little bit awed) by Schmidt's deep year-long journey into this one Torah portion.

The book is divided into sections: "Toldot, My Generations: Canaan," "Hearing the Voice of Jacob / Yaakov," " Hearing the Voice of Esau," "Hearing the Voice of Rebecca / Rifka," "My Generations: Boibrke, Poland," and "Midrashic Musings on Angels and Blessings." The Poland section features her midrashic explorations of her own toldot, generations; the final section is a long d'var Torah offered on her 70th birthday, in which she describes her journey and then shares perspectives on each of these Biblical characters and how she has come to find herself in them and to find them in herself.

Schmidt alternates between poetry and prose, and I frequently love the way she gives voice to these characters. For instance:

Esau's Sacrifice

My mother made a sacrifice of me.
Even before I was born,
     I was the one she chose.
She had her reasons.
As she came to know
      my lusty kick
      against the walls of her womb,
      she knew what my life could serve...

When my mother saw me,
      she looked upon me
      with her knowing smile.
I was the hairy twin,
      the one to be put to good use,
      to play the role
      in the daily drama
      of father's redemption.

That poem ends with Esau's poignant sorrow: "I only minded that...she never found me / behind my lonely eyes." The prose reflection which follows it depicts Esau's journey into the desert, and his meeting-up with his uncle Ishmael and his mother Hagar: "They told me that the healing of my starvation would come from drinking in the love of their tender and serious smiles." This is a kind of midrash which hasn't been told before.

Or this one:

Rebecca's Dream

I am in a green land.
The scent of myrtle trees
and the sounds of the turtle doves
          fill the air.
I am with my husband, Yitzhak.

We are wrapped
          in shimmering waters
          under a silken sky.

He is holding me close
          the way he used to.

We are moving together
          like luminous slippery fish.

He is sliding the stars
          into my dry heart.

My mouth is opening
          I am crying out:
          "Lord, fill my womb.
                    Make me mother,
                    Lord, make me mother."

I am swelling, I am swelling.
          I am becoming river.
He is still holding me.

I love the way that Schmidt approaches the classical Biblical subject of fertility and yearning, and the sensuality of this poem is incredibly powerful, giving me a different sense of who Rebecca and Isaac might have been. These are just a glimpse; to get the full immersion experience of Schmidt's deep dive into this week's Torah portion, you'll need to pick up the whole collection! All in all, this is a wonderful collection to be reading this week as we navigate this parsha ourselves, and I can only admire Schmidt's dedication to this parsha and to bringing Torah to life in new and renewed ways.


If Torah poetry is your cup of tea, you might enjoy The Blessing, a Torah poem I wrote for this portion in 2012; or Birthings, the Torah poem I wrote for this portion in 2009; or Pulling the strings, which appears (lightly revised) in 70 faces: Torah poems.