I’ve had a practice for almost a decade of writing poems inspired by the weekly Torah portion. My discipline comes and goes—there are years where I write only a few and others where I’ve written one for nearly every parsha. I find that when I am able to follow this practice consistently, I discover new layers in the Torah and and new ways of connecting my own lived experience to this ancient sacred text. Below are two poems from my reflections on Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.
Beshalach / Bitter Water Sweet
The children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea and the water was like a wall to their right and to their left. (Exodus 14:29)
No question The sea took us in Up to our necks
before doubt claimed our throats Who could unswim a sea-stretch then No wonder No willing
knees unbuckled No back unbent No higher ground
Cry mercy Cry shallow Cry harbor
Cry lifeboat Cry warning Cry shipwreck
The sea will swallow it as song
Ask nothing of the crossing that the mountains
don’t ask of their valleys Ask nothing the orbiting
bodies don’t ask of the tide
Give me wilderness and I will swallow it Take it in as tincture As medicine As scalded refuge As unstrained balm and vast expanse
Aspirate the song’s initial phoneme
It will sear the tree of your lungs
and settle in the rootstock
They say a certain branch can render
bitter water sweet A certain song
can leech poison from a wound
Don’t stop now keep going
Pekudei / Open Wide
There you shall place the Ark of Testimony
and you shall spread the dividing curtain before the ark. (Exodus 40:3)
Each animal knows its own mouth opens
in search of food or air, sound or water.
Doesn’t mean it understands the muscles
involved in the opening. Doesn’t mean it
shuts again in time.
This is the problem with daybreak: the light gets this far and then gets stuck.
We stumble around in the half-light,
seeing less than we did when it was dark.
Shapes wake up first, colors stay sleeping.
There was a time when dawn
would have been a simple thing.
This is the problem with petichat ha’aron:*
you think you’ve done it a hundred times.
You think you know what to expect
You think you know when to expect it.
You open the doors and think you know the story
that’s about to unfold. It is the story of your mouth,open wide enough to take in time’s limber span; the story of a tent built strong enough to hold the breath that breathed the time into being.
This is the problem with opening the doors of your house: outside has so many facets. Each of them alive, alight. Your house was built to keep that noise out or your noise in.
One is a song, the other is a song.
This is problem with opening the doors of your heart:
once you begin—once you are commanded to begin—you stand on both sides of those doors at once, waiting.
*Hebrew for “opening the ark,” as in the beginning of the Torah service