Geulah — Redemption

With thanks to Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, Stacy Lubov, and Rabbi John Friedman for helping me create  a prayerbook for our Religious School. I’ve always wanted to see this prayer go farther, so I’m putting it here.

Through a sea, across a desert, over a river, and finally home:

God has been with us everywhere.

Guiding us, inspiring us, saving us, and encouraging us:

God has been with us all the time.

Out of slavery, over defeat, around obstacles, and with our million questions:

God has been here, for us, with us, and in us.

Everywhere.

All the time.

Yet and Still

A draft of a new poem I’ve written.

This year,

as many people died

as always do, give

or take a soul per thousand

souls; yet

some of those

souls gave and

took our breath

away, our will to gasp

and sigh, our memory

of light; yet,

but not yet, still sooner

than we’re ready and later

than we’d hope, because hope

is last, but truly still, these bits drift home

and describe the shape of loss

in peace.

Four Funny Questions

On all other nights, we get biscuits and rolls,
Fluffy and puffy and full of air holes.
Why on this night, why, tell me why,
Only this flat stuff that’s always so dry.

On all other nights, we eat all kinds of greens,
And I’m starting to like them – except lima beans.
Why on this night, I ask on my knees,
Do we eat stuff so bitter it makes grownups wheeze?

On all other nights, we dip vegies just once –
Just try dipping twice and they’ll call you a dunce.
Why on this night, why, tell me true,
Why double-dipping’s the right thing to do.

On all other nights, we sit up when we munch.
You’ll choke if you slump! You’ll croak if you hunch!
Why on this night, if anyone knows,
Do we get to recline on my mom’s good pillows.

Why is this night so different from most?
Why do we do things so odd and so gross?
Why do we tell the same stories and stuff?
Because when it’s Pesach, it’s never enough!

Speed of Light

Were I to fly
fast enough from,
and farther yet to,
and finally forever off
the freshly cut path of
pulses and pauses,
beats and measures,
starts and stops,
through and ever closer to
that frenzy of glittering deterioration,
would you meet me where
those dervish neutrinos boast,
waiting for the breathless light
to finally arrive,
and prove their point?

Would you take the time
to explain it all to them:
how the light was already there,
sighing from the start?

Just Short of the Western Wall (July 2008) (Revised)

Deuteronomy 30:14: The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.

I went to the Western Wall today, to pray,
where pious men gossip with those sacred stones.
As if God would hear my prayers amid all that noise,
all the vinegar and shriveled fish they spit upon those giant stones.
It’s a wonder they can stand.

I did not pray there, would not go near,
Among such hopes and cares and dark purpose
As would curdle honey.

Would not even approach with the women,
more demure than my modesty could allow,
tentative and shy before our Almighty God.
Prayers clambering for purchase,
stifling a gasp or cry as each fell.
No matter the height,
each fell.

That was the only skirt she owned.
This was a straw hat that should keep out only the sun.
This was only her shoulder slipping out from under her shawl,
like the moon, renewed no matter what insults might be hurled at it.

In the holiness of that open courtyard
and that wide blue sky,
in the presence of fragile prayers,
glassy and flawed,
not kilned quite strictly enough,
I found a stone in my heart,
as wide as a man could hope to reach,
as steep as a cliff, as warm as the beach,
as deep as the dark in the core of your eye,
and oh, so, so whole.

No cracks for our sorrows,
nor footholds for our disfigured hopes,
and the stone still smells of endless fires
and the things that burn like perfume
in the smoke.

No, No More

No, she said,
more breath than song,
the tone crisped away to ashes,
the lilt fired to a brittle heap,
the hope charred and sharpened:
all embers and shards
left behind to barb anything else
she wished to say.

 

Yes, he said,
his hand thrust out to catch the words,
crush them into a lump of glowing coal,
and fling them harder still,
that they might leave behind a weeping sore,
and the scent of burning feathers
and blistered stumps
where the wings
might once have been.

Under a Bridge in Munich

the day that all of you went to Dachau
and I stayed in town
with the snow and the ghosts,
snarling and spitting,
calling our true names
like curses:
I found myself hiding

under a bridge
in a lovely park,
sure to be blessed
by blooming hardwoods
and the spindly songs of fledglings,
and sweethearts staring at their own woven fingers,
come April;

near the Universitat Cafe, in November,
where we would often have tea after class —
cool cloudy milk with yours,
brilliant daffodil lemon with hers,
black for me, thank you —
though thin and dark red
like blood hosed off a wall,
was more like it —
did anyone take sugar,
I can’t recall;

under a bridge,
wondering what time it could be
with the light lying gray
and lost on the snow,
a bit of skin or trash,
weathered or burnt to ash,
snagged on a withered seedling;

under a bridge.
wondering when you would get back,
and if I would be there
when you did.

Propaganda Spiritual-Style

I recently started looking for information about a Japanese poet named Ryunosuke Satoro because . . . well you have to read some of his or her quotes for yourself (thanks to ThinkExist.com):

Individually, we are one drop; together, we are an ocean.

Extend a hand whether or not you know it will be grasped.

Dream giant, golden, Buddha-sized dreams.

Let your dreams outgrow the shoes of your expectations.

Find patience in the breath of life.

I challenge anyone to find any other texts or quotes by this profoundly inspiring Japanese poet. In fact, find me a poem, published as a poem rather than a quote. I’ll give you my undying respect if you do — though most people have my undying respect, but, for you, I’ll include a year’s supply of Respect Chow to keep its coat shiny and its teeth white . . . but I digress . . .

In seeking information on Satoro, I came across some beautiful Buddhist poetry. I am often drawn to Buddhist texts because they defy my understanding. They are pure beauty from skin to soul, and nothing I do to them reveals much more than the simple truth that beauty is probably a sure sign of something wonderful or something terrible — and that’s an inclusive ‘or.’ Beauty is, sometimes, a sure sign of both.

So, then, I come across a poem by Hanshan, a hermit poet of the Tang Dynasty (sometime between 618 and 906 CE). He lived in a cave. Don’t hold me to any of these facts; I got them from the Internet; and he sounds a lot like at least two sages from my Jewish tradition, and I believe he’ll sound a lot like a couple of sages from other spiritual traditions too. Caves seem to be the wombs of the spirit. But, again, I digress . . .

Hanshan wrote this:

Here’s a message for the faithful
what is it that you cherish
to find the Way to see your nature
your nature is naturally so
what Heaven bestows is perfect
looking for proof leads you astray
leaving the trunk to search among the twigs
all you get is stupid

I was drawn to the last line, wondering if the translator had created the incredible word play — you’re trying to get proof, but all you get is stupid — or if Hanshan actually crafted it. Does Japanese also have a word that means acquire and become? Digressions everywhere I turn . . .

Much Buddhist poetry that I’ve read seems to suggest that we stop trying to change things and, that, as we live within these things that we have stopped changing, their sufficiency and ours will become apparent and unmistakable. Sufficiency is probably the wrong word; try worth or nature or gift or purpose‘ None of them seem quite right, but the stew of them might be what I mean — and all of this striving to understand seems disrespectful to the inspiration.

I noticed something, though: If  you would write these beautiful words in a particular font, emblazon these words against a particular palette of colors, or speak them in a specific timbre, they could be mistaken for fascist rhetoric.

And this isn’t peculiar to Buddhist poetry. It’s true about many time-honored spiritual texts, from many traditions. One of my friends recently posted a picture of a billboard: That love your neighbor thing: I meant it. — God]

Really wonderful, right? Honestly, I love stuff like this especially since there’s no shortage of billboards exhorting me to embrace Christ or else give up any hope for eternal life. BUT, be aware that the word neighbor is key here. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to wonder if there was a difference between neighbors and everyone else. There was. I could go on and on about this, and probably will in another post, but I’ve used up my digressions for the rest of October.

And it occurs to me that the Tao Te Ching and Hanshan and the Torah and the Epistles of Saint Paul and many other sacred texts are not so much about freedom and hope and love as they are about limits and blind fear and ethnocentrism. (At the risk of another digression, I should say that some of Satoro’s quotes defy my proposition; anyone who encourages you to dream big is spitting in the face of totalitarianism; but I’m not yet certain that Satoro isn’t some stay-at-home mom in Cary, North Carolina, so I stand by my proposition.)

But here’s what’s terrific about humanity: we can take these texts that tell us to stay still and let tomorrow worry about tomorrow and stick together and turn them into something good. Human beings aren’t saitisfied to let these lovely texts mean give up or shut down or keep out. We interpret them to mean the world is a good place, live in it and start with a mitzvah you can really do and find the face of God in everyone.

For me, this is compelling evidence that humanity basically tends toward the good. Maybe not in every moment, maybe not in every heart, but in every strand of reality, I believe we aim toward compassion and creation. And that’s the only truth I know.

Always Falling

(Another Prayer)

The world is ending
all the time;
people have been dying in towers
all week long,
and some are dying still;
everyone is in the ashes.

I pray for an end to hatred,
an end to suffering,
and an end to arrogance.

Until then,
I’m glad
I don’t have to fall from the sky alone.

Make peace.
Pursue wholeness.
Nourish the compassion
that sprouts like wild weeds
in the rich soil
of our loss
or it will die too.

Idea: Hotel Hallway Volume Control

Wouldn’t it be nice if, between certain
hours, hotel elevator doors wouldn’t
open until the passengers had lowered their
voices to an appropriate level. A noise
cancelling field in the walls could work,
too, but then how would we learn the simple
skill of letting each other sleep.
A voice activated tazer mount every
few yards of the hall sounds
good, but then, there’s all that
screaming, again.