Saturday, February 21, 2009

Poetry of Simplicity

When encountering a poem I sometimes recoil, unable to see its beauty at first glance and appreciate its message due to its complexity. One needs the right tools, temperament and imagination to become a partner with the poet and emerge with a new and fresh perspective. There are however shorter poems which still pack a punch; in fact, terseness might impact even stronger than a long drawn out poem. Consider the shortest poem in the Bible (Numbers 12:13):

וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-ה’ לֵאמֹר: אֵל, נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ

And Moses shouted to the Lord, saying: God,
Please heal please –

This five-word poem presents several powerful messages about the nature of petition, the personality of Moses and the relationship between a brother and a sister. As I write in my forthcoming book, sometimes it is worthwhile to view the poem in a different structure, perhaps the way the author intended it to be seen:
נָא נָא
אֵל לָהּ

We immediately notice the doubling of the word נָא – please – before and after the central word: רפא – heal. Why the repetition? We must note that in the story God’s decree is a just punishment for Miriam who sins against her brother and against God’s ways. The response of leprosy is handed down with a measure for a measure. Moses’ job is to somehow obtain mercy for his stricken sister despite the justice involved in her punishment. He employs brevity to get straight to his point – please.

In the five-word song, due to the aforementioned doubling of נָא, we notice an interesting poetic structure: ABCBA. The structuring of the poem allows us to concentrate on word placement and the central feature being presented, in this case C – רְפָא – heal. The notion of healing is enveloped by B on both sides, as Moses attempts to direct the petition to “please HEAL please” rather than focusing on Miriam herself who, based on her action, is clearly not worthy of mercy. This explains the strange word sequence which veers from logic and standard syntax. We would have expected the poem to read:

Lord, please – heal her, please.

In this respect the “please” begins and ends the poem and presents an inclusio of the idea of entreaty before God. Moses strays from that sequence in order to elicit a more merciful response from the Creator as well as to direct attention away from Miriam per se, and maintain the prayer’s focus on God and Moses’ plea to Him.

There is still much to analyze and many permutations of these five words but the message is clear. Moses teaches us about humility, fraternity, and a secret way to find God’s mercy at the height of His anger. He reminds us of the necessity to pray and the power of prayer even when justice dictates otherwise. He also gives a lesson in brevity and simplicity as just five words are able to penetrate the celestial spheres to mitigate his sister’s divine punishment.

One verse, one story, one example of the multiple facets of poetic meaning and nuance found in the biblical drama and of the sometimes smallest verse which can say so much.
-Much of the blog was taken from my forthcoming book called The Poetry of Prayer, due out this summer by Gefen publishing.