Sunday, November 29, 2009

All My Life's a Circle...

Concentric circles are cool in general and important in poetry. They exude inclusiveness while acknowledging distinctiveness; they reflect the whole but also impart a sense of the multiplicity of conditions.

Psalm 145 verse 16 presents us with a series of concentric circles surrounding the idea of divine providence. To what extent does God strike up a relationship with us in His world? And what is the nature of that connection? Perhaps there is no relationship at all with us?

These questions are raised obliquely in verse 16 as David poetically draws circle upon circle to convey his messages all together. In order to appreciate the motifs we must be ready to divide verses not simply into versets but even smaller pieces, as long as there still remains a coherent thought.

1. God is close
2. God is close to all
3. God is close to all who call Him
4. God is close to all who call Him in truth

Which one is right? All of them! At different times, in different locales, with different populations, the answer to this question takes on a new form. In a psalm which sometimes conveys the transcendence of God, with objective praises referring to His almighty power and omniscience (verse 3, God is great and His greatness is unsearchable; verse 8, God's all encompassing compassion; verse 9, God's greatness and mercy to all creations; God's kingship is eternal...), verse 18 journeys to the other pole of the spectrum--God's immanence.

Immanence is about closeness. How close? Close to whom? Close when?
The answer is found in a typically all encompassing manner in verse 18. Concentric circles embody all of God's closeness with us on earth. 1. It exists. 2. It exists or can exist for all humanity--'children of God'. 3. But is there not a covenant, a relationship built on the responsibility of one to the other? Close to those who call. 4. Even within the realm of calling out to God there are degradations, another circle within a circle. Who stands in the inner sanctum? Who merits to stand by the rock and witness the fleeting yet supernal experience?

"Those who call to Him in truth".

ve'idach perusha zil gmor

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Message to My Students...

Poetic Paradox

" Mizmor shir chanukat habayit--A psalm, a poem, of Chanuka for the home"

Life is poetry.
It can be inspiring or boring.
You can run through it and ignore its complexity and majesty,
or you can slow down to analyze, appreciate--internalize the countless and timeless messages.

Poetry is not a four letter word. It is not unreachable; it can belong to all of us.
When I was a kid I never read a book! I confess, I was more into sports, hanging out, TV, and socialization.

I never stopped to consider the poetry of my existence; the rhythmic movements of my body; the consistent inconsistency of my day; the irony, symmetry, inclusios and dramatic events of my life.
I just lived monotonously, day by day. What a waste!

Imagine if I had sensed it then. If I had perspective then, during my youth, during the vitality of my incipient existence... I might have been infused with creativity, expanded horizons, engaged my spirit on higher levels, connected with so many more ebullient souls--I would have soared.


Or, perhaps I would have nevertheless been depressed. Perhaps all that multi-dimensional self-expression would have rendered me lonely, distant, introverted. Maybe too much cerebral activity would have suffocated me; too much creativity would have left me ungrounded; too much self-exploration would have inhibited my social networking. Perhaps in the end I would have sunk into a deep despair.

Oh boy, I made a mess. I have self-contradicted!

That's poetry for you. Two readings, two interpretive experiences, but one text, one life.

Which reading is truer? Herein lays the beauty of the poet. Both are true. Both endure, both inspire. A poem is worthless and meaningless without the corroborating reader; without our imagination as we partner with the psalmist and create something new. Through reading and interpreting, the words take on meaning, the ideas materialize, our metaphysical notions morph into reality! Cool.

Machon Maayan, the beautiful poetic idea, doesn’t exist without each young woman who walks through its doors. You enter and embark on a journey that is yours and ours. Together we dream, interpret, internalize and turn that amorphous idea into a reality. A reality which we hope will last you and us a lifetime.

What does this all have to do with King David and a poem on the Chanuka of his house? Ask my Poetry of Prayer girls and they will tell you that what defines David is not his consistent, measured, anticipated message; on the contrary, he exudes a roller coaster of emotions towards himself, his God, his people. He sings in praise and moans in despair (sometimes in the same verse!); he leaps with the confidence of a new dawn, and recoils in the fear of a stormy, darkened night. He congratulates and excoriates himself at the same time, and that's okay.

A barrel of contradictions? Yes! But entirely and expectantly human!

What do we celebrate about Chanuka? Perfection? Completion? Consistency?
No and no! It is about light in the midst of darkness, a surge of holiness amidst the profane; majestic nobility and a synthesis of spirit and law, only to last for a fleeting moment in the great abyss we call our history. It teaches us to strive for the poetic in our mundane lives, to take a moment to meditate on the flickering fire which, like our own silhouetted souls, glances upwards towards the divine.

Happy Chanuka.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Desire to End on a Happy Note

Psalm 94, commonly known as 'wednesday's shir shel yom (psalm of the day) is generally considered as having an upbeat message. It begins with a request that God appear and take vengeance upon the psalmist's enemies. He then turns to the wicked themselves upbraiding them for their hubris and their denial of God. But then the psalmist reveals his fears, his pain and his incomprehension of the suffering he must endure.
This message, though is not fully digested by daily daveners, as the custom of many Jews who pray daily is to skim the body of the psalm during prayer (especially those who are running out of Shul towards the end)and to just focus on the strong beginning and the final verse at its end.
But this time the ending is curiously lengthened with an addendum from the beginning of psalm 95, fondly sung as 'lechu neranena...'. The rabbis invoked a tool often used in choosing Haftara endings and applied it to Wednesday's post prayer message. What is the tool? To always find a way to end us off on a happy note.
If we were to truly recite the final verses of 94 and internalize them we would conclude our tefillah with the following thought:
God, I have tried many ways to eradicate the wickedness from my life. I have turned to You first in fervent prayer in hope that You appear in a burst of vengeance. That never happened. I turned to my aggressors with rebuke or reason but to no avail. I have attempted to justify my affliction, but I emerged unsatisfied. Instead I endure, suffer, nostalgically recall a time of respite, but in the end, I turn back to You God with one final message--smite them, smite them, smite them.
Not a particularly cheery finale, yet, sometimes a very realistic one.
But our Sages prevent us from leaving Shul on that sour note. Instead look forward to Shabbat as it is just around the bend. Perhaps that optimism will help you maintain the struggle and help you endure the current crisis.
In the end, post prayer psalms force us to consider our predicaments, struggle with our crises, but when we seem to be falling into despair to try to find some silver lining, some happiness in our lives so that we may continue to sing, dance and rejoice with God despite troubling times.