Read this book!
There are seventy faces to Torah: Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. (Bamidbar Rabah)
I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect that more art has been made in response to the so-called Old Testament than any other single source. It is a mesmerizing point from which to push off as a poet/writer (painter, dancer), what with all the violence, promises, bad behavior, tragedy – both random and planned -and schlepping around after ultimate truth.
Turn and turn the Torah — for everything is to be found there. Veer this way and that, circle and spiral, advance and double back. Think you get the text? Hah! What about from this angle? There’s a maddening, disorienting, obvious paradox at every turn.
In short: I get the obsession with the 5 Books, how the quirky stories and imperfect characters can lodge themselves in one’s brain & art.
Just this week, a new addition has been made to the poetic-midrashic canon: 70 Faces by Rachel Barenblat. Also known as the Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel saw the publication of her book PLUS received ordination as a Jewish Renewal rabbi this past Sunday (and for the record, yes, I’m a bit envious on both counts).
It’s a fine book. Persons more illustrious than myself (poet Alicia Ostriker & Rabbi Shefa Gold, to name 2) have called Rachel’s poetry truthful, gentle, inviting, passionate, playful, and radical. Good adjectives. Here are a few more: compassionate, melodic, filled with humility, and very deep with just the right amount of the quotidian (one example: shopping at Home Depot for Tabernacle building materials).
Consider this excerpt from the poem Downside in which she muses on the slight problem inherent in a)being the chosen people; and b) being the chosen people chosen to take over someone else’s land:Here’s the part God apparently didn’t say at least not aloud where anyone could hear: dispossessing anyone not as easy as it sounds and tends to have side effects feelings of guilt among the tender-hearted and a certain hardening of those who do battle
See what I mean? Reb Rachel engages head-on with a question that nags — what is the downside to this whole taking over Canaan business? There is nothing heavy-handed or polemical here. She could be talking about the ancient Israelites, the modern Israelites, or any of us caught in the situation of getting the better of someone else. In my humble, really good poetry tackles big questions in such a way as to leave the reader with more questions, shaking our collective heads heads in wonder. The good stuff – and here I’m quoting another poem from the book - builds a structure to house what you long for.
Earlier this week, poet Elizabeth Andrews (you may remember her from President Obama’s inauguration) was interviewed on the radio podcast On Being. She said 2 things that apply here:
1)Asking questions is a spiritual practice; and
2) poems provide a brick-sized chunk of contemplative silence with which to simply listen and take stock.
There are questions everywhere in this book, often disguised as statements. And the poems are compact (not dense), providing the reader with just the right amount of narrative to keep us on track and just the right amount of unanswerables to allow us to take stock. There is no hitting us over the head, cleverness, or weird line spacing to distract (if you read lots of poetry, you’ll know what I mean). Reb Rachel is having a conversation with reality and inviting us to observe – then sit somewhere and pick up where she left off.
Consider these opening words from a poem addressing Abraham’s exodus from his ancestral home: It’s not going to be easy. /All of your roadmaps are wrong. Or these words addressed to Moses, looking out over the land he would never set foot in: If you could live to see what’s coming/ it would break your heart.
So simple, really, and so right on. The words could be written about each one of us. Buy the book. Tell your friends.