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Dead end


Here’s my first truth of the week: I don’t have a poem for this week and I’m desperate. Truly. This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (rules/laws) is one long jazz-like riff with detail upon detail of how to act in the post-Sinai world: what to do with a seduced virgin, a goring ox, a stolen garment, a slave who doesn’t want to be freed. On it goes for verse after verse, a kind of Miss Manners for this new fangled world of freedom. In the midst of everything is the Torah’s lex talionis, the system of crime & penalty summed up as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.

(I am, by the way, rather fond of an eye for an eye. I know that Gandhi said that an eye for an eye makes us all blind, but I’d much prefer this tit for tat to I’m gonna blow your freaking head off ’cause you mistakenly took out my eye. To my thinking, structured retribution is far better than unrestrained vigilantism.)

Anyhoo, this list seems like a heck of a comedown after last week’s amazing spectacle of the giving of The Law and all. Over the years I’ve written at least a half dozen poems for this week – and none of them satisfy me. I just can’t get at the gist of things.

So, dear readers, please help. Take a few moments to read the original texthereand put in your 2 cents (or more). Tell me what comes to mind, what sparks your interest, where the text takes you. No idea or suggestion will be thought out of bounds. You absolutely positively do not have to be “good” at poetry (whatever that means) to participate. This is an equal opportunity plea.

As a tease, here is a beginning that I’m particularly fond of, though haven’t a clue about what to do with it next….

After the glory, the rules. After the broad vista of miracle,

the proximity of order—

If this, then that.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn Geduld permalink
    02/08/2010 6:44 am


    I hope I am not out of place in making a psychological comment. In my experience as a therapist, writer’s block often is a result of an internal conflict about the material.


  2. 02/08/2010 8:29 am

    Fair enough. I’m sure that the material is making me a little unhinged. My problem, however, is not so much writers’ block as it is writers’ inadequacy. I find my way into the material, write, and then find myself dreadfully lost. Lifeline needed!

  3. Noa Wahrman permalink
    02/08/2010 11:56 am

    Sue my dear

    I was always very taken by the subject of Shmita, so I looked it up as a subject for modern Hebrew poetry. I found no poetry but some other intriguing, and at times, hilarious shmita themes in modern Israeli culture.
    so here is a selection:

    * is dieting allowed during Shmita year?
    * Math and shmita (Bruce will LOVE that one!)
    * Shmita laws: Torah from Sinai commandment but also an deep ecological message.
    * Petitioning Shmita.

    If I’ll think of more stuff I’ll email again. hope the writer’s block is only temporary.

    hugs from your friendly neighborhood librarian.

  4. 02/08/2010 8:02 pm

    he shall serve
    he shall go free
    this is the blood of the covenant

    • sue swartz permalink*
      02/08/2010 8:32 pm

      There’s something here about serving & freedom (and rules). Why blood? Help me make the connection.

  5. Rabbi steve permalink
    02/08/2010 10:10 pm

    Sue, the section at the beginning of chap 24 is actually very important to the apocryphal story of Daniel and the book of Susannah. Wallace Stevens makes brilliant use of Susannah in Peter Quince at his Clavier… The book of Susannah is itself a wonderful social commentary – when the powerful pervert (pun absolutely intended) justice against the weak, the very foundation of society is shaken. This is, after all, the whole point of the entire Parasha. But this leads us to Abraham’s question: “shall not the Judge of all the world do justly?”.

    Hope my rambling thoughts help. Still thinking about the baling wire, and Miriam imagery. Very thought provoking indeed!

  6. laura z permalink
    02/09/2010 12:20 pm

    As long as I am not writing, I am happy to pass on my thoughts to you and maybe they can then be of use to you in some small way instead of simply rattling around in my head

    Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
    This translation was taken from the JPS Tanakh
    Chapter 21
    1 These are the rules

    that you shall set before them:

    “ I do not wish to go free,” 6 his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life. 7 “

    What it made me think of:

    awl= piercings = BEING BOUND TO ANOTHER as opposed to the hand of G-d

    from Wiki):

    A Midrash on the Song of Songs uses the phrase to speak of God’s willingness and ability beyond comparison, to accomplish the salvation of a sinner:
    The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?]

    Open the door for me, my beloved sister…” (“Shir HaShirim”/Song of Songs 5:2) Rabbi Yesa said, ‘The Holy One, Blessed be He said to Israel, “My sons, Open the door of Repentance as the ‘eye of a needle,’ and I will open it for you so that wagons and carriages can pass through.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 24)

    • sue swartz permalink*
      02/09/2010 1:12 pm

      All rattling thoughts are welcome. You won’t believe what will lead to one thing or another – and voila! a poem. I love the notion of being bound to another as opposed to the hand of God. And the needle’s eye puts me in mind of eye for an eye… Repentance & retribution, how they’re linked. Thanks.

  7. laura z permalink
    02/09/2010 1:39 pm

    yes ! eye for an eye and connection to the big idea of last week and “the line” = = what happens when you pull the thread through the needle = a long straight line as opposed to a knot through the ear which is also circle and does not represent a new direction

  8. Shana Ritter permalink
    02/09/2010 3:58 pm

    hey sue
    I am particularly fond of the if you do harm to your slave’s eye you shall free your slave on account of the eye – or the tooth for that matter

    so I am thinking along the lines of if you do not care for what you have claimed as yours release that claim
    if you harm the one that works for you than she shall no longer need to work for you
    where there is no compassion – or at least decency you loose your right to reside

    ok now
    how about a few lines on naturalization for me – both becoming a citizen or a transplant ( as in plant literally)

  9. judith rose permalink
    02/12/2010 1:50 pm

    I love this portion as it recreates the jewish lawyer in us all. my poem is called repetition and is based on some reoccuring themes in the portion. I see it somewhat like the plagues at the passover seder – a drop of wine for each word:


    • sue swartz permalink*
      02/12/2010 2:37 pm


      I think you’re on to something!

  10. judith rose permalink
    02/12/2010 2:48 pm

    can we put the ‘r’ words to music? perhaps a little jazz?

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