The Avodah Blog

Torah as Poetry – a D’var Torah (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)


By Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, National Jewish Educator for Avodah

Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward
Aryeh Bernstein, National Jewish Educator.

This week, we read two short Torah portions. (Some portions are flexible and sometimes go solo and sometimes team up, depending on calendar features, such as if a holiday fell on Shabbat, pushing a weekly reading aside in favor of a holiday reading.) In the second of this week’s readings, “VaYelekh”, Moshe launches into the home stretch of his grand, book-long speech and God gives him one last instruction before leading him to his death. Anticipating that after Moshe dies, the people will stray to foreign gods, God tells him, “Now, write this poem (shira) down and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths in order that this poem should be a witness for me among the Israelites (31:19).

What is this poem and how is it meant to serve as a witness? On the level of p’shat, the plain, contextual meaning, it refers to the poem of Parashat Ha’azinu, which immediately follows our parashah, and which, in poetic metric couplets, extols God’s loving care for Israel, while criticizing Israel’s ungrateful infidelity. God’s instruction here is simply an introduction to that poem and that is how the medieval commentator Rashi explains our verse. Moshe is to write down Ha’azinu and also teach it to everyone orally (“put it in their mouths”). Poems are easier to memorize than prose, so since the people will know the poem by heart, they will have no way to claim that they didn’t know better when later they turn astray:  the poem on their tongues will in that way “testify” against them as to their guilt.

However, a surprising tradition arose in the Talmud, explaining the “poem” of our verse to refer not simply to Parashat Ha’azinu, but to the entire Torah! This strange interpretation has teeth, too: from here, the Talmud derives a law that every Jew must write a Torah scroll, even if you already inherited one (Sanhedrin 21b). Furthermore, another Rabbinic text interprets our verse to refer not only to the whole written Torah, but to the Oral tradition, as well: “‘Teach it to the Israelites’ – this is Scripture; ‘put it in their mouths’ – these are the laws/halakhot” (Scholion to Megillat Ta‘anit, Tammuz 14).

What is poetry? Adrienne Rich said that “Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire” (What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, 1993). Poetry conjures the not-yet or the no-longer present. It expresses our dreams, fears, aspirations, regrets, and yearnings – those parts of reality that evade crisp, clear description. In this spirit, one 19th century Russian commentator explains what it might mean to describe all of Torah as a poem: “We have to understand how the Torah could be called a poem, because after all, it is not written in poetic language. However, it has the nature and character of poetry, for it is speech in enigmatic language…In poetry things are not described clearly as they are in prose, such that one needs to make side notes – this line points this way, and that line points that way…” (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, aka, the “Netziv”, introduction to commentary on the Torah, Ha’ameq Davar).

Famously, two different voices in the Torah often appear to contradict each other. A midrash that appears in several Rabbinic texts boldly claims about such contradictory verses: “both of them were said in one statement – which is impossible for a human being” (Mekhilta of R. Yishma‘el on Exodus 20:8 et. al.) The midrash summons two verses from the Bible/Tanakh’s more explicitly poetic sections to tease this out: “One thing has God said; two have I heard” (Psalms 62:12), and “‘My word is like fire’, says YHWH, ‘and like a hammer that shatters a rock” (Jeremiah 23:29).

The Divine is infinite and eternal. Language is finite and contextual. Divine language is, then, impossible, or, perhaps, miraculous. Divine language is always pregnant, never fully delivered. It is potent in ways prosaic human language can never be: it smashes its way into the temporal world, sending implications of meaning every which way, as a hammer shatters a rock, sending shards flying, each of which can become a useful tool in the hands of the creative one who finds it. Like fire, which can creatively cause fluid things to solidify or evaporate, and can cause hard, solid things to melt, the Divine word doesn’t lock certainty into place; it exposes the suggestive potential of ideas, truths, needs, and wants. We can approach that in our language when we write poetry, which has the ability to pierce more powerfully through history than prose, shining rays of truth to all who unpack it. In this sense, Torah is not like poetry; poetry is like Torah.

This is, on one level, about the Author of Torah, but it’s much more about the readers, about how we receive and transmit Torah. Torah is Torah when we perceive the enigmas in its language, when we ride those flying shards, each one gesturing toward the fleeting memory of the Divine Word, and draw those shards into relationship, when we hear those different voices symphonically, not capturing the Divine Word, only continually unpacking its suggestive meaning. Torah can be Torah, can be eternal and infinite, only through its multivocality. If we are all God’s children, God’s truth must be able to encompass all our personal, limited, individual truths, to mix them with innumerable other, individual truths to tell a more eternal story. As Rabbi Yannai said in the Talmud, “Had the Torah been given in a fixed form, it would not have had a leg to stand on.” He goes on to imagine that when God spoke to Moshe, Moshe demanded clarity: “What is the halakhah (law)?” God rejected this request for clarity, insisting on the principle of majority determination, so that the Torah would be interpreted “49 ways here and 49 ways there” (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 22a/4:2). Wallace Stevens could have been describing a learner of Torah when he said that “the poet is the priest of the invisible”. 

Torah, to be truly Torah, animates every potential not-yet-imagined situation with interpretive possibility. That explains why the Talmud teaches that one must still show utmost respect to a scholar who has forgotten their learning, due to senility (Menahot 99a): the details and particulars may be gone, but the impression they made on one’s personality remain.

Robert Frost said, “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” So it is with understanding Torah…provided that we receive it as poetry. Then, in our reading, we will be able to write it as our own.

Shabbat shalom.

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