We had a land and a book. Our land is in the book.
You will lose your hands.
What use are my hands now?
You will lose your lips.
What use are my lips now?
Your eyes will be dry lakes.
I know the book by heart.
These words are written by Egyptian Jewish poet Edmond Jabés. Involuntarily relocated to France in 1956, after the Suez crisis between Israel and Egypt, Jabés knew firsthand what the book of Devarim seeks to establish—that a book can become a site of exile, longing, and identity. That poetry offers pathways into our humanity, and that the written word can be a place of home.
“The best thing about poetry is its falseness,” wrote biblicist Adele Berlin, paraphrasing Aristotle, Arabic philosophers, and medieval Jewish scholars. Across centuries and geographies, scholars agree: poets lie. Poets take us to the edge of truth, the shores of metaphor. Poets are not primarily interested in accuracy or journalistic integrity, instead exploring what happens beneath the surface of an experience, the coupling of the known and the unknown. George Oppen, a 20th-century American poet, wrote that poetry “is an instance of being in the world…at the limits of judgment…the limits of reason.” In one of my first poetry courses as an undergraduate student, my teacher told us, “Your poems don’t have to be true. They have to lead us to the truth of a feeling.”
In this week’s parsha, Moshe’s book-length speech switches genres—from prose oration to a shira, an epic poem—and Moshe takes up the project of poetic un-truth. In the first verse, he begins to twist our sense of what is real, proclaiming, “הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ אִמְרֵי-פִי.” “Listen, heavens, and I will speak. And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” Even if we could say that the heavens contain the ears of God, Moshe here describes the land and soil itself as bearing witness by listening—consciously, actively. Newly a poet, and one verse in, Moshe teaches us, the Israelites gathered before him, to listen for something other than logic, to stop making sense.
God is a rock, Moshe tells us, God is a warrior. My words are dew, my words are rain. You are a blemish, you are God’s child. God is an eagle, God is a mother. God wounds, God heals. God’s wrath is fire, arrows, pestilence. God fed you honey from stone, God fed you the cream of a cow. The litany goes on.
Parshat Ha’azinu is thickly loaded with figurative language, to a dizzying effect. Just as one image is introduced, a new image is elaborated upon. Metaphors swirl together, as though Moshe refuses to commit to a motif. If any of my regular editors took their red pens to this poem, they would insist that the author simplify. Is Moshe an excited amateur poet, too eager to hold back all of his fresh ideas? Or does he intend something by overloading us with images?
Sallie McFague, a Christian feminist theologian, writes about metaphor as a necessary yet fictional approach to theology. McFague teaches that “we construct the worlds that we inhabit” through our choices of imagery and analogy. Though the words we choose to describe the divine reflect our lived and embodied experiences of the Holy One, they are limited by the bounds of language and impacted by the structures of society. Our words for God are not God, they are an attempt at articulating God, and they are never complete. McFague writes: “Metaphorical statements…always contain the whisper, ‘It is and it is not.’” When Moshe tells us in his poem that God is an eagle, we know that something about God is like this powerful bird, and also that God is not an eagle, not only an eagle, and not limited to an eagle. Perhaps this is why Moshe brings so many conflicting images of God into close proximity—to remind us that while God can be any of these things, God is also none of these things exclusively. The use of metaphor here is not limited to God, as Moshe applies the same literary mechanism to the Israelites and even to himself. Nothing is only as it seems, Parshat Ha’azinu claims. Our identities and experiences are not fixed, and thus our sense of what is possible can be unlocked and broadened.
Moshe’s poem marks an enormous transition. Ha’azinu is the penultimate conclusion to the work of Moshe’s life, his culminating address. He is about to die, and by doing so, allow a new Judaism to be born. Our founding prophet and leader is saying goodbye. Upon his exit, the people will be led no longer by a central authority figure. Rather, they will pore over the Torah, assigning their own interpreters and legislators, cracking the code for themselves.
It is striking for Moshe to switch genres at the end of the Torah, and to exit the stage with lyricism. The legalistic text has been given, and now Moshe unleashes the mystery of verse. We are meant to be interpreters of law, yes, but also readers of poetry. The Netziv writes in Ha’amek Davar: “It is obvious that one who is aware of the…figurative expressions of poetry can better appreciate its character than the one who only has…a literal meaning of the words, which may lead him to misunderstand the poet’s intention. Such is the nature of Torah. Its story is not elaborated on and plainly explained, it requires additional explanation in order to appreciate it allusions.” For the Netziv, the poetry of Ha’azinu might teach us to be better interpreters in general: interpreters of law and story, of Torah as a whole. Poetry can train our minds to read past what is obvious or simple.
The Sefat Emet breaks up Ha’azinu’s first verse, explaining that, “הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה” refers to the Ten Commandments, Torah she’bichtav, while “וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי” refers to the 10 utterances of Creation, representing Torah she’be’al’peh. Ha’azinu is a bridge— between written and oral Torah, between sky and earth, at the passageway into the land, at the border of Moshe’s life, between the known and the unknown. What do we do when we find ourselves in a fissure between realities, at a juncture in a changing world?
For this, we have the un-truth of poetry. Let’s not get stuck in what we think we know. “The earth turns in a mirror” writes Edmond Jabés, sitting in Paris, remembering Cairo. “Time is silent at the edge of time,” he goes on, “The bundle of the wandering Jew contains the earth and more than one star. My brothers turned to me and said, You are not Jewish, you do not pray. I turned to my brothers and answered, Prayer is my backbone and my blood.”
Edmond Jabés is not telling us simple truth. He is telling us something we need to unlearn and re-learn about how to be in the world.
There are risks, of course, to the ways in which poetry calls us to hold, at once, what is true, what is untrue, and what is beyond truth. We are living in a time of threatened truth, an era in which holding those with power accountable to a baseline of honesty is beyond the scope of what we can expect. This is not new—after all, our country was built on “alternative facts” and “fake news,” enabling colonization, genocide, and slavery. And yet it seems undeniably clear at this point that for our national leaders there are very few consequences to denying public opinion, scientific evidence, and constitutional authority, and that the fabric of truth is corroding at a terrifying pace.
If poetry is built on un-truth, is it yet another vehicle for the deception and confusion that our current administration wishes upon the American people as a cover for its actions? Don’t we need transparency right now, to call things exactly what they are, and see them with as much clarity as possible?
We do need the boldest and clearest of truth-tellers, whistle-blowers, bearers of witness. And we also need as expansive and imaginative a way of seeing as possible, another kind of truth. One of my favorite books, written by scholar Robin DG Kelley, is about the role poets have played in social movements for human freedom. Kelley writes:
“When movements have been unable to clear the clouds, it has been the poets—no matter the medium—who have succeeded in imagining the color of the sky, in rendering the kinds of dreams and futures social movements are capable of producing. Knowing the color of the sky is far more important than counting clouds. Or to put it another way, the most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.”
The journey through the un-truth of poetry can take us to the truth of it all, to the bright face of the shamayim that Moshe calls upon in the opening verse of Ha’azinu, to the color of the sky. As we stand, or perhaps scramble and tremble, as we march, as we build resilient communities, as we live into this foreboding new reality, let’s remember to take along with us the illogical, the emotional, the intuitive and figurative—the truth that lives beyond truth, the poetry of our tradition and the poetry of our lives. Just as the Israelites stood hearing Moshe’s final poem, shimmering with possibility, and transformation, becoming something new.
Rabbi Mónica Gomery was ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2017 and serves dual roles as faculty member and associate director of national learning at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, and as the music director and prayer leader of Kol Tzedek Synagogue in West Philadelphia.
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