Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Walk Article-Chukat



Rabbi David Walk


            Poetry is truly amazing.  Poetry is like language with the shackles removed.  In poetry meaning is conveyed by much more than just the words.  The message can be carried by the beat or by the sound of the words rather than their definitions.  Poetry often goes beyond the intellect to affect you viscerally, as Dennis Gabor said, 'Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.'  And then the words themselves can be used in ways regular prose would never allow.   Eli Khamarov explained, 'Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition.' So these liberated words can mean almost anything which fits the context.  And that brings us to this week's Torah reading.

            The second half of our parsha begins the saga of the last year in the desert.  Starting with the death of Miriam we are relating what happened to the Jews as they approached the borders of Israel.  Most famous is the story of Moshe and Aharon hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, and their resulting banishment from entering the Holy Land.  However, there are other momentous events like the story of the copper snake (nachash ha'nechoshet), the death of Aharon, and the conquests of Sichon and Og.  We know that some of these incidents are significant because the Jews burst into song on their account.  First the Jews sang or composed poetry about the water gushing forth in the desert.  Here is their paean:  Then Israel sang this song: "Spring up, O well! Sing to it! It's the well that the leaders dug, the one carved out by the nobles of the people with their scepters and staffs (Numbers 21:17-18)."  This is the same format used in the great Song of the Sea.  But this week I'm not concerned with these plaudits for Divine water management, but instead the next poem.

            The Torah chronicles the next creative outburst during the wars against the mighty leaders Sichon and Og.  There the Torah records: Therefore they that speak in proverbs say, Come into Heshbon, let the city of Sihon be built and established. For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon: it has consumed Ar of Moab, and the lords of the high places of Arnon. Woe to you, Moab! You are undone, O people of Chemosh: he has given his sons that escaped, and his daughters, into captivity unto Sihon king of the Amorites. But we shot the Amorites full of arrows. From Heshbon to Dibon they all died. We destroyed everyone and everything between Nophah and Medeba." (verses 27-30).  The poem describes the greatness of Sichon and then his destruction by our ancestors.  But military prowess is also not of interest to me this week.  Rabbinic types have spent centuries dealing with a pun at the outset of our hymn.  The Hebrew word I translated as 'they that speak in proverbs' is moshlim.    This comes from mashal which can mean proverb, parable or allegory, and is the basis for the name of the book of Mishlei, which we call Proverbs.  However, the word moshlim can also mean rulers, and comes from moshel, often translated as governor.  So, who was speaking at the beginning of our song?  Were they poets or leaders?

            This question is the beginning of a famous homily recorded in the Talmud (Bava Batra, 78b).  That midrashic approach requires us to explain another pun.  The capital of Sichon's empire was called Heshbon which is also the Hebrew word for accounting or reckoning.  So, the Talmud says that those who rule over their own inclinations and temptations (yetzer hara) are those who compute the value of a sin against its cost.  How much pleasure or benefit must I get from this sin to offset the cost to my soul?  The rabbis assume that such a cost analysis will lead the holy accountant away from all transgressions.  Sadly, too many of us can't add straight.

Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto (1707-1746) in his famous work of ethics, The Path of the Just (Mesillat Yesharim), used this analogy to describe how we can achieve a life free from sin.  He concludes that there are two necessary steps.  The first of which is to understand the true good which a person should follow, and the truly evil path from which a person should flee.  Then this individual must oversee all actions to determine whether they are of the former or latter category.  Rabbi Luzzatto doesn't say it but I think that those two steps can be discerned from one of the verses we mentioned above.  It says that the city of Sichon, called Heshbon (which also means account, remember?) should be built and established, Hebrew:  tibaneh v'tikonen.  Those words make sense in a building sense as the construction and the planning stages for the structure or city.  The only problem is that they are out of order.  Good construction policy, I would assume, requires the planning stage before the construction phase.  However, Rabbi Luzzatto's point is that a moral, ethical life requires continued planning and assessment for the duration of the project, and often involves many adjustments.  He quotes these verses to prove his point:  "Consider the path of your feet and all of your paths will be established (Proverbs 4:26)," and "Let us seek out our ways and examine them, and we will return to God (Lamentations 3:40)."  A worthwhile lifetime requires many changes in the blueprints along the way.

So, who are the speakers in our poem?  Are they poets or presidents?  I believe that the whole point of this exercise is to inform us that poets are rulers.  They command words to portray multilevel ideas.  But what is the real source of the poetry that helps us to see truths which had previously escaped our notice?  Thornton Wilder taught that idea at the end of his great play, Our Town.  The newly dead Emily wants to know if any humans understand the beauty, majesty and tragedy of life while still living it.  The all-knowing Stage Manager responds:  The saints and poets, maybe they do some. The greatness of the best poets is that they inform the rest of us.  As one of the best, Wallace Stevens said, 'The poet is the priest of the invisible.' And then makes it visible.