Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Myself Wrote and Delivered: The Hidden Poem in the Ten Commandments

This installment of “Text and the City” will most probably fail. It is an exploration in three languages spanning texts from three millennia. The first (Hebrew) word in the Bible’s most famous text is unpacked into a Talmudic (Aramaic) acronym and is interpreted by a 19th Century East European commentary. Can we discuss this Hebrew-Aramaic pun in English without losing the elegance and simplicity of the text? Probably not, but let’s try anyway…
אנכי - I am the Lord your God who redeemed you from Egypt…” – The famous opening of the Ten Commandments, broadcast in this week’s Parasha, Yitro. Generations have debated if this is a prescriptive or descriptive statement: a preamble to the constitution or a commandment to believe in the God of the Exodus. But the literarily inclined will ask: Why open with the “I”? God’s first word spoken to the Israelites at Sinai has been powerfully branded by Ten Commandments sculptures across the world (some claim this is a specifically American phenomenon), but what is its meaning?

Rabbi Yohanan said: How do we know the Torah contains hidden acronyms?
For it says: “I am the Lord your God” - “אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ
 אָנֹכִי - A’NoKI stands for Ana Nafshi Ktivat Yahavit, I My-self Wrote and Delivered.
Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 105a
אמר רבי יוחנן:... מניין ללשון נוטריקון מן התורה?
שנאמר  "אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ " – אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קה.

In the hands of Rabbi Yohanan the opening word of the Tan Commandments is discovered to contain a hidden Aramaic acronym, which becomes the Talmud’s shortest poem:
אָנֹכִי - אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית
Anokhi - Ana Nafshi Ktivat Yahavit
I My-self Wrote and Delivered
In Rabbi Yohanan’s midrashic world, if you open up the words of the text, you’ll hear the ars-poetic voice of the author. The author of the Torah is offering here a most personal preface: These words you are about to hear, this entire book perhaps, - “I Myself Wrote and Delivered” it.
What does this poem mean? In the early 20th century, in his commentary Torah Temima, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, offers the following  interpretation:
“I My-self Wrote and Delivered” - it as the popular wisdom goes that one knows the personality of a person, or the value and depth of their wisdom, from their writings.
The poem claims that the very essence of the Holy Blessed One – the will, dignity, magnitude and humility – can be observed and understood from the Torah. And this is the meaning of “I my-self” – my deepest self, my essence – “has been written and Delivered” - I have ensconced my deepest self in this text, allowing a pathway to know and perceive Me through my writings, through my Torah.
"אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית" – יש לומר על דרך לשון בני אדם שאומרים שמכירים תכונת איש פלוני או מדת וערך חכמתו מתוך כתביו וספריו, ואמר בזה, דמהות הקב"ה כביכול דהיינו רצונו וכבודו וגדולתו וענותנותו נראים ונכרים מתורתו... וזהו עניין אנא נפשי – ר"ל תכונת נפשי, כתיבת יהבית – נתתי לדעת ולהכיר מתוך כתבי, דהיינו מתורתי. )תורה תמימה על שמות כ:א(

“My deepest self – I have written and delivered” – here is an image of God painstakingly fashioning his deepest self into a text, pouring his “self” into his writings, seeking (desperately?) to be known, to be perceived, by us – the addressee of this package. The God who “delivered from Egypt” is now being delivered by his readers.
“My deepest self – I have written and delivered” – and it is accessible every day of the year, through the study of Torah. In the hands of the Torah Temima, heir to the Lithuanian tradition of intellectual Torah scholarship, the endeavor of learning Torah becomes an experience of first hand revelation. As the midrash claims: “The voice goes forth from Sinai every day” – and the place to encounter it is in the study of God’s writings. How does one evoke this experience from the text? Perhaps it involves the magic of Hevruta – the dialogic experience of Self-Text-Other. Perhaps it is encountered when creating hiddushim – intellectual novelties which evoke Divine sparks of creativity. For some it is in only possible in the constancy of a daily communion with the text, for others in the mystical mumbling of mantric words. For me it is found in the fire of a havurah mining a text together in a midrashic jam session of ideas.
Rabbi Yohanan’s acronym is not just about how to read Torah, it also suggests a powerful model for creative action. If we are to “walk in the paths of God”, performing “imitatio Dei” – then the booming voice of אנכי is a call to human beings to follow suit in performing “my deepest self – I have written and delivered”. Not just in text and writing, but in any endeavor אנכי commands us to embed our deepest self and then deliver it, up close and personal, to those who can receive. Whether in the building of institutions, the creation of change, the sharing of an ethic, the raising of children. We are commanded to write our deepest self into our endeavors. And it is our work to mine other endeavors – from God’s text to fellow human’s endeavors – for their deepest selves, allowing them too to be known in the world. Just as God’s אנכי could not have been discovered without the work of Rabbi Yohanan or the Torah Temima, so it is our collaborative endeavor to mine the texts of our inheritance and of our peers for the deeper selves that are peering from between the words.
And all this, tightly packed into one word: אָנֹכִי - אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית. Anokhi - I My-self Wrote and Delivered
Shabbat Shalom,

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Shabbat Shira: A Shabbat of Poetry

Rabbi Mishael Zion Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | BeShalach 2013
In honor of the “Shabbat of Song,” named after the Song of the Sea read this week, I offer three poems. The Parasha, BeShalach, describes how a terrified nation of refugees, redeemed miraculously through a split sea, break out into song. They attempt to give communal language to their redemptive experience. The midrash describes that the Children of Israel actually “saw” God, with even the simplest of Israel achieving an experience higher than the greatest mystical prophets of the Bible.
What does it mean to see God in the 21st century? These poems offer two bold contemporary visions, and one ancient one. All three describe an encounter with God, but all are quite far from the standard language we usually see. At times I wonder if in between these lines are the building blocks of speaking about God in a Secular Age.


The search to describe an encounter with the Divine is always a search for metaphors. Here Kosman turns to the metaphors of the day: computers, information technology, bandwith. This poem is part of a series written in English using Hebrew letters. While translating it back into English loses some of the effect, reading the text with a fake Israeli accent revives the feeling. The Hebrew text is attached at the bottom.

Installing You my Lord, in da middle of the night.
Installing You and all Your programs. Up and down
da night goes, in my Windows, slows, installing You and
da kruvim, installing you and da srafim, installing all
da holy crew, until da morning

Installing You my Lord. Installing all my questions. All
da darkest night. Installing all debates. Installing
all relations. Troot. Installing all
pretending actions.

Installing lite, installing life, installing you
with love, with awe. Installing all da night long below
until da end, my Lord.

Would we
finally be dead.
Installed together.

© 2007, Admiel Kosman, from: Alternative Prayerbook
© Translation: 2010, Lisa Katz and Shlomit Naor

II. The Manifest Name Chava Pinchas Cohen

Referring to the שם המפורש, the explicit, ineffable name of God,the poet describes her alternative experience of God’s manifest revelation at Sinai. This Israeli feminist poem is best compared to the American feminist “We all Stood Together” by Merle Feld.

They’ve all gone to the mountain to wait
To wait and see, most quietly they wait,
Against their nature even donkeys, even camels
in this quiet a bird did not chirp
even children on their fathers’ shoulders,
the quiet too much to bear as if before a matter
so awesome and great but I still wished
to first finish hanging the laundry
to make time for myself, to refresh my aroma
and I warmed the baby’s milk, lest he be hungry,
lest he cry, perish the thought, at an improper
moment, how much longer till it ends. The expectation
that the laundry will dry and the baby, what.
No one knew
But I saw a light wind, like the breath of a person asleep, pass
Through the laundry and inflate the middle
Of my shirt and the Sabbath tablecloth
Was a white sail in the middle of the wilderness
And we went from there on azure
Far to the place where

we’ll split open pomegranates and devour their juice
to the place where
love has
a manifest name.

Havva Pinchas-Cohen, Journey of the Doe (1994), 7. Translation based on “Creator are you listening? Israeli Poets on God and Prayer” by David C. Jacobson

III. Seeing God in Heikhalot  Literature
This text, by an anonymous author who lived sometime in late antiquity (4-7 CE) somewhere in the Byzantine Empire, is a strange and bold description of God. Mystical “travelers” would ascent to the heavens and describe the wondrous visions experienced there. Maimonides’ hated these texts, but it is the experience behind them which animates prayers like “Anim Zemirot” and provide the theological underpinnings for “Psukei deZimra” and “Yistabach”.

The Shema in a Kabbalistic siddur

Lovely face, majestic face,
face of beauty, face of flame,
the face of the Lord God of Israel when He sits upon His throne of glory,
robed in praise upon His seat of splendor.
His beauty surpasses the beauty of the aged,
His splendor outshines the splendor of newly-weds in their bridal chamber.

Whoever looks at Him is instantly torn;
whoever glimpses His beauty immedi­ately melts away.
Those who serve Him today no longer serve Him tomorrow;
those who serve Him tomorrow no longer serve Him after­wards;
for their strength fails and their faces are charred,
their hearts reel and their eyes grow dim
at the splendor and radiance of their king's beauty.

Beloved servants, lovely servants,
swift servants, light-footed servants,
who stand before the stone of the throne of glory, who wait upon the wheel of the chariot.
When the sapphire of the throne of glory whirls at them
when the wheel of the chariot hurls past them,
those on the right now stand again to the left,
those on the left now stand again to the right,
those in front now stand again in back,
those in back now stand again in front.

He who sees the one says, 'That is the other'.
And he who sees the other says, 'That is the one'.
For the visage of the one is like the visage of the other;
and the visage of the other is like the visage of the one.

Happy the King who has such servants!
and happy the servants who have such a King!
Happy the eye that sees and feeds upon this wondrous light - a wondrous vision and most strange!

Heikhalot Rabati Chapter 10:1-2, Israel, 3-7 Century (Talmudic Era), Translated by T. Carmi in The Penguin book of Hebrew Verse

שֵׁם מְפורָשׁ - חוה פנחס-כהן

כֻּלָּם כְּבָר הָלְכוּ אֶל הָהָר וּמְחַכִּים
מְחַכִּים לִרְאוֹת, בְּשֶׁקֶט רַב מְחַכִּים,
שֶׁלֹּא כְּמִנְהָגָם גַּם הַחֲמוֹרִים, גַּם הַגְּמַלִּים
בַּשֶּׁקֶט הַזֶּה צִפּוֹר לֹא צִיְּצָה
גַּם יְלָדִים עַל כִּתְפֵי אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם,
וְהַשֶּׁקֶט רַב מִנְּשׂא כְּמוֹ לִפְנֵי דָּבָר
נוֹרָא וְגָדוֹל וַאֲנִי עוֹד רָצִיתִי
לְהַסְפִּיק וְלִתְלוֹת אֶת הַכְּבָסִים
לַעֲשׂוֹת זְמַן לְעַצְמִי לְתַקֵּן רֵיחוֹתַי
וְחִמַּמְתִּי אֶת הֶחָלָב לַתִּינוֹק, שֶׁלֹּא יִרְעַב
שֶׁלֹּא יִבְכֶּה חָלִילָה, בָּרֶגַע הַלֹּא
מַתְאִים, כַּמָּה זְמַן עַד כְּלוֹת. הַצִּפִּיָּה
שֶׁתִּתְיַבֵּשׁ הַכְּבִיסָה וְהַתִּינוֹק מָה.
אִישׁ לֹא יָדַע
וַאֲנִי רָאִיתִי שֶׁרוּחַ קַלָּה, כְּמוֹ נְשִׁימָתוֹ שֶׁל אִישׁ יָשֵׁן, עָבְרָה
בַּכְּבָסִים וְנִפְּחָה כְּרֵסָהּ
שֶׁל כֻּתָּנְתִּי וּמַפַּת הַשַּׁבָּת
הָיְתָה מִפְרָשׂ לָבָן בְּאֶמְצַע הַמִּדְבָּר
וְיָצָאנוּ מִשָּׁם עַל הַתְּכֵלֶת
הַרְחֵק לַמָּקוֹם בּוֹ 

נִפְרֹט רִמּוֹנִים וְנֹאכַל עֲסִיסָם
לַמָּקוֹם בּוֹ
שֵׁם מְפֹרָשׁ

Havva Pinchas-Cohen, Journey of the Doe (1994), 7.

,פנים נאים, פנים הדורים
,פנים של יופי, פנים של להבה
פני ה' אלהי ישראל כשהוא יושב על כסא כבודו
.וסלסולו מתוקן במושב הדרו.
,יפיו נאה מיפי גבורות,
.הדרו מעולה מהדר חתנים וכלות בבית חופתם.

,המסתכל בו מיד נקרע
.המציץ ביפיו מיד משתפך כקיתון
המשרתים אותו היום שוב אין משרתים אותו למחר,
והמשרתים אותו למחר שוב אין משרתים לפניו – כי תשש כחם והושחרו פניהם
תעה לבם ונחשכו עיניהם
.אחר הדר יופי הדר של מלכם

!משרתים אהובים, משרתים נאים, משרתים ממהרים, משרתים קלים
;העומדים על אבן כסא הכבוד והנצבים על גלגל המרכבה
-- כשאבן כסא הכבוד מחזר עליהם, כשגלגל המרכבה מחטיף אותם
;העומדים לימין, חוזרים ועומדים לשמאל
;והעומדים לשמאל, חוזרים ועומדים לימין
;והעומדים לפנים, חוזרים ועומדים לאחור
.והעומדים לאחור, חוזרין ועומדין לפנים

.הרואה את זה, אומר: זה הוא זה
;והרואה את זה, אומר: זה הוא זה
.וקלסתר פניו של זה דומה לקלסתר פניו של זה

,אשרי המלך שאלו משרתיו
.ואשרי משרתיו שזהו מלכם
אשרי עין הנזונת והמסתכלת
באור המופלא הזה.

(בעריכה של ט. כרמי