When we think of Moses, our focus tends towards ideals like prophet and teacher, evoking the image of Charlton Heston parting a Technicolor Red Sea. In references to Moshe Rabbeinu poetry typically plays no part, and the vision of a righteous spoken word performance artist is generally reserved for Elijah or Isaiah.
Yet, in this week’s parshah, Moses performs a soliloquy redolent with fantastic imagery and rich in metaphor. My JPS translation calls it a poem and when I immerse myself in the words, I feel transported less to the wilderness of my ancestors, and much more to my college English Lit classes and the local open mic scene.
“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!”
Moses begins and I hear his voice rise steady against sharp desert wind, silencing the murmurs of those assembled before him. Invoking a powerful mantra for assuring a successful performance, he continues,
“May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like the showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.”
He frames HaShem as “the Rock,” comparing the divine to “an eagle who rouses his nestlings/gliding down to his young…” Not content to simply recount the many miracles of the God who guided the Israelites through four decades as nomads, Moses delves into vivid imagery. “He fed him honey from the crag,/and oil from the flinty rock,” Moses intones. And later, “and foaming grape-blood was your drink” (from Deuteronomy 32:11-14).
It is a soul-sourced departure from the slog of blessings, curses and brutality that seem to dominate Deuteronomy. Tension sparks between the lines, each word sinking the reader more deeply into a thickly rousing emotional miasma. The final stanzas thunder across centuries:
“Lo, I raise My hand to heaven
And say: As I live forever,
When I whet My flashing blade
And My hand lays hold on judgment,
Vengeance will I wreak on My foes,
Will I deal to those who reject Me.
I will make My arrows drunk with blood –
As My sword devours flesh –
Blood of the slain and the captive
From the long-haired enemy chiefs.”
Today, the spirit of Moses can be felt in any effort to empower those oppressed. His iconic legacy is present in quiet moments, when we seek divine guidance in making a contribution beyond our own small selves. From Parshah Ha’azinu, I sense the spirit of Moses flowing powerfully through all Jewish poetry, as well.
In the words of Emma Lazarus, inscribed on our Statue of Liberty, I hear his resounding voice:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse on your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(from The New Colossus, 1883)
In the rhythms of Allen Ginsberg, Moses gently emerges:
“—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives,
we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies, growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset…”
(from Sunflower Sutra, 1955)
And in the bold declarations of Adrienne Rich, I like to think Moses rises with a titanic ferocity:
“But nothing less than the most radical imagination will carry us beyond this place, beyond the mere struggle for survival, to that lucid recognition of our possibilities which will keep us impatient, and unresigned to mere survival.”
(from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978)
Our world is mysterious, impossible to decipher. Life is unpredictable, and it is true that rules and regulations can at times keep the chaos contained. But when we are fractured from the weight of contradiction, when we find ourselves lost in layers of misunderstanding, when we have no template for our thoughts and feelings, all art is refuge, healing and grace. Let this week’s parshah be an invitation to dive into the poetry of our people. Let us read each word hearing the voices of our sisters and brothers echo through the scarred and glorious centuries. Let us whole-heartedly embrace self-expression – reinventing it a million times over – knowing always that our art always beats with the same resilient heart still vibrantly alive in our Torah.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.