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faces

These poems are so out there, so radical, and at the same time so gentle and inviting. Barenblat manages to do work that has passion and truth behind it, without ranting. I love the simple and confident way she deals with the akedah—and I love the final poem in this collection—gliding right past heartbreak into renewal, which is what her poems all seem to do. — Alicia Ostriker, author of For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book and The Book of Seventy

7o faces Torah Poems

70 FACES: Torah Poems

Praise for 7o

RACHEL BARENBLAT

Each of the poems in 70 Faces arose in conversation with the Five Books of Moses. These poems interrogate, explore, and lovingly respond to Torah texts—the uplifting parts alongside the passages which may challenge contemporary liberal theology. Here are responses to the familiar tales of Genesis, the liberation story of Exodus, the priestly details of Leviticus, the desert wisdom of Numbers, and the anticipation of Deuteronomy. These poems balance feminism with respect for classical traditions of interpretation. They enrich any (re)reading of the Bible, and will inspire readers to their own new responses to these familiar texts.

Rachel Barenblat’s Torah poems open the doorway into sacred text so that we can walk in and make it our home. She invites us to bring all of our passion, doubt, humor, humility and chutzpah as we encounter these ancient words and bring them to Life. Through Rachel’s skillful, joyful, playful and profound poetry, the Torah opens her secrets to us and invites us into an intimate conversation with Truth. — Rabbi Shefa Gold, author of Torah Journeys In the poetry of 70 Faces, Rachel Barenblat continues the work of translation and commentary that has occupied her for years as the Velveteen Rabbi. She is as young as our century and as old as Judaism. Her poems have the classic cadence of the scriptures and the fresh wonder of a new mother. These are old words for the modern mind. This is ancient wisdom we can feel and know. — Pastor Gordon Atkinson, author of RealLivePreacher.com and Turtles All The Way Down

ISBN 978-0-9866909-1-4

90000 >

9 780986 690914

PHOENICIA PUBLISHING

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is author of four chapbooks of poetry, among them What Stays (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002) and chaplainbook (Laupe House Press, 2006.) She is a contributing editor at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Since 2003 she has blogged as the Velveteen Rabbi. Her work has appeared in a variey of journals and anthologies, among them Confrontation, The Texas Observer, and Poetica; she lives with her husband Ethan Zuckerman and their son Drew in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts.

Rachel Barenblat


ISBN 978-0-9866909-1-4 Edited and designed by Beth Adams Cover photography and design by Daniel Beck First Edition Š2011 Rachel Barenblat Published by Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal www.phoeniciapublishing.com


7o faces Torah Poems

Rachel Barenblat


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS “In the Dark (Vayeshev)” appears on The Best American Poetry blog, December 2008. “Command (Tzav)” appears in Frostwriting, February 2009 (as “Tzav Pantoum.”) “Vessel (Shemini)” appears in Mélusine, November 2009. “Instead of sons (Vayechi)” appears in Scribblers on the Roof, November 2009. “Mobius (V’zot ha-brakha)” has been accepted by Poetica magazine Many of these poems originally appeared, often in earlier versions or with different titles, at the blog Velveteen Rabbi.


For my teachers and friends. And for Ethan, who shares the unfolding Torah of my life.


CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS.................................................................................... v INTRODUCTION.................................................................................................1 GENESIS / Bereshit.................................................................................................5 POSTPARTUM / Bereshit...................................................................................7 INTEGRATION / Noah.....................................................................................8 FIRST STEP / Lech Lecha...................................................................................9 THE AKEDAH CYCLE / Vayera.....................................................................10 1. Acharei ha-dvarim ha-eileh / After these things........................................10 2. Acharei ha-dvarim ha-eileh / After these words........................................12 3. Meanwhile, back home...........................................................................13 4. God and I..............................................................................................14 5. Excursion................................................................................................15 6. The angels say.........................................................................................16 7. Possibilities.............................................................................................17 8. Together..................................................................................................18 9. D’var acher / another interpretation........................................................19 10. And here we are.....................................................................................20 IN THE SAME KEY / Chayyei Sarah................................................................21 PULLING THE STRINGS / Toldot.................................................................22 HATCH / Va-yetzei...........................................................................................23 ENCOUNTER / Vayishlach..............................................................................24 IN THE DARK / Vayeshev................................................................................25 UNRECOGNIZABLE / Miketz.......................................................................26 KIN / Vayigash...................................................................................................27 INSTEAD OF SONS / Vayechi.........................................................................28

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EXODUS / Sh’mot.................................................................................................29 BECOMING / Sh’mot......................................................................................31 CHARGE / Va-era.............................................................................................32 OFFERING / Bo...............................................................................................33 THE PSALM I SING / B’shalach......................................................................34 THE DEAL / Yitro............................................................................................35 LIKE A FEAST / Mishpatim.............................................................................36 THE GIFTS / T’rumah.....................................................................................37 HIGH PRIEST / Tetzaveh.................................................................................38 RE-ENTRY / Ki Tisa.........................................................................................39 COLLABORATION / Vayekhel . .....................................................................40 INSTRUCTION / Pekudei...............................................................................41 LEVITICUS / Vayikra...........................................................................................43 KORBAN / Vayikra...........................................................................................45 COMMAND / Tzav.........................................................................................46 VESSEL / Shemini.............................................................................................48 LIKE GOD / Tazria..........................................................................................49 ON YOUR HOUSE / Metzora.........................................................................50 NAKED / Acharei mot.......................................................................................51 GEVURAH / Kedoshim.....................................................................................53 SHALL / Emor..................................................................................................54 CARETAKER / Behar.......................................................................................55 EITHER/OR / Behukkotai................................................................................56 NUMBERS / Bamidbar.........................................................................................57 CENSUS / Bamidbar........................................................................................59 VOICE / Naso...................................................................................................60 APART / B’ha-alot’kha.......................................................................................61

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LARGER THAN LIFE / Shlakh-lekha..............................................................62 BLOOM / Korach.............................................................................................63 RED HEIFER / Chukat....................................................................................64 SANDALS / Balak............................................................................................65 GUT FEELING / Pinchas.................................................................................66 PROMISES / Matot..........................................................................................67 DOWNSIDE / Mas’ei.......................................................................................68 DEUTERONOMY / D’varim...............................................................................69 TRAVELOGUE / D’varim................................................................................71 IMAGE / Va-etchanan.......................................................................................72 CALLUS / Ekev.................................................................................................73 NOT EMPTY-HANDED / Re’eh.....................................................................74 BEAT / Shoftim.................................................................................................75 HARVEST / Ki Tetzei........................................................................................76 BLESSED / Ki Tavo...........................................................................................77 SECRETS / Nitzavim........................................................................................78 THIS POEM / Va-yelekh...................................................................................79 ASYMPTOTE / Ha-azinu.................................................................................80 MOBIUS / V’zot ha-brakha...............................................................................81 ABOUT THE AUTHOR......................................................................................83

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INTRODUCTION The tradition of responding to scripture with our own creativity—writing interpretive stories which explore questions, close loopholes, and ponder implications—dates back at least as far as the third century of the Common Era. In Jewish tradition, these exegetical stories are called midrash, from the root lidrosh, to seek or inquire. The poems in this collection are contemporary midrash. They respond to Torah, question Torah, and celebrate Torah as it gleams through the lens of my experiences. From classical midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah, a collection of midrash exploring the book of Numbers) comes the Jewish saying that “Torah has 70 faces.” I follow in well-trodden footsteps when I say that I believe that the Hebrew Scriptures, beloved by both Jews and Christians, can support an infinity of response. Each interpretation has the capacity to reveal a new spark of divinity. You hold in your hands a full cycle of Torah poems, one for each Torah portion of the year. Read them all at once, or week by week as the lectionary unfolds. Read them alongside your favorite edition of the Five Books of Moses, or alongside other poetry. Read them at home; read them in houses of worship; use them in sermons and class handouts. Maybe they’ll spark your own Torah poems. Another classical midrash (found in the collection called Midrash Tanchuma) holds that Torah is written in black fire on white fire, and that both are holy. The text is sacred, and so is the blank parchment on which it is inscribed. These poems come out of the white fire, but I hope they offer you a new way to relate to the black fire, too. Torah offers a mirror in which I can see myself and my relationship with God in new ways each year. May these poems also open that door for you.

1


There are seventy faces to Torah: Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. —Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15


GENESIS / Bereshit


POSTPARTUM / Bereshit Postpartum depression caused the Flood. God was elated when creation was born every facet unfolding a reflection light and darkness, as above so below But God ached all over, God felt hollow God walked in the empty garden disconsolate already nothing was the way God planned it and Abel’s blood cried out from the soil Could the whole project be a wash? In God’s heart, regret bloomed hot and a tempest of sorrow rained down Still, some simple sweetness in us roused divine compassion like milk found favor in God’s tired eyes.

7


INTEGRATION / Noah When the floodgates open build a boat with many spaces here in these cubbyholes stash your scales and feathers pack provisions for the forty days required for transformation push off from the dock and set sail for wherever the current carries you don’t be surprised if you wobble back across the gangplank when you raise the partitions you’ll run like new watercolor offer yourself on the altar of stone beneath the varicolored sky

8


FIRST STEP / Lech Lecha It’s not going to be easy. All of your roadmaps are wrong. That was another country: those lakes have dried up and new groundwater is welling in places you won’t expect. You’ll begin the journey in fog everything unknown, impossible. Don’t be surprised by the tears. This right here is holy ground. Take a deep breath and turn away from cynicism and despair, turn from the miserable certainty that nothing will ever get better listen to the voice from on high and deep within, the one that says I’m calling you to a place which I will show you and take the first small step into the surprising sun.

9


THE AKEDAH CYCLE / Vayera 1. Acharei ha-dvarim ha-eileh / After these things —the hidden ache of infertility, their marriage straining at the seams beneath everything unspoken— Sarai’s desperate play for control, claiming she wouldn’t mind if Avram slept with the maid —then watching Hagar’s belly swell, how she carried unborn Ishmael as though she were dancing— after jealousy arose between them like brackish water, after Hagar spoke with the Almighty —after Avram changed their names and circumcised his heart, after the angels came— after Avraham argued with God and Lot offered his own daughters to a mob of angry men —after Avraham and Sarah moved to Abimelech’s lands, desperate to escape their own story— after they returned home and Sarah became pregnant and they named their son Laughter —after Sarah had laughed to think of milk flowing from her withered breasts— after Sarah saw the boys at play and fury overwhelmed her and she sent Hagar away

10


—after Avraham, distraught, accused Abimelech of stealing his source of inspiration— after the men made a treaty and planted a tamarisk and they stayed there a while —after Avraham had forgotten Sarah’s exhausted radiance when she first held their son— after these things the sweet and the bitter God tested Avraham

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-- MORE --


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Rachel Barenblat holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is a Jewish Renewal rabbi, ordained in January of 2011. She is author of four chapbooks of poetry: the skies here (Pecan Grove Press, 1995), What Stays (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002), chaplainbook (Laupe House Press, 2006) and Through, a self-published collection of miscarriage poems (2009.) Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi; in 2008, her blog was named one of the top 25 blogs on the internet by TIME. She is perhaps best known for The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, which has been used in homes and synagogues worldwide. Rachel is a contributing editor at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Her poems have appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, among them Phoebe, The Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, The Texas Observer, and Confrontation. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Organization for Transformative Works. She lives in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts with her husband, Ethan Zuckerman, their son Drew, and their creamsicle cat. Find her online at velveteenrabbi.com.


PHOENICIA PUBLISHING is interested in words and images that illuminate culture, spirit, and the human experience. A particular focus is on writing and art about travel between cultures — whether literally, through lives of refugees, immigrants, and travelers, or more metaphorically and philosophically — with the goal of enlarging our understanding of one another through universal and particular experiences of change, displacement, disconnection, assimilation, sorrow, gratitude, longing and hope. We are committed to the innovative use of the web and digital technology in all aspects of publishing and distribution, and to making high-quality works available that larger publishers might not take on. We work closely with our authors, and are pleased to be able to offer them a larger share of royalties than is normally possible. Phoenicia Publishing is based in Montreal. Our complete catalogue is online at www.phoeniciapublishing.com


faces

These poems are so out there, so radical, and at the same time so gentle and inviting. Barenblat manages to do work that has passion and truth behind it, without ranting. I love the simple and confident way she deals with the akedah—and I love the final poem in this collection—gliding right past heartbreak into renewal, which is what her poems all seem to do. — Alicia Ostriker, author of For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book and The Book of Seventy

7o faces Torah Poems

70 FACES: Torah Poems

Praise for 7o

RACHEL BARENBLAT

Each of the poems in 70 Faces arose in conversation with the Five Books of Moses. These poems interrogate, explore, and lovingly respond to Torah texts—the uplifting parts alongside the passages which may challenge contemporary liberal theology. Here are responses to the familiar tales of Genesis, the liberation story of Exodus, the priestly details of Leviticus, the desert wisdom of Numbers, and the anticipation of Deuteronomy. These poems balance feminism with respect for classical traditions of interpretation. They enrich any (re)reading of the Bible, and will inspire readers to their own new responses to these familiar texts.

Rachel Barenblat’s Torah poems open the doorway into sacred text so that we can walk in and make it our home. She invites us to bring all of our passion, doubt, humor, humility and chutzpah as we encounter these ancient words and bring them to Life. Through Rachel’s skillful, joyful, playful and profound poetry, the Torah opens her secrets to us and invites us into an intimate conversation with Truth. — Rabbi Shefa Gold, author of Torah Journeys In the poetry of 70 Faces, Rachel Barenblat continues the work of translation and commentary that has occupied her for years as the Velveteen Rabbi. She is as young as our century and as old as Judaism. Her poems have the classic cadence of the scriptures and the fresh wonder of a new mother. These are old words for the modern mind. This is ancient wisdom we can feel and know. — Pastor Gordon Atkinson, author of RealLivePreacher.com and Turtles All The Way Down

ISBN 978-0-9866909-1-4

90000 >

9 780986 690914

PHOENICIA PUBLISHING

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is author of four chapbooks of poetry, among them What Stays (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002) and chaplainbook (Laupe House Press, 2006.) She is a contributing editor at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Since 2003 she has blogged as the Velveteen Rabbi. Her work has appeared in a variey of journals and anthologies, among them Confrontation, The Texas Observer, and Poetica; she lives with her husband Ethan Zuckerman and their son Drew in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts.

Rachel Barenblat

70 Faces: Torah Poems  

A 100-page collection of contemporary spiritual poems in response to the Five Books of Moses, by Rachel Barenblat

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