Thursday, February 9, 2017

Prophecy, Poetry and Trees

Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked that the prophets speak one octave too high. I have been thinking about this phrase these past weeks.

We read the prophets’ words for inspiration. Jeremiah thundered:
Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these.” No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt—then will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time. See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail. (Jeremiah 7)
2500 years later the prophet’s words continue to stir my conscience. And yet Jeremiah’s own generation ignored his shouts and screams. He had few if any friends. He was persecuted and jailed. (He was eventually rescued from captivity when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. His prophecy comes true!) Heschel’s insight bears remembering. The prophet sings a lonely tune.

And I recall that Rabbi Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in support of civil rights and who protested against the Vietnam War, was often criticized. Many of his contemporaries shunned him. I begin to think that he is more influential today than he was in his own day.

My Facebook feed is awash with indignation. Gone are the family photographs and the smiles of friends’ adventures. There is only the shrill prophetic voice. It speaks of justice but frays communal lines.

Perhaps this is why the rabbis ruled that the age of prophecy ended. We read the prophet’s words. They comprise the Haftarah portions that punctuate our week. They shout from its pages—although too often we chant their words in Hebrew and never bother to discuss their meaning. The people must sing together, the rabbis reasoned. Let no one sing “an octave too high.”

Leon Wieseltier shouts in my ear: “It is America, its values and its interests, whose success matters most desperately to me. No cooling off, then. We must stay hot for America. The political liberty that we cherish in this precious republic is most purely and exhilaratingly experienced as the liberty to oppose.” (Stay angry. That’s the only way to uphold principles in Trump’s America.)

My son Ari counters: “You might as well have written last week’s post in all caps!”

I retreat to poetry. Tu B’Shevat, the holiday of the trees that begins tomorrow night, comes as a welcome relief. I find solace, and comfort, in nature—although today only through the window’s glass. I find myself turning away from the computer screen and to my books of poems. Emily Dickinson. Denise Levertov. Rainer Maria Rilke. Yehuda Amichai. Billy Collins. The Psalmist—I nearly forgot. “Let the sea and all within it thunder, the world and its inhabitants; let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together.” (Psalm 98)

I read my newest discovery: the poetry of Mary Oliver and her most recent collection, Felicity. I have as well found comfort in Rebecca Solnit’s writing and in particular her A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.” More about that another time—and when the horizon returns to the sky.

I discover anew, Mary Oliver's “Leaves & Blossoms Along the Way:”
If you’re John Muir you want trees to
live among. If you’re Emily, a garden
will do.
Try to find the right place for yourself.
If you can’t find it, at least dream of it. 
When one is alone and lonely, the body
gladly lingers in the wind or rain,
or splashes into the cold river, or
pushes through the ice-crusted snow. 
Anything that touches. 
God, or the gods, are invisible, quite
understandable. But holiness is visible,
entirely. 
Some words will never leave God’s mouth,
no matter how hard you listen. 
In all the works of Beethoven, you will
not find a single lie. 
All important ideas must include the trees,
the mountains, and the rivers. 
To understand many things you must reach out
of your own condition. 
For how many years did I wander slowly
through the forest. What wonder and
glory I would have missed had I ever been
in a hurry! 
Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still
it explains nothing 
The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.
I love that line “all important ideas must include the trees.” I will have to ask the cantor about Beethoven. I will hold on to “beauty can both shout and whisper.”

The verses are a balm. I hold that near shouts of indignation.

This week I will hold fast to some poems. I will look out at the trees—now glistening in white. A winter’s snow can refresh. I am restored—if only momentarily. Justice and righteousness can be exhausting. This trek can be lonely.

The Torah reminds us: “God led the people around in circles.” (Exodus 13) The wandering begins anew.

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