The Great Poem by Lawrence Raab
The great poem is always possible.
Think of Keats and his odes.
But you shouldn’t have to be dying.
What I’m writing now is not
the great poem. After a few lines
I could tell. It may not even be
a particularly good poem, although
it’s too early to decide about that.
Keep going, I say. See what happens.
But trying hard is one of the problems,
since it shows in the lines as a strain
or struggle that reminds the reader
too much of the writer, whereas
most readers want to listen alone.
The great poem, I think, will arrive
when I no longer care. Perhaps
I’ll have abandoned art altogether,
and I won’t even want to write
the poem down. But then I’ll remember
what I once would have given
for this moment, and I’ll go back
to my desk. And I’ll write the poem
as though I were another person,
someone I will never be again.
Some of the best poetry of the Torah comes from a prophet who takes up his theme “as though he were another” simply acting as God’s spokesperson. In fact, every time we walk into a synagogue, we are traditionally supposed to recite his poetry, “How goodly are your tents, Oh Jacob, your tabernacles, Oh Israel!”
Bilaam, the gentile Midianite prophet who’s hired to curse the Israelites is forced by God to bless them instead. He is completely honest with his employer, the eponymous Moabite king Balak whose name graces our portion, that he has no power over his message. The sovereign makes sacrifices, takes Bilaam to different vantage points from which to curse Israel, all to no avail.
How can we give him credit at all for his poetry when he’s merely a mouthpiece?
An answer comes from the Gaon of Vilna, the 18th century rabbinic genius who notes that God tells Bilaam neither to change the divine word for lesser or greater effect. If not changing a small thing is prohibited, isn’t it obvious that God would not allow him to adjust a great thing?
The Gaon notes that according to Rabbinic tradition certain names of God are considered conducive to mercy and others to justice. Whenever God places in Bilaam’s mouth one of the longer names of God that is for mercy -- Hoyah, for instance -- he tries to shorten it (lessen) to the judgment-prone Yah. Whenever God places in Bilaam’s mouth a shorter name for mercy -- El, for instance -- Bilaam tries to lengthen it to the word that implies judgment Elohim.
Where Bilaam might have succeeded in getting credit for his own poetry by letting go of his ownership of it, our portion provides a visual clue to his failure. There are no paragraph breaks in the portion of Balak. Even though Bilaam was a real prophet, having access isn’t the same as taking time to reflect and figure out what to do with the information he’s been given. He may feel that he can get away with it like Faulkner and Saramago but neither of them were prophets to the best of my knowledge.
As Lawrence Raab notes in his poem it’s only when he gives up, pauses, puts down his pen, lifts his fingers from the keyboard, that the muse shows up.
In the poetry we write with the actions and words of our lives, Shabbat provides that opportunity.