Ida Fasel's poem "A Few Words" appears in Vol. I, No. 1 of The Deronda Review.
A FEW WORDS
every breath is
an angel; with angels,
their every word is hineni –
may I serve you
all my life, flying a
little lower than angels, a
This poem consists of two cinquains – a syllabic form in which the lines contains 2, 4, 6, 8, and 2 syllables. The first stanza is a theological statement about God and His angels, in which the longest line ends with the Hebrew word “hineni,” which the last line translates. The translation is not literal; what it translates is the willingness which the word (which means literally “here am I”) generally expresses in the Biblical text. The second stanza is a prayer addressed to God, expressing a willingness to serve or at least a willingness toward that willingness, though this can only an approximation of the perfect willingness of the angels. Seen from below, a “blue bird” (not: “bluebird”) might seem to be absorbed by the color of the sky, almost as the angels are nothing but the breath of God.
The word “angel” originally meant “messenger,” and even that is not quite an accurate translation of “malach,” which might better be rendered “worker.” (“Malach” is from the same stem as “malachah,” the “work” we are commanded not to do on the Sabbath.) The main difference between the malachim and humans is that malachim do not have free will. They have neither the ability nor the desire to rebel against their Maker. For this reason, some commentators actually identify them with mechanical forces. (It is said, for instance, that it requires forty thousand angels for a human being to lift a finger.) This curious coincidence of the mechanical and the spiritual has struck some Western writers too (cf. Rilke’s treatment of the angel and the puppet in the fourth of the Duino Elegies).
And yet at certain moments humans do approximate the angels’ perfect acquiescence in the Divine will. In the Biblical text these moments are often marked by the use of that word “hineni.” In fact the word is never used by God or an angel in that sense, but only by the human who is called and answers. Thus, it is really from these moments of our own that we glean an intimation of what angelic existence might be like. And moreover, the word “hineni” is sometimes spoken in answer not to God but to another human. In the episode of the “binding of Isaac,” Abraham first answers “hineni” to God, and then, a few lines later, to his son. When Samuel answers “hineni” to God’s call in the night, he thinks that it is his teacher Eli who is calling him. Thus, the ultimate model for angels’ acquiescence in the Divine will may be the moments when we “are there” for other humans.
In the Jewish prayerbook, in the morning prayer, there is a passage about the angels: “They are all beloved; they are all flawless; they are all mighty; they all do the will of their Maker with dread and reverence [...] they all accept on themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven from one another, and grant permission (reshut) to one another to sanctify the One who formed them, with tranquility, with a clear language (safah brurah), and with sweetness...”
The – somewhat wistful – application of this passage to our own condition is well understood. The Artscroll prayerbook comments: “Unlike people whose competitive jealousies cause them to thwart and outdo one another, the angels urge one another to take the initiative in serving and praising God. Conflict is the foe of perfection, harmony is its ally.” The phrase “a clear language (safah brurah)” is a quotation from a passage which likewise originally applied to humans. “For then I will turn unto the peoples a clear language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one shoulder” (Zephaniah, ch. 9)
In pursuing these associations, I am thinking especially of one class of humans – poets. Poets after all have an “angelic” vocation; the poem is a response to a call in the night. Yet we often fail to be there for one another. Our rivalries are proverbial, and my impression is that few poets would include an effort to read and understand other poets among their professional obligations. (Harold Bloom has devoted two books to this quirk – The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misunderstanding.) Is this tendency insuperable?
Consider another class of human beings – the scientists. Scientists are said to be competitive; but when one scientist makes a discovery, the others acknowledge and build on it. In that respect scientists are a good deal more like angels than poets are! Perhaps, indeed, it is because they deal with purely mechanical forces, with which, as noted above, the angels are often equated.
If poets could learn to relate to one another a little more like scientists, perhaps the “clear language” might yet become audible.
-- Esther Cameron