JUNCTURES OF LIGHT
sonnets on the weekly Torah portion and the corresponding chapter of Tanya
by Esther Cameron
Upon a world of darkness and of waste
G-d spoke the word of light, and light blazed forth.
Then between light and dark, and heaven and earth,
He set up boundaries not to be effaced.
But when to humankind His thought gave birth,
When he set His likeness as a seal
On us, that all things He had made might feel
Our sway, and we ourselves might know our worth,
Then in earth’s clay heaven’s breath He did instill,
Two souls He fashioned for us, one divine,
One beastly. Good and less-good thus combine
In us. But we are summoned to reveal
G-d’s presence, as our evil we refine,
And on a world of darkness flash light’s sign.
Amid the floods of time and human tears
We must endeavor still to keep afloat
Our soul’s small vessel, which, however fraught
With multifarious animal passengers
That clamor to be fed, whose roaring note
Sounds in our ears through jumbled day and night,
Is yet a spark of G-d’s Self; and the insight
To know this, is confusion’s antidote.
Wherethrough does knowledge come? A crystal bright,
Some commentators say, with its own glow,
While others would maintain: a simple window
Is at our being’s peak, to admit the light
That filters from Above. But, so or so,
Not knowing how we know, we know we know.
LEKH LEKHA/CHAPTER 3
Out of the crucible of his first test
From Ur Kasdim, obeying G-d’s command,
Walked Avraham to find the Promised Land.
Wherever he went, he made G-d manifest.
The power that kept Par’oh’s lustful hand
From Sarah, and put tyrant hosts to flight,
The generosity that shed its light
Wherever his tent was pitched. He made expand
Ripples of good to comfort the upright
And planted in this nether world the sense
Of how the most high G-d prepares and sends
Good to the world, from His recess of might,
From Wisdom’s point to the circumference
Of Intellect, and Knowledge most intense.
Avraham over time became acquainted
With G-d’s ways, as one comes to know a friend;
G-d came to visit Avraham, to mend
His hurt, to consult with him about the tainted
Cities which He was planning to upend,
And to announce the birth of Sarah’s son,
Through whom the covenant would be carried on,
Whose life, one terrible day, He seemed to demand,
But stayed the deed and counted it as done
When He had seen their utter willingness.
The screen has thickened since; nevertheless
We still recount the binding to atone,
Through the statutes and the laws we gain access
To the highest Will, and know the King’s embrace.
CHAYYEI SARAH/Chapter 5
Beside the fountain Eliezer stopped
And there found Rivkah, willing and most kind.
He placed gold weights upon her arms to bind
Her to his master’s son. On her was propped
The legacy of Sarah, who divined
HaShem’s intention, and who in all her deeds
Was comparable to the Torah that feeds
And clothes in heavenly will the human mind.
Grant, then, that each may feel the hand that leads
Through doubtful lands and makes the road contract,
That each may come to the mate that he has lacked
And to that Understanding which exceeds
All he might do or gain in the world of fact
And binds him to the Giver of the pact.
All is from G-d. of G-d, our sages say,
But in this world it seems the souls divide,
As Rifkah felt the twins within her side
Pulled one the one, the other the other way –
“If so, why am I thus,” our mother cried.
It is thought that Yitzchak’s soul, once offered, stood
Above all time, beheld the ultimate good
Would come of Eisav's evil; so he tried
To hope the blessing would refine his crude.
But Rifkah (she'd grown up with Lavan) knew
The blessing then would only help him do
Much worse. So Yakov's truth must don a hood
Of guile, and this world’s darkened paths pursue,
While still weeps Eisav: “Father, bless me too!”
Fleeing and seeking, Yakov fared alone
Forth from the tents where he had loved to dwell.
He came to a place of stones, just as night fell,
And dreamt with his head pillowed upon stone.
Later he rolled a stone from off a well
In Lavan’s land, that harsh and uncouth ground
From which to wrest his living he was bound
By his desire for the beauty of Rachel.
And Leah’s bounty, though unsought, he found,
And strength was given him to gain the sway
Over Lavan, and win his rightful pay,
And raise a crop of sons whose souls were sound;
Only Rachel made bold to bring away
Things of no good use, and was doomed that day.
Now Yakov on his journey of return
Had crossed the ford of Yabbok, and had brought
To the homeward side his goods, so dearly bought,
Only to be drawn back by the concern
For some small vessels which he had forgot
And liked not to abandon. Thus detained
By night came Esav’s angel to contend
With him, to snare his soul in fear and doubt.
But Yakov, fighting back, found power to bend
That strength to bless him at the close of night,
So that the strong arm was not raised to smite
The weak and lame by day. And in time's end
Esav is bound to acknowledge Yakov’s right,
Raw force contained and harnessed to G-d’s light.
The image and quintessence of his sire,
Yosef, perhaps the purest spirit sown
Into this world so rankly overgrown,
Was destined to provoke the ignorant ire
Of those less highly favored, and be thrown
Into a pit with scorpion and snake
And a false-beauteous form that strove to break
His righteousness, his oneness with the One.
The vision of his father came to wake
And warn him as he wavered on the verge
Of yielding to soul’s numbness and the urge
That stirs by night. Yet all was for the sake
Of G-d’s will that from Egypt’s turbid surge
The victory of Israel would emerge.
Yosef had to spend two more years in prison
For asking succor of ungrateful man
Instead of just relying on G-d’s plan;
But when through Providence from thence he’d risen,
And his illustrious career began,
The lesson had sunk in. His soul had shed
Its prison-clothes of mortal hope and dread
And being joined to G-d was sovereign
Over the greatest of that realm whose bread,
Grown in a soil unwashed by heaven’s rain,
He gathered and converted from profane
To sacred use, when Yakov’s sons were led
To bow before the giver of the grain
And understand he had not dreamed in vain.
The anger that had counseled them to lift
Their hands against a brother, long ago,
Must have been chastened by their father’s woe,
Which they could not assuage. A further shift
Began when Yosef’s harshness made them know
The terror they’d inflicted, the black shade
Of prison walls across their future laid.
Then dimly in their minds began to glow
The thought of Heaven’s justice, which, though stayed,
Cannot be cheated. When Yehuda cast
Himself away for Binyamin, the past’s
Weight was lightened -- yet not quite defrayed
The charge of anger on their souls amassed,
Till the Ten Martyrs scoured it off at last.
[Note: Chapter 11 deals with the “wicked” -- those who are mastered by their animal souls. The Alter Rebbe alludes to Rabbi Ishmael’s statement that the most serious sins are only wiped out by suffering. Rabbi Ishmael (or perhaps a namesake) was one of the Ten Martyrs who accepted their execution by the Romans as retribution for the brothers’ transgression in selling Yosef. The present interpretation takes Yosef’s parting admonition to the brothers – “Do not quarrel on the way” -- as an indication that despite their repentance, atonement at that point was not complete. I should acknowledge the Chassidic interpretation which holds that the brothers acted from righteous though mistaken motives; I could not use this interpretation because of the subject matter of Chapter 11. (Or perhaps the verb "counseled" in line 1 is meant to suggest that they thought their motives were righteous,)]
Yakov knew Yosef’s soul and did not fear
Lest, after death had shuttered his old eyes,
That strength would shed its charitable disguise
And to the brothers show itself severe.
The brothers feared, for they could not surmise
How far it was from Yosef to resent
A turn of Providence, or its instrument --
Not in that heart could anger’s drumbeat rise.
But, pardoned, they began to guess G-d meant
To teach them that those urges which still breed
In hearts not wholly righteous, do not need
To issue in ill acts. This lesson sent
Down the long centuries, has been a seed
Of merit, and much wrong may yet impede.
Exiled from exile, on the holy mount
Till then unmarked, Moshe saw the
Yet not burn up, and turned aside to
And see what cause might for this
The flame sent forth a voice that
shook the daze
Of this world’s destiny -- called
him to call
The others forth to break the
And meet G-d there. And still that
With us: a sign of the perpetual
Ordeal in which our people still
And symbol, too, for some, of the
Contest in which the merely animal
Spirit is not consumed yet by the
Soul that relies on Him who
shields the poor.
Exiled from exile, on the holy mount
Till then unmarked, Moshe saw the bush blaze
Yet not burn up, and turned aside to gaze
And see what cause might for this thing account.
The flame sent forth a voice that shook the daze
Of this world’s destiny -- called him to call
The others forth to break the Egyptian thrall
And meet G-d there. And still that vision stays
With us: a sign of the perpetual
Ordeal in which our people still endure,
And symbol, too, for some, of the obscure
Contest in which the merely animal
Spirit is not consumed yet by the pure
Soul that relies on Him who shields the poor.
Unknown to Egypt, G-d made Moshe lord
Over Par'oh, that serpent of the Nile,
Caused Ahron's staff to swallow up the vile
Charms into which the conjurors had poured
Their craft. But Par'oh hardened in the trial
Of strength. Even as his stream was turned to blood,
As croaking frogs hopped up from river-mud
To throne, he still stood stubborn in denial.
Lice, beasts, murrain, boils, hail his heart withstood.
But for His people, spared though not yet free,
G-d spelled it out, that they might clearly see
How every thing the Egyptians count as good
Can turn to filth and horror suddenly,
That from this world's morass the soul may flee.
Through days and nights of horror, pain and dread --
Of locust clouds that blotted out the sun,
Of dawnless dark that every sense did stun,
Till the soundless midnight stroke that left its dead
In every house -- G-d set distinction
Between the Egyptian throngs and Israel:
Though from all ranks of Egypt many fell,
Of the true Israelites the plagues culled none,
But set them free, to serve G-d and to tell
This tale. And ever since, at soul's midnight,
Each one must ask (even if he has gained height
In the ranks of souls) what part the Egyptian spell
Still holds in him, and what he has to fight
To free his spirit and serve G-d aright.
Just for an hour at the sea they saw
So plain and clear, that each could point and say
"This is my G-d" -- that eminent display
Whose impress is the source of love and awe
And willingness to follow in G-d's way
Which, upon Sinai, all made manifest --
But in the Red Sea's rapture, who'd have guessed
How soon that mark could seem to fade away,
So that the people did not pass the test
Of thirst. And now, to each one on their own
Struggling to serve, the heart can seem a stone
With awe and love imprisoned unexpressed;
Yet still that understanding which was sown
Remains, to lift our service toward the ONE.
This world of difference and separation
That sunders seen from heard, and soul from soul,
And heaven from earth, ever since the serpent stole
That sweetness that was keynote of creation,
Ceased, at the word "Anokhi,"* to unroll.
The universe was all one eye-and-ear.
Nothing there was that did not love-and-fear
The Lord, Maker and Knower of the whole,
And promise to His statutes to adhere.
And though the shell has thickened and grown back
Around that core commitment, and most lack
Some fervor, still enough shines through to steer
Observance, save in those who've lost the track,
Whose hearts, to admit the light again, must crack.
The apparition of the Infinite
Gives way to laws and regulations made
For every circumstance, a table laid
Before the intellect, that it may fit
Sense to command, even as the elders laid
Eyes on the Almighty, on His throne of cause --
So might the exposition of the laws
Make us forget to love and be afraid
Were it not for the central point that draws
Heart and mind in again: it is the vow
To do, uttered while still the why and how
Were veiled. Before all structure and all flaws
That pregnant promise stood, and stands even now,
Heart with strength, mind with clearness to endow.
Of gold, silver and copper, and of wool
And linen, and acacia boards so fine
And skins of goat and tachash, was the shrine
G-d ordered to be built, giving in full
The holy specifications of design,
Dimensions of each object and each space
And quantities required, and where to place
The altars, where the candlestick must shine.
And all this was a vessel and a base
And sconce, whereon G-d's presence could alight,
That fills the earth, yet here shone forth most bright,
Where Israel's soul, still longing to retrace
Its path to the origin, was held in flight,
Stayed in the world, yet merged with infinite Light.
The confines of that G-d projected shrine
Aharon himself in world-guise dared not tread
But must be brought close to the fountainhead
Of wisdom, and wear clothes of such design
As fit the place, or pain of death must dread.
Ephod and breastplate, breeches, sash and cloak,
Tunic and turban, each to his limbs spoke
Its admonition; and a sky-blue thread
Upon his brow a golden plate did yoke
With legend that proclaimed him dedicate
To the One who earth and man did meditate
And draw from nothing; if He should revoke
The word that breathes them, they would vanish straight,
While of His Oneness they no whit abate.
KI TISSA/CHAPTER 21
Where nothing is save in its Origin
For forty days Moshe stood, burning free
From straits of need, that hearing he might see
Those word-things that were meant to gather in
The course of human life from history
To the recognizance of holy Will,
And Heaven's aid would take hold of human skill
To execute the intention faithfully.
But he was soon to know how soon can spill
From fragile cup the fiery plenitude,
Or how with our imagination's rude
Scrawlings the screen of Nothingness can fill.
From the height he was pulled valeward by the lewd
Idol-shout -- and more history ensued.
Descending from the high mount once again,
Moshe had brought the tablets of the Law
Upon the day, since held in highest awe,
That brings atonement. And now not in vain
He summoned them to gather and to draw
Upon their stores of various stuff and skill
To make a meeting-tent that would fulfill
G-d's plan, and show Creation without flaw,
Healed of its severance from the primal Will:
A form of many forms, yet merged in one,
All at Divine command, yet freely done,
And naught omitted, save those husks of ill
That throng the World of Separation,
Where prideful souls proclaim themselves alone.
We reckon now the silver and the gold,
The copper and the gemstones raised and spent
To rear and furnish forth the holy tent
Of meeting and of witness, framed to hold
The tokens of G-d innermost intent.
This counting is remembrance of our zeal
That helped the heavenly vision become real
In this dense world. And for this we were lent
A visible presence, shining to reveal
G-d's self, and our next step along G-d's way.
And though we see the Tent no more today,
Yet as in line with His commands we deal,
We give Him shape; and as we scan the array
Of Law, we sense His inmost will's pure ray.
Within the tent constructed to atone
There issued, mighty yet contained, a voice
Which through Moshe appointed sacrifice,
What must be offered, and what acts be done
Whenever Israel gathered to rejoice
And to give satisfaction to their King,
Or if mistake or wrong occurred, what thing
-- Bull, ram, goat, bird, meal -- as his error's price
Priest, prince or common man would have to bring.
Yet ought the scale of price and penalty
Not make us think that there is ultimately
Much to choose between ways of wavering,
Since any sin impairs our fealty
To the One who calls us from idolatry.
Upon the altar in the inner court
There burned a flame that might not be allowed,
Whatever the circumstance, to flicker out:
Not even impurity could stand athwart
The path of this command, nor exile’s cloud
Obscure that glow. We know that it is there,
Its heat is in our mitsvos and our prayer,
As G-d’s command stands beyond time and doubt
And as within our souls, deep down we bear
The knowledge of our G-d, a holy fire
Which no stress of this world can make expire,
So that at any moment we can tear
The fetters of our sins, and from the mire
Arise and cleave to our commanding Sire.
Upon the altar, and the appointed hour,
Aharon offered up each offering
He and the people had been told to bring,
And with Moshe called forth G-d’s holy power.
But two of Aharon’s sons, imagining
A service of their own, brought foreign fire,
Perhaps in overflow of their desire
For the Holy One – who, far from favoring
Their zeal’s initiative, sent forth a dire
Thread of flame that licked their lives away,
And Aharon dared not show his grief’s dismay
To keep the sanctuary’s joy entire.
– And we, whose offering is contrition, may
Offer it only at set times of day.
Which living things are pure, and which impure,
G-d had instructed Israel, and began
To tell the laws of purity in man,
Who is Creation's seal and signature
And yet its blemish, since his choices can
Sink him below the gnat, which cannot swerve
From doing Heaven's will, but still must serve,
Nor through bad words incur the leper's ban,
Nor in itself the tendency observe
To wicked thoughts and wishes, which annoy
Us who have not yet managed to destroy
Or numb within ourselves the evil nerve,
Yet know our natures suffer this alloy
That in our wrestlings Heaven may have joy.
This edifice G-d made, and made for good,
Was at one northern edge not finished quite,
And through that corner various death and blight
May enter, and uncleannesses intrude:
Some in our bodily natures claim their right,
The monthly fall of blood, release of seed,
While others come because we fail to heed
The guards of speech, or else some wordly sight
Draws eye and heart, till even where no misdeed
Has blotched the record, evil thoughts betray
Our prayers, and give the imnost soul dismay.
Yet with such thoughts we neither treat nor plead;
We fix our minds upon the illumined way
By which completion will arrive someday.
That Aharon might come into thedread
Place where G-d's silent Name aloud could sound
And then return into his earthly round,
A ritual pattern he was told to tread,
That soul from body might not come unbound
And be annulled in the eternal Source,
Toward which it ever strained throughout time's course,
And G-d's work in this world remain uncrowned.
How otherwise with souls round which the coarse
Rind of concealment and exile has grown,
So that to find the spark within heart's stone
We need contrition's hammer, anger's force,
Until, knocked free of what had weighed it down,
The soul ascends where it has always shone.
Formed of earth's common clay, yet we are bidden
Ourselves to set apart and sanctify,
That nature's seeming laws we may defy
And show the light that in the world is hidden.
G-d's Sabbath we must keep, to testify
That the world was and is but by His will,
And bid those voices in our hearts be still
Which would our mutual boundenness deny.
Nor may we rest content if we fulfill
Outright command, and yet do not refrain
Where we might but need not, and do not strain
For learning, or the ardor that should fill
Our souls, when His approval we would gain
Who says, "I am holy; be not you profane."
From accidents and blemishes that mar
Mortality, the priest must keep aloof:
He may not step beneath a dead man's roof
Save for close kindred; bodily defects bar
His service; nor may an imperfect hoof
Be offered in the sanctuary, whose rite
Is testament to the enduring Light
Which against all vicissitude is proof.
And we who now must dwell amid the blight
Of exile, and upon whom failings weigh
Which altar fires no longer purge away,
Must mourn, and yet must strive to keep in sight
That life in us which death cannot betray --
The soul, the eternal Sun's immortal ray.
Upon the holy mount it was decreed
That the land have its Sabbaths, even as we,
That on the seventh year it should go free,
Its owners neither harvest nor plant seed,
But share with all earth's creatures equally
What the land of its own accord shall give,
And G-d will bless them then, that they may live,
And dwell upon the land perpetually;
And in that year all debts we must forgive,
And after seven seven-years unbind
Even the ear-pierced slave; and fields long signed
Away revert to the lines that did receive
Their charter in the original light G-d shined
On a people then to all divisions blind.
While Israel shall learn so as to heed
G-d's laws (since only he who understands
Knows what to do to honor those commands),
The One will answer them in every need;
But should they think the world like random sands
Shifts merely, and accordingly grow slack,
Then what the One provides they soon will lack,
Their meager bread will crumble in their hands,
And they will flee their foes upon the track
By which their foes before them used to flee.
Then let them glad themselves in the unity
Of Him whose kindness never has turned back,
Whose will it is That causes all to be,
And they will keep His laws implicitly.
Assembled now the Tent of Meeting stood.
Now G-d commanded Ahron and Moshe
His treasured ones to count and to array
By tribes and families, under leaders good,
And every tribe was bidden to display
Its ensign, while as neighbors to the Tent
The Levites were disposed, for the management
Of holy things on every march and stay.
That sight can never fade, though time's event
Dispersed those things and scattered us as well,
And cramped G-d's service into the four-ell
Cell of halakha. Yet the monument
Of each hour's study is a citadel
Vast as the stars, which no siege can dispel.
When Judah's prince brought in the silver bowl,
The sprinkling-jug of silver, and the gold-
en spoon, and prize beasts of his field and fold,
He thought of David's line and history's goal --
Solomon's sea, and all earth's seas that rolled
Beneath the banner of Mashiach's sway.
Yissachar's heir came with a like array
Of gifts, yet different tales to him they told
Who through the hall of study sought his way --
The bowl and jug held Torah's bread and wine.
Each of twelve in his own peculiar sign
Brought objects which we name the same that day,
Evincing one devotion. So the Divine
Sun's ray through many colored panes will shine.
After the dedication of the tent
Moshe was taught to lesson Aharon
On how to light the lamps so that they shone
In toward the center, though their light was sent
Throughout the world. The Levites too were shown
As given to G-d, that they the priests might aid,
And to convey G-d's signals there were made
Two silver trumpets. How then rose this moan
For garlic, fish and leeks, which so dismayed
Moshe that he scarce knew how he could bear
A people so weighed down by this world where
Gross forces range and spirit seems betrayed?
Yet just in this, Creation's lowest layer,
From our mitsvot the brightest light can flare.
Sustained by desert manna and Torah,
Ten of the twelve sent out to scout the land
Where grew great fruits that need the laboring hand
To make them flourish, knew not what they saw,
Lacking desire. They did not understand
That not alone our learning, but our deed
Must work the germination of the seed
Of light and the redemption G-d has planned.
Thinking of their own souls, and not the need
Of Earth those souls were sent down to supply,
They failed to aim, and therefore saw awry,
And griefs, which on the Ninth of Av we read,
Flow from the tears they made the people cry.
But on G-d's blue thread we must keep our eye.
That harmony is molded of degrees
And intervals, not uniform but true,
This the conveyer of the Torah knew,
As between heaven and earth sprang grass and trees.
But there are always Korach and his crew,
Who cannot see another's elevation
But in equality seek vindication
And the world's variousness with strife imbue.
Could they but grasp how beneath all gradation,
From highest human soul to mutest stone,
G-d's power pulses like a hidden sun,
They would forget to grudge Moshe his station,
Gazing up through their teachers to the One,
Merged with Creation, every rank their own.
When Miriam's soul, that as a wandering well
Had slaked the people’s thirst through desert years,
Was taken up, then on her brothers' ears
Beat clamor as of those who would rebel.
Then from the leader's heart burst forth the arrears
Of anger, so that he did not relay
The Almighty's reassurance on that day,
And Ahron's doom became a source of tears,
And sentence was pronounced upon Moshe.
By such decrees our utmost faith is tried,
Even as the Heifer's statute has defied
Solomon's understanding; yet we may
Be sure that those most righteous souls reside
Beyond the angels, where G-d's highest counsels hide.
Even in this world, where husks appear to reign,
There is no thing that does not spring from light,
Though some be fallen beyond hope of flight --
Such was Bil'am, who tried for sordid gain
To turn 'gainst Israel the spirit's might
Until he saw G-d would not have them cursed.
Yet it was just from him the blessing burst,
And it was just through his unseeing sight
That the star of Mashiach shone forth first,
Whose ray will reach all dark things and severe
And make their luminous origin appear;
Until then Israel, come best or worst,
Sends up from meeting-place and home the clear
Voice of our learning, winged with love and fear
Five hundred fifteen prayers Moshe did pray
That G-d might let him come into the land
Toward which he long had led the wandering band,
Not charge him for the times they'd gone astray
And shown themselves rebellious to command.
But it was G-d's desire that he should bide
Interred there in the alien earth outside
With all the generation G-d had banned
To comfort them with the presence of their guide
Until the resurrection. Such indeed
Is the compassion which we exiles need
To have on our own souls and on G-d's bride,
The congregation, that our word and deed
For their deliverance (O soon!) may plead.
When they would come to their inheritance,
* SHOFTIM/CHAPTER 48 * * KI TAVO/CHAPTER 50 * * *
KI TAVO/CHAPTER 50