Modeh Ani


Soul sits in the last (metaphorical) row
studying Torah
in the great Yeshivah of Olam Haba.
Body sleeps dreamlessly
on a Jerusalem mountain
waiting endlessly 
for a moment,
a second,
perhaps myriads of millenia, 
are passing,
but the dead
don't wear watches.
In heaven everyone is a no-body
in a world of non-sense.


I asked Maimonides: 
"If I have earned heaven,
found release from prison,
why must I return to body, 
for resurrection?"
to speak about resurrection
(was it still a sore point for him?)
he said:
"Study the white fire text of 
‘While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat,
and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.'
The rest is commentary,
go learn."


I remembered a child raking leaves
their color and crackle
their smell when I rolled in the pile
and the steam of the hot chocolate
my mother brought me
rising in the autumn air.

And winter,
skating on a day so cold
the rhythm of the blades 
cutting through the ice
froze like sound icicles.

A hot summer day,
watching the Dodgers,
Jackie and Gil,
Peewee and the Duke, 
play the enemy Giants
to the bass roar of the crowd,
the shout of "Play Ball"
and the sweet taste of love 
in the salted peanuts.

And an April day,
when winds began to gentle,
rains to soften, 
and love began to root
in shy words
between two bodies.

I understood
metaphor alone
was not enough,
white fire alone
was not enough,
Heaven alone
was not enough.

I longed
to hear a driven leaf,
and see a red sunset,
to taste salt love,
smell fresh bread,
and touch 
the incarnation
of a particular flesh.

And knew I would weep
from the joy of desire
if I were with body,
and wanted body back 
so I could cry.


In Heaven
the rest is commentary.
Creation's white fire
is to knead dark earth
and breathe this poem,
black fire on white fire
resurrected together
as one.

A promise,
to a dust sleeper.

Excursus: "Modeh Ani"

Maimonides' position concerning Olam Haba (the World to Come) is that it is a completely incorporeal experience and, therefore, all issues of time and space, all sensory perceptions are necessarily absent. It is a realm of existence of pure intellect alone, in which the unfettered soul basks in the joy of the intellectual perception of divine reality. However, when it comes to detailing the nature of Resurrection, he is less clear: indeed, he was to prove so unclear that charges of heresy were leveled against him. This necessitated his issuing a monograph defending himself and proclaiming his unequivocal acceptance of the principle of physical resurrection of the body. Nevertheless, one question is not addressed. If death is followed by the reality of Olam Haba, if this reality is so far superior to a this worldly physical life, why should the soul be made to return once again to its physical existence? Indeed, such a "reward" would seem to be a cruel joke on the soul which has finally found its freedom from the prison of the physical body.

One of the major teachings of Hasidism-indeed, one that drew extreme Mitnagdic anger-was that of avodah be-gashmiyut, that the service of God could be found in the mundane; that proper intention and direction toward Heaven could hallow the everyday. The acts of eating and sleeping, or the experience of joy at a sunset-nothing was outside the parameters of religious service. Indeed, this teaching has become so absorbed into Jewish religious consciousness that it is hard to understand what the early opponents of Hasidism were so furious about. While Maimonides lived long before this debate, his general philosophy would seem to fall within the Mitnagdic camp, although his remarks in the concluding chapters of The Guide for the Perplexed could certainly be construed as supporting this idea. What is clear is that he led the argument (indeed, won the day), in claiming that Torah's statements about God are to be taken as metaphors. Thus, one who lacks an appreciation of this world will fail to understand the nature of the metaphor, and the theological concept to which it alludes.

In his introduction to his commentary on Torah, Ramban quotes the mystical tradition that the primordial, root Torah is a black fire written on white fire. Whatever, the kabbalistic meaning of this tradition, it certainly expresses the idea that the Torah is a dynamic reality, and that in its dynamism there are levels superimposed on one another. In fact, the image of white fire, of white text, suggests that there is a vision beyond vision. 

The Izhbitzer Rebbe teaches that God created a world but the world needed a map. That map is Torah. We might add that a map of the world for a nefesh hayyah, a poetic creature, must necessarily be one of poetry. And, indeed, when the Torah, in its final mitzvah enjoins the writing of a Torah-it finally names itself as the Sefer ha-Shirah: the book of poetry (Deut. 31:19). Perhaps it is the yearning for this world in the long sleep called death, a "rest" that is commentary, which allows soul to penetrate the white fire of Torah. 

In some small way, this may be the reason for our thanks each and every morning on waking from sleep for the restoration of our soul. Perhaps the meaning of sleep and its dreamwork is to teach us the value of the world in which we live, and to learn to express our gratitude to God for it.

"While the earth remains...": Gen. 8:22.
"But an incarnation is in particular flesh...": From "Freedom, New Hampshire" by Galway Kinnell. 

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