Friday, January 30, 2009

Poetic Interpretation III

A third brief installment of our analysis of "The Door":

His boss on the other hand patently unfazed
For they all knew it was a mistake
And he'd one day return to join them.

The prisoner, having found freedom, reconnects not only with his love interest but also with his employer (how he does the latter is not specified - by telephone perhaps?) In contradistinction to the confused reaction of the girl, the boss is "patently unfazed". What exactly does it mean to be patently unfazed?

I would suggest the following explanation: The boss shows no sign of surprise or bewilderment in his welcome to the former inmate who was his former employee. But he is "patently unfazed" by the prisoner's reappearance. "Patently" is typically associated with "false", as in the common phrase "patently false", and immediately reminds us of that expression. In other words, the boss projects an air of being unfazed, but it is more about being politically correct and cordial than an indication of his true thoughts, which may be slightly suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the inmate's "early release".

In the verse "for they all knew it was a mistake and he'd one day return to join them" we hear echoes of free indirect style again. We can imagine the boss making just such a statement of confidence in his former employee. "They all knew it was a mistake" is somewhat ambiguous, probably purposely so; either the conviction of the criminal was itself a mistake and the prisoner was innocent, so his eventual acquittal was anticipated, or the crime was committed by mistake, so leniency in sentencing was to be expected.

So he rested
Satisfaction bathing him like the cool massage
Of a million sprinkler kisses
Consoling victims of summer sun's piracy.

The metaphor of the spray of a sprinkler being like a massage of millions of wet kisses conjures up images of relief from the heat on a brutal summer afternoon. "Consoling victims of summer sun's piracy" - the summer sun is a pirate and we are victims in the sense that the sun's heat robs us of our hydration and energy, leaving us worn down and exhausted. A spray of cool water consoles us on that the loss by refreshing us once again.

Alas, he should have realized
That the coveted award of solace
Was not to be so easily conferred;
For then the nauseating ebb and flow
Of a shrill familiar battle cry descended
Desecrating his moment with self-righteous blasphemy;

What is the escaped convict's greatest fear? What would disrupt his newfound sense of comfort most jarringly? Of course, the police arriving in hot pursuit!

The "nauseating ebb and flow" of the siren, the "shrill familiar battle cry" - which is familiar because, as a prisoner, he no doubt heard it before when he was apprehended the first time, and also because everyone recognizes that sound when they hear it - "descends upon him"; usually a battle cry is described as ascending, but here it is descending because the police are swooping down to capture him, so to speak.

His moment of freedom was a holy, sanctified entity to him, which the police officers have now come to desecrate by recapturing him. They have the official law on their side and are thus "self-righteous" in their view of him as a deviant, but relative to the perspective of the escapee their act is one of "blasphemy".

Cheap gyrating lights of a hellish disco invading paradise
Suffocated him with their insistence.

Along the lines of the interpretation we've been advancing, we can now see that the gyrating lights are those of the police cars. From the standpoint of the escaped prisoner they are products of a hell that have arrived to ruin his paradise. In his mind they are similar to the cheap artificial lights used in a disco (a symbol of superficiality) which pale by comparison to the genuine beauty he finds in his current idyllic state. The lights on the police car are also red, which is alluded to in the "hellish" metaphor.

The escapee is "suffocated" by the sights and sounds of approaching police - in other words, he inward sense of satisfaction is destroyed as he is overwhelmed by the external conditions that are literally closing in on him like hands around the throat of one being suffocated. He is compelled to respond for the sake of survival, like a person who is literally suffocated and thereby forced to do whatever necessary to breathe freely. Allusion to the experience of suffocation elicits an almost visceral reaction from the reader, as the prospect of drowning of suffocating is very frightening and would be avoided by us at nearly any cost (think waterboarding).

So he runs....

To be continued next week.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetic Interpretation II

Let us continue our analysis of "The Door" to further exemplify the poetic mode of expression and its interpretation. The next lines read:

And back to his very own Waldorf Astorian hovel
Perched gloriously amidst beer cans and metal detectors.

We can gather from these verses that the prisoner has escaped to a place that is "his very own". But the phraseology employed is bizarre and counterintuitive. "Waldorf Astorian hovel" seems like a contradiction in terms, being that the Waldorf Astoria is one of the premiere luxury hotels in the world. Similarly, being amidst "beer cans and metal detectors" would seem incommensurate with "perched gloriously", which carries an air of grandeur.

This case illustrates how poetry can purposely invoke inconsistency and contradiction in order to convey a deeper message. The prisoner returns to a place which would be objectively deemed a hovel. But to him, a newly escaped inmate, it is the Waldorf Astoria. His neighborhood might be a bad one, with beer cans strewn about and metal detectors positioned at the front of every building. But to him it is a gloriously perched palace of the first order.

Surprised arms of the girl of his dreams greeted him
Hovering about him so as not to break him
Tantalizing him with their almost warmth
Her vision still confounded by a misty bewilderment
- Because, after all, what was he doing there?

The girl wants to embrace him warmly but hesitates. She is confused by the whole situation and doesn't know what to make of it. This leads her to cautiously restrain her emotion, to his mild chagrin. Her vision is blocked by a "misty bewilderment", i.e., she is crying, probably out of joy, but is also profoundly unsure of what is happening.

The next line "because, after all, what was he doing there" is an instance of what James Wood calls "free indirect style" (I don't think he invented the terminology, but I learned it from his book). For a moment we hear what the girl herself is actually thinking, in her own words, but without being informed as such. The abrupt change in poetic style leads us intuitively to the conclusion that we are listening to her inner response to the circumstances unfolding around her.

If the poet had written, "she thinks to herself" or "she says 'what are you doing here'" then the surreal quality of the poem would have been replaced with the formality of traditional narrative which describes phenomena rather than allowing us to experience them. The use of free indirect style offers us a glimpse into the mind and heart of one of the characters in the poem without jolting the reader out of an image-based, purely poetic mode of reflection.

Poetry and the Point of Entry

In his comment on the previous post, Rabbi Sacks expressed an inability to identify the 'point of entry' into poetry of the kind presented there.

I must confess that for many years I had an aversion to this kind of poetry and that it took a decent amount of work for me to develop the skills necessary to appreciate it. A book that taps into some of the aspects of literature relevant to this process is "How Fiction Works" by James Wood, which I highly recommend for this purpose.

In my opinion, the key to fathoming poetry like "The Door" is proceeding slowly and exploring each unusual image or phrase independently. We are accustomed to reading on a more abstract level where terms, statements and the relationships among them register more distinctly in our minds. Poetry requires a different level of reflection to be comprehended.

Let us take an example to illustrate this point. The opening lines of "The Door" are:

The door was ajar
Gleam of freedom's seductive smile
Wrapped like tiny fingers around its edge

Now, read haphazardly, this is just a bunch of disjointed ramblings. But considered more critically, a more specific picture begins to emerge. A door is open, and presents the opportunity for freedom to someone inside a room, perhaps a prisoner.

The poem states that the gleam of freedom's smile is wrapped around the edge of the door. Picture an inmate who is stuck in a prison cell to which the door was unwittingly left open. How would he first notice the presence of potential for an escape? He could infer it from the fact that light - a 'gleam' - was making its way around the door where it would normally be blocked out. This light, to him, as it bends around the edge of the door, is like an invitation from freedom itself, beckoning him to pursue it (hence it is a 'seductive smile').

Another case in point can be observed in the next passage:

So he left,
Carried on the feet of a first night ballerina
Gracefully buckling under adrenaline's weight
Tiptoeing around the ignorant snores
Of a poorly paid watchman

The prisoner makes his escape - but what is the metaphor of the 'first night ballerina'?

Imagine a ballerina on the night of her debut performance. She appears to move gracefully, and consciously wills herself to do so, but the rush of adrenaline makes her shake inside; she is terribly nervous and jittery despite the apparent effortlessness of her dance. The prisoner, then, is carefully but very anxiously moving out of his cell, perhaps outwardly graceful but inwardly frightened.

He "tiptoes around ignorant snores" meaning that he doesn't wish to wake the blissfully unaware guard who is sleeping on the job and would apprehend him were he to notice. To trample on his snores would be to rouse him from his slumber. The description "poorly paid watchman" implies that the watchman is negligent precisely because he is not well compensated and is therefore lacking in vigilance or enthusiasm for his job, hence the sleeping.

(Incidentally, if anyone would like to propose an alternative interpretation, I would love to hear it, but this is my conception of the piece.)

What we discover then is one of the fundamental principles of poetry - it communicates as much content as possible through the medium of imagery and colorfully loaded metaphoric words and phrases, while avoiding abstract prose-type description as much as possible.

Poetry is designed to create a rich and compelling image from which a message or theme becomes apparent to the thoughtful reader, as opposed to simply articulating that theme in a direct, detached or dictatorial manner. This makes it an especially potent and memorable form of expression once one is able to access the deeper levels of its meaning.

In upcoming posts, I plan to elaborate on my commentary to The Door; in the course of the discussion I hope to introduce some of the ideas presented in the aforementioned book by James Wood and in a fascinating essay by Isaiah Berlin (The Naivete of Verdi) that are relevant to this study.

Please feel free to chime in with your own thoughts, responses and reactions along the way!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An Exercise in Poetic Analysis

In order to read and interpret the Written Torah skillfully, one must have a sense of appreciation for nuance in literature in general. I enjoyed the imagery and flow of the following anonymously composed poem, "The Door", so I thought I would share it with the readership to elicit their reactions and responses. It can serve as a nice exercise in the analysis of literature in terms of both form and substance. Please consider the following questions:

1) What descriptive elements, metaphors, etc., of the poem, if any, strike you as especially compelling? What aspects do you find weaker?

2) What stylistic features of the poem stand out? Are any of the turns of phrase particularly smooth? Are any of the expressions too cumbersome? Is the style even throughout, or does it change at certain points? What do you think the motive of the author is in shaping the poem the way it is?

3) Overall, what would you say is the essential message of the work? What is it about the poem that determined your impression of its purpose?

I will chime in with my own musings later...For now, here is the poem:


The door was ajar

Gleam of freedom’s seductive smile

Wrapped like tiny fingers around its edge;

So he left,

Carried on the feet of a first night ballerina

Gracefully buckling under adrenaline’s weight;

Tiptoeing around the ignorant snores

Of a poorly paid watchman

And back to his very own Waldorf Astorian hovel

Perched gloriously amidst beer cans and metal detectors.

The surprised arms of the girl of his dreams greeted him

Hovering about him so as not to break him

Tantalizing him with their almost warmth,

Her vision still confounded by a misty bewilderment

-Because, after all, what was he doing there?

His boss on the other hand patently unfazed

For they all knew it was a mistake

And he’d one day return to join them.

So he rested,

Satisfaction bathing him like the cool massage

Of a million sprinkler kisses

Consoling victims of summer sun’s piracy.

Alas, he should have realized

That the coveted award of solace

Was not to be so easily conferred;

For then the nauseating ebb and flow

Of a shrill familiar battle cry descended,

Desecrating his moment with self-righteous blasphemy;

Cheap gyrating lights of a hellish disco invading paradise

Suffocated him with their insistence.

So he ran,

Ruthlessly dragging iron limb by iron limb

Like parents of a stubborn little child who just won’t move;

Olympic muscles straining as if to race past themselves,

A silent prayer tossed heavenward

Beseeching Father Time for some small respite -

But his steely sleek competitor was unimpressed,

And with the cockiness of an amateur brush

Clumsily plumbed the palette of his misery;

A bright crimson mosaic now taking shape

On the crumbling asphalt canvas,

Concrete soaking in every hue of aspiration,

Life wriggling to wrest itself from the grasp

Of desperation decomposed.

It was all because of the door

Its accidental sliver of sunlight and shadow

Coaxing him with destiny’s charm;

It was all because of the door

Waving motionlessly, impossible to let alone

Like a sore you can’t help irritating just to feel the pain

Or an eclipse you stare at stupidly against the teacher's orders;

It was all because of the door

Rattling off promises of godforsaken blessing

Like a used car salesman who knows the truth;

It was all because of the door

Rusty gate leading to a garden of regrets

Portal to what could have been;

It was all because of the door

Extravagant prelude to a premature conclusion

Memorable introduction to a forgotten litany;

It was all because of the door,

Leading an ambitious actor

Decked out in raiment of oblivious glamour

To his final curtain call;

Yes, it was all because of the door -

So he shut it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Presidential Oath Fiasco

I realize that this topic is not especially relevant to the theme of this blog, but....

I must confess that ever since Chief Justice John Roberts and President Obama erred in their respective recitations of the Presidential Oath of Office on Tuesday, I have been ruminating about the possible legal implications of their mistake. Granted, I am far from a scholar of Constitutional Law, but the occurrence seemed like a case right out of the annals of halakhic literature and, in that spirit, I thought about it in quasi-halakhic terms.

The oath of office is a specific formula established by the Constitution. So one might argue that it is only through absolute fidelity to the language expressed in the Constitution that one fulfills the requirement of the oath. On the other hand, the oath has an underlying semantic meaning which, even if the words are slightly jumbled, might still be preserved, as I believe it was on Tuesday.

So the debate would revolve around whether the Constitution demands the recitation of the specific wording of the vow as a distinct "ritual" action on the part of the President, or whether the Constitution simply requires that a statement be made that is the conceptual equivalent in meaning to the one it records - i.e., the oath itself is to be the manifestation of a certain set of ideas or intentions which might find equally clear expression in other words.

As it turns out, Constitutional lawyers were sufficiently concerned about this "safeq" ("doubt") that they recommended Obama be sworn in a second time. Last night, Chief Justice John Roberts re-administered the Oath of Office to the President in order to dispel any lingering legal doubts about the acceptability of the botched version he administered previously.

This is reminiscent of the dispute in Masekhet Berakhot (40B) regarding blessings on food. Rabbi Yose maintains that any deviation from the text established by the Hakhamim is invalid. Rabbi Meir argues that as long as what is said reflects the meaning embodied by the Rabbinic formula, the blessing remains valid.

The argument would hinge on whether blessings are actions or expressions of thought. One possibility is that the Rabbis established their formulae as technical procedures designed to stimulate reflection. This view is endorsed by Rabbi Yose who holds that the official wording of the blessings is inviolate.

The alternative is that the Rabbis formalized the blessings in order to best capture some intended meaning which could, theoretically, be expressed in other words as well. This is the view of Rabbi Meir who holds that if a person's blessing is identical in substance to the official text it is valid even though his wording deviates from the established form. While he too agrees that the formulations of the Hakhamim are to be preferred, an alternative version of a blessing that manages to express the same idea as the original would nonetheless satisfy one's halakhic obligation to bless.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New Posts on Resheet Daat

I am proud to announce that my Blog on the works of the Rambam, Resheet Daat, has been updated several times in recent weeks, with more to come...I encourage you to explore the site, but keep in mind that the posts in the Introduction to Rambam series are meant to be read sequentially and may be misunderstood if perused out-of-order.

New material on Parashat Hashavua will be appearing here very soon as well, so keep checking back for updates to the blog.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Structure of Shaharit

A couple of months ago I held a series of classes during which the meaning and structure of the morning service (Shaharit) was explored. To help participants follow the discussion, I provided the following explanatory outline of the tefillah. It is still a work-in-progress but I thought it might be of interest to some of the readers of this blog. Bear in mind that it is based upon the Sephardic format of prayer which is slightly different from the Ashkenazic in minor respects.

Structure of the Morning Service (Shaharit)

General Theme: Prayer is called Tefillah in Hebrew, which means judgment. Our objective in Tefillah is to place our existence in its proper context. We are dependent upon Hashem for our resources and we are free of the delusion that our own agendas and visions for this world should dominate it. We recognize that our ultimate goal should be understanding the purpose for which we were created and working to fulfill that rather than superimposing our own artificial plan.

The structure of the morning service, Shaharit, is organized around this principle. It progresses from the most basic awareness of G-d (morning blessings) to the most intense (Amidah or Shemoneh Esreh). It is useful to think of this progression by drawing a comparison to a physical workout which begins with simpler “warm up” routines and culminates in vigorous exercise. Similarly, our souls must be warmed up gently before reaching the heights of spiritual focus each day.

The concluding components of Shaharit, which serve as a sort of “cool down”, are not yet included in this presentation but will be added in the future.


1. Birkhot Hashahar – Morning Blessings

Purpose: Attuning us to the blessings we take for granted on a daily basis, including the function of our senses, our bodies and our minds. This prepares us for the broader vision of Hashem’s graciousness that is articulated in Pesukei Dezimra

Content: Blessings thanking G-d for sight, the ability to walk, giving us the Torah, etc. Concludes with Kaddish, prayer for the sanctification of Hashem’s name in the world, which reminds us of the ultimate purpose of all mitsvot and serves (as usual) as a transition to the next segment of the prayer service.

2. Pesukei Dezimra – Verses of Praise

Purpose: Awakening in us a recognition of how G-d’s goodness is not only present in our lives, it permeates all of creation – the stars and planets, animals and vegetation, humans and angels.


A. Introductory sections from the Book of Chronicles and Tehillim (Psalms) which remind us that the purpose of our national existence as the Jewish people, as well as our individual existence as human beings and Jews, is to spread knowledge and awareness of Hashem in the world. This section is expanded on Shabbat and Holidays with additional Psalms that reflect specific themes of those days.

B. An opening blessing, Baruch Sheamar, which acknowledges our inherent limitations in understanding and praising G-d and our reliance on the divinely inspired texts of Tehillim (Psalms) for this purpose.

C. Paragraphs taken primarily from the Book of Tehillim that express the kindness and goodness of Hashem throughout creation. Highlights include the famous “Ashre” psalm and the final chapter of Tehillim, which describes praising Hashem with instruments of various kinds. Two additional Psalms are included and one is excluded from this section on Shabbat and Holidays.

D. A closing blessing, Yishtabach, reminds us that the task of articulating G-d’s greatness can never really be “concluded” – the process is infinite. On Shabbat and holidays, this blessing is preceded by the Nishmat Kol Hay prayer, which expands upon the theme of our inability to fully fathom and/or express Hashem’s wisdom and graciousness with our prayers.


1. Shema and Its Blessings

Purpose: Now that we have laid the groundwork of thankfulness and gratitude to Hashem, we reflect upon our obligations and duties to our beneficent Creator. Recognizing Hashem as the King of the Universe and also the One who directs and guides our intellectual and moral development as human beings, providing us with instructions as to the wisest and most fulfilling lifestyle.


A. Opens with Kaddish and Barechu (the call to prayer), signifying the beginning of a new segment of prayer in which the community, not just the individual, participates.

B. Two Preliminary blessings that set the stage for the declaration “Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One”. The first blessing details G-d’s kingship over the Universe or the “macrocosm” – stars, planets, angels, etc. Everything we observe in the world is under the direction of His laws. In other words, “Hashem is One” – He is the single, transcendent Cause of all that exists. The second blessing acknowledges that Hashem is the guide of our development, He educates us with Torah and Mitsvot and brings us ever closer to the ideal of living in complete harmony with the rest of Creation – i.e., following Hashem’s plan for us just as the rest of the Universe abides by His plan. In other words, He is “Our G-d”.

C. The three paragraphs of the Shema. The first opens with the famous line “Hear Oh Israel Hashem is Our God Hashem is One”, the summary of the thrust of the two preliminary blessings. The first paragraph describes our obligation to love Hashem, study His Torah at every opportunity, and be constantly mindful of its importance in our lives through the wearing of Tefillin and the hanging of mezuzot.

The second paragraph speaks of the service of Hashem, referring to prayer as well as the performance of all of the commandments. This paragraph describes the ideal of a Jewish community living perfectly in line with its objective.

The third paragraph contains the Mitsvah of wearing tsitsit, or fringes. The theme of the paragraph is not to be drawn after the allure of material wealth or physical pleasure. It concludes with a verse in which the Exodus from Egypt is recalled. This is part and parcel of the acceptance of G-d’s kingship, since to truly accept His kingship means to reject the kingship of man represented by the Pharaoh and his materialistic and tyrannical society.

3. One blessing that follows the Shema and expands upon the theme of the Exodus from Egypt. We do not believe human beings have the ability to impose their own imaginary purpose on creation. Everyone is ultimately held accountable for his or her fidelity to Hashem’s plan alone. The Exodus was the method by which Hashem redeemed us from our belief in the saving power of human government.

2. Amidah or “Shemoneh Esreh” – The Ultimate Tefillah Experience

Purpose: To reflect upon our position as individuals and community members in G-d’s grand design. This requires us to focus on Hashem as the source and director of all existence, including our own. Then we must ‘reframe’ our practical pursuits – our pursuit of knowledge, personal development, health, material prosperity, social justice, etc. - as instrumental to fulfilling the purpose Hashem has determined rather than merely being steps toward the realization of our own agendas. Finally, we must acknowledge that the resources we have acquired and the development we have attained are functions of Hashem’s overarching plan steadily moving toward its full expression.


1. The First Three Blessings acknowledge that Hashem’s design manifests itself in the sustenance and management of human society, the material/biological world, and the metaphysical realm.

2. The middle blessings (on the weekday 13, on Shabbat only one) place our pursuit of satisfaction and fulfillment (individually and communally) in the context of Hashem’s plan.

3. The final three blessings express gratitude for what we have already attained and acknowledge that these accomplishments are functions of Divine Providence directed toward helping us to act as agents of G-d in perfecting ourselves and our world.

New Posts on Resheet Daat

The in-depth study of the Rambam's Introduction to Mishneh Torah continues....

The Organization of the Mishneh Torah

The Concept of Rabbinic "Mitsvot"

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Reviewing Older (Yet Timely) Posts

As I prepare to post some new material on this week's parasha, I thought it fitting to present some older pieces that address themes in the recent Parashiyot Hashavua:

Halakhic Debate - Unity in Diversity

What Message Did Yosef Send His Father?

Spinoza on the Parasha

Yaaqov's Funeral Procession