When I was young I dreamt of being a famous poet and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and maybe becoming Poet Laureate of the United States. Or have Paul Simon discover one of my poems and turn it into a song. Or James Taylor. I wasn’t picky.
I seldom think about writing poetry anymore, but every once in a while I’m brought up short by a poem that reminds me of the incredible power of verse.
This week, it was Moses’ poem that got to me. It begins:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass. (Deuteronomy 32:1-2)
Robert Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” In Moses’ case, the emotion and thought found each other, and resulted in words that resonated deeply for me.
I wanted to stand up and say to Moses, “Me too! I want my words to move people, to have meaning beyond mere letters and sounds, to drench the world with my truth. I want my words to soar into the sky and sink into the sea, and delve deep into the hearts of all who will listen.”
For Moses this poem was a last-ditch effort. He’d been talking in prose for hours, knew he was about to die, and wanted to make sure the people were getting the message.
I am hopeful that I still have plenty of time ahead of me to write and think. But this week, just in case I get cocky and forget that I’m not going to live forever, I downloaded an app onto my phone called We Croak, which sends me random messages throughout the day reminding me that I’m going to die. It’s odd, but also oddly comforting, a reminder that today I’m still alive, still able to make a difference in the world.
This need to remind us of our mortality is something that my Jewish tradition understands perfectly. That is why, just five days after Yom Kippur, the day during which we rehearse for our deaths, we celebrate Sukkot.
Sukkot may indeed be called “the time of our rejoicing,” but the flimsy succah that we build is meant to remind us of the fleeting nature of life. It doesn’t protect us; it’s designed to let the elements in and is meant to be torn down almost as soon as it’s built.
And to drive the point home even more firmly, we read Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, a book that is full of reminders of impermanence. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun,” the speaker says, “and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
But in one of the most famous phrases from the Bible, it also tells us that “a season is set for every thing, a time for every experience under heaven.” Death and life. While we still live, may we continue to fully experience all that life offers, especially joy and love. And poetry.