Author’s note: If you would like to read my Yom Kippur Sermon, Called Out, you can find it here.
Our lives have two parts. There is the science part of us. That is the side that sees the world just as it is and nothing more. It’s the side of us that tries to know as much as possible about the world. It’s the part of us that wants to acquire data and put it in our personal database. It’s the part of us that grows through learning. It’s the part of us that can make us wise.
Then there is the other part of us, the poetic part. The part of us that intuits more than it thinks. It’s the side of us that doesn’t just know when something is beautiful, but feels it inside ourselves. It’s the part of us that wants to be in a relationship, to be loved and to love, to be held and to hold, to feel and to be felt. It’s the part that values being known over knowing.
The philosopher David Hume was the first to point out the chasm between the two parts of our spirit. He said that just because you can describe something as being, does not mean that you can justify its existence or pursue its ends. Nothing happens without moving from one side of ourselves to the other. From knowing about the world to wanting to live in it. From knowing what justice is and wanting to pursue it.
Science can tell us how the world works, why the flower opens to the sun, why the bird sings in the morning. Philosophy can tell us that justice is demanded, and a happy life is worthy of our pursuit. But neither science nor philosophy can lift our hearts when we hear the birds sing, nor cry in joy when justice is finally found. For that you have to jump the chasm in your soul from science to poetry and from what is to what could be.
The Torah knows both sides of the human spirit. The Torah is a book of laws, hundreds and hundreds of them. There are myriads of mitzvot guiding our speech and our appetites, regulating business and governance, teaching us what is important to know about the world in which we live. Yet the Torah also speaks to the poetic spirit with song and story. It inspires us to be fully alive and feel the universe pulsating through us. Perhaps this is one of the Torah’s great gifts, to capture the entire human spirit and send us forth into the world feeling as whole as it dreams for us to be. So it is not surprising to me that when the Torah comes to its mighty conclusion, it is not with an essay on contemplating the world, but a poem that seeks to unify it.
The last major parasha of the Torah is called Hazeinu, it’s Moses’ last words to the people. It is a poem, a song, meant to be memorized and taken into our hearts and placed upon our lips. (Deut. 31:19). Moses ends the Torah with a poem because the study of the world is just not enough. We have to live in that world, strive in that world, and thrive in that world. Perhaps then, Moses is absolutely right to end the Torah with a poem. Everything else has been said. The laws have all been given and they have been taught. But to put it deep into our hearts is the final task and no data, no facts, no piece of knowledge can do that. Only the heart can.
The rabbis counted off ten songs in the Bible, each occurring at key moments in the life of the people. There was the singing of the Israelites when they left Egypt (Isaiah 30:29), the Song of the Red Sea (Ex. 15), the Song at the Well in the Desert (Num. 21). Moses’ song at the end of his life (Deut 32). Joshua sang a song of victory (Josh. 10:12-13). Deborah sang a similar song. (Jud. 5), Hannah sang out to God praying for a child. (1 Sam. 2) David sang a song to God after being saved from his enemies. (2 Sam. 22). Then there is the Song of Songs, written by Solomon.
Each of these first nine poems/songs are clear in the Bible. Every one of them occurring at key moments that drive the narrative into the heart of the reader. Each poem takes history and makes it memory. Takes facts and turn them into values. Each poem jumps the chasm inside the human spirit from the events of the world to their meaning. This is the best of religion. To make prose into poetry and to turn brutish existence into meaningful song.
The final poem, the tenth, the rabbis believe is still being written. It is the poem or song of the Messiah. (Tanchuma Beshalach 1:10) Even though the ink and parchment have come to the end, the conversation is never over. The most important questions are never fully answered. Every generation takes up writing its own poetry using the memory of the past to craft the future.
As the Torah ends and the new year begins, let us all commit to writing one more verse and let us sing one more song. It is the poem of the future, where the last of the last is never the last. Let us make a world that is not only prose, but poetry as well.