“This poem will be my witness,” says God to Moshe (Deut. 31:19). Here, God refers to a poem predicting future events: Israelites stray from God, find devastation, and return to a nurturing God.
In what sense can a poem be a witness?
Clearly, not in the way a person who experiences an event can be a witness. A poem is not a person, and not the subject of an experience.
And clearly not in the way that a ceremony or document is confirmation of an event. This poem offers a vision of the future, not a report on the past.
The great medieval Torah commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508, Portugal) described three facets of the power of a poem.
ONE: Poems are easy to memorize. A poem that employs a traditional metric style is easily set to music. Words received on the wings of melody become part of the visceral experience of recalling a tune.
TWO: A poem can alter its readers’ way of thinking. Poems often speak in metaphor. (For example: As an eagle hovers over its young, so did God lead Israel (Deut, 32:11)). Like an analogy, a metaphor may invite us to see commonalities between unrelated things. Once we receive the metaphor, we will never see either thing in quite the same way again.
THREE: Poetry reaches beyond rational thinking, involving many levels of a listener’s psyche. Poetic metaphors often use figurative language, words obviously not meant to be taken literally. Non-literal language stimulates the imagination.
A poem embeds itself in the human psyche like a catchy jingle. It sings a gradually evolving message. It’s a witness to the openness of the future, the growth of knowledge, the spirituality of imagination. A witness to the promise that, as we turn and re-turn our attention, God׳s presence will manifest in ever-evolving ways.
Do you have a favourite poem that has been a trusty witness? One that has helped you to return?
More reflections on Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Deut. 29:9-21:0) HERE.