This year was an uncanny Passover. Plagues? We know from plagues: we’re in the middle of a pandemic. And as we thought about the Jews’ vast migration, our leaving Egypt, we all were staying home, Zooming from the Seder table with our absent families.
What is it to stay? What is it to leave? Jews have always thought about this. What is it to gather? What is it to have a home? To be safe? How do we connect with distant family and community?
The day of the first night of Passover, I read a thoughtful and moving essay in the Toronto Star by Rabbi Yael Splansky of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple exploring all of this. She cited Exodus 12:22: “And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning.”
This edict from Exodus is strangely apt for our present COVID-19 times, though there is no biblical mention of Netflix, masks or curb-side pickup. Rabbi Splansky ended her column with some very timely additions to Passover’s one-hit wonder song, Dayenu. Dayenu is a prayer of gratitude. A series of “It would have been enough if…” detailing all that God did for the Jews in Egypt. She amends the list for the present moment to include some of the things that we should currently recognize with gratitude: medical professionals, grocery stores and pharmacies providing for our essential needs, governments acting responsibly, books, internet, means of communication with friends and family, neighbours, fresh air, and even health and the opportunity of life itself. It was a good reminder. The sacred—what we can be profoundly grateful for—is present in everyday life. I do think about this. Indeed my recent selected poems is entitled For It Is a Surprise and a Pleasure to Breathe. Because it is and it is.
What do I do when I encounter a text that engages or inspires me? I write a response. I seek to absorb it by working with it. So I took Rabbi Splansky’s additional verses to Dayenu and did what I’ve been doing lately with other poems that interest me. I ran it through a bunch of different languages in Google Translate as well as running it through an application which changes the nouns to nouns found seven entries later in the dictionary. As one does. Then I edited it.
Ok, Gary, knock yourself out, but why do this? I know there’s a pandemic on and we’re all stuck at home and we’ve all got time to kill. But couldn’t you be sorting Tupperware or doing online aerobics with goats?
When I do these kinds of poetic transformations, I look to what I see in the changed text—and of course, what I see reflects how I’m feeling and what is going on in the world. The process reveals to me what I’m thinking. Helps me expand my thinking. Helps me engage with the world. Grounds me.
Although I learned about such writing techniques from experimental poetry traditions (for example, the Oulipo group), I’m also aware that Jewish tradition has been interested in exploring patterns in texts. There are Kabbalistic practices which look to transform texts, for example, counting the numerical values of words. There is something powerful, even in the secular context, of using formal aspects of a text as a guide.
The result? My Dayenu also speaks about connection, health, and hope, though much of the rabbi’s text is changed into more abstract poetic images, images which are softly surreal. Think of the Lorca-influenced Leonard Cohen of “Take This Waltz” or “Dance Me to the End of Love,” though admittedly it’s unlikely that I’m going to become an iconic international superpoet, though I must say, I look pretty good in a dark suit. My goal in writing poetry is to create work that opens up thinking and feeling, that doesn’t tell you what either the poet or the reader is thinking, but makes a space where both can think and feel more and be more aware.
So, enough already, you say. It would have been enough if you just wrote the poem, but we need all of this? Well, I do think that in these times particularly, it’s good to think through what one is doing, to listen to what one is feeling—anxiety, fear, love, numbness or hope—or whatever changeable and unsettling combination of them one is experiencing. And one does this through whatever creative means makes sense to you. Baking. Cleaning. Woodworking. Couching. Singing. Shouting. Talking.
So, here’s the poem. Here’s wishing you health and connection.
after Rabbi Yael Splansky
If my dove is good
If your coat and phone are open
If you were the only lioness or were paralyzed
If only I were a boomerang
If I could go outside or open the kissing cabinet
If the sun shines on each motel
If you had a door so you could sing
Hope which brings you from the cloak of the world to the scorching heat and soup to the galaxy
For now, my only friend is health
Gary Barwin is a local writer, poet and artist.