December 25th, 2009

Noel, Noel (Christmas 1940)

... I wanted to tell you about us, how wicked we are.
And yet also to say that the Star—you know the star I mean—
Is for some of us clearly visible still in the east at midnight rising, and all the night long burns serene—
And that on such nights on unaccustomed knees we kneel and in sweet discomfort
Pray for hours, and mean it, to be better than we are.
I am not one of these, I fear;
I loved you always for the things I read
About you in a book we had.
I did not meet you for the first time through the incense and stale smell
Of a room seldom aired, where people purred of heaven and howled of hell.
I used to read all day, when I was ten:
—You and Don Quijote were my heroes then.

Perhaps because of him I have been kind
Often with my heart, before consulting my mind.
I might have been wiser, had I learned direct from you—
Learned to make curlicues in the sand or on a scratch-pad while deciding what to say or do ...
Such as, "Sin—the waves come in—all pushing pebbles—each alone ...
I have it!—Let him among them who is without sin!—cast the first stone!"

I learned so young to know you, I could never see
Why we should not be playmates; you were wonderful,—
Oh, you were shiny!—and for some strange reason, fond of me.
But nothing will be done. I can do nothing. Nothing at all.
Only remember what you said, your voice, the way you said it,—
For it never was like something read, it was something heard, even while I read it—
And try to be wiser and kinder, in a world where Pity from place to place
Flees under cover of darkness, hiding her face;
Give Pity breathing-space.

- Edna St. Vincent Millay
from Make Bright the Arrows


Just ordered myself two nice commentary editions* of the Book of Proverbs from Eichlers. I've never been able to put my finger on why this book of the Hebrew Scriptures, in particular, fascinates me; but this article from the JPS Study Bible nails it:

Proverbs is a paean to the power of the human mind. Its authors are convinced that everyone who attends to the wisdom of the past and employs his powers of rational thinking has the ability to know what to do and what to avoid. These powers and the knowledge that goes with them are called wisdom. Wisdom - Hebrew hokhmah - is the great virtue that, for Proverbs, entails all others. No divine revelation is necessary, for G-d gave humanity the faculty of wisdom, and people need only listen to her call (ch 8). Thus, there is a certain tension between Proverbs and Torah books, which insist on the significance of revealed law. (Michael V. Fox)

Also I like that the verses of Proverbs, read in Hebrew, have a pleasant rhythmical quality. I find that this makes them excellent mantras for meditation, as is the case with Psalm 119 (the lengthy alphabetical psalm). This seems appropriate because, as the above analysis suggests, the emphasis of Proverbs is less on obedience than on introspection.

*ETA:  Artscroll and Torah Anthology - 2 volumes each!