Dating Tefillin

‘Behold,” this week’s portion, Re’eh, begins, “I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.…” Not “or” but “and,” and we, of course, get to choose. It is the doubleness of the portion that speaks to me, for most of what we read in Re’eh is an iteration of the laws of kashrut and charity, and the regulations about festivals that already have been set forth. Indeed, the blessing and the curse are going to be revisited in greater amplitude in three weeks in Ki Tavo. So why twice? I have no clear idea, but I assume it cannot be inadvertent. After all, Moses ascended Sinai twice. And each time, he was up on the mountain for 40 days — a re-enactment, almost certainly, of the wandering of the Children of Israel in the desert for 40 years. And it cannot be a mere coincidence that there are 40 days of Teshuvah — or “return” — between the second descents from Sinai and Yom Kippur. We read Re’eh at the beginning of Elul, which is a month of hope after Av, a month of reprimand and pain. From the low point of the year to the High Holy Days, we ascend.

These are just some of the shimmerings that light up a text concerning itself with such apparently dreary matters of fact as what kinds of birds we are not supposed to eat — the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the buzzard, the kite, the raven, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the seagull and so on. But it isn’t about that, or better is it about that and also other, grander things. This, after all, is the portion where we find the words (14:2), “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his own possession out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”

This famous pronouncement is not quite by the way, for the context makes clear that it is the observation of the commandments here under review that separates us and qualifies us as the “chosen” people, but that, it has turned out, also has a doubleness to it and is both a blessing and a burden. The temptation is to take it as an indication that we are not merely chosen but in some sense superior, having been distinguished from the “goyim,” the other peoples. But the distinction comes with obligations and even tribulations, as we have seen. “Behold,” or “See” or “Look,” is the first word of the portion after all, which is what “Re’eh” means. And we learn to look and look again.

When I was teaching youngsters to write, one of the few useful things I could tell them was that they should write papers not the night before they were due, but several days ahead. Then they should put their work into a drawer and, after the passage of a little time, look again, and they would see mistakes not only in spelling and punctuation (although there would be those, too, surely) but also in diction and rhetoric, and even logic. The angle of vision changes, and the fog of our intention lifts so that we can see what is on the page.

By the same token, Robert Penn Warren, who was one of my teachers, used to explain to us that short stories were often “moments of revision,” in which the basic pattern of narration was “not this but that,” or “not merely this but also that.” The seeing through to a deeper truth is such a basic pattern of our lives and thought that the re-enactment of this process of clarification and adjustment, the seeing through from this to that, is deeply satisfying. A repeat in music is not really a repetition but an enrichment or a slight variation, and there are almost always differences in the performance. And something like these patterns of repetition and deeper perception is what is going on in Re’eh and what contributes to its mystery and power.

The mystery of enrichment by repetition is in one of Richard Wilbur’s finest poems — and he is one of our finest poets, surely — one about his daughter, called “The Writer,” in which he describes hearing her typing upstairs, stopping and then starting again. He compares this to a small but impressive recollection of a bird that had flown into the house, almost killed itself batting against the windows, but then, “humped and bloody,” tried it again and

how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

David R. Slavitt’s 80th book, “Change of Address: Poems, New and Selected,” was published by LSU Press in April 2005. A new book, “Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets,” will be published this month by Northwestern University Press.

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Dating Tefillin

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