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Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Long and Winding Road to P'shat-Part Three

Language is at once one of the greatest forms of human expression and one of its most limited. We humans experience and think stuff all the time and often we are quite anxious to let others know of our experience and thoughts. We search for the right words to express those thoughts. Sometimes we are successful in conveying those thoughts, other times less so. We like to read good authors be they masters of prose or poetry in large part because they are able to convey their thoughts in words so well.

But words are by nature limiting and limited. Those who write or speak publicly choose their words carefully in order to, at the very least, convey their basic intentions. Often, writers will attempt to convey a multiplicity of meaning using words sparingly.

This is especially true of poetry.

In Dylan Thomas' villanelle:  Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (one of my favorite poems) we read the first stanza:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

When we read the first line, do we think that Thomas is giving us advice about going out after dark? Would we think that's the plain meaning of this text?

Hopefully not.

The term 'that good night' here, as we understand from the rest of the poem, is referring to death. So why didn't Thomas just say: Put up a fight when it's your time to die?

Because it's a poem and the way he put it is more poetic—DUH!

Well, to be more precise, his particular use of language here evokes much more than even the 'plain meaning' would tell us. Night has its own associations and imagery. It is a common word laden with meaning being used here in an uncommon way.

In other words, it is a metaphor.

The reader will quickly understand that the 'plain meaning,' the author's intended meaning, is not at all the same as the literal meaning. Yet the literal understanding of the phrase 'that good night' is always lurking in the background of consciousness of the reader—it sets a mood and allows for the reader to make his/her own associations.

This use of language allows the writer to transcend certain limitations of particular words. By placing words in a certain context, the words are 'value added.'

Looking back at our explication of the word B'reishit (continued here) we understand that the word in question, b'reishit, has a certain literal meaning, namely 'in the beginning (of).' But what was the author's intent in using that particular word? Was it simply to give an indication of a time in history?

Maybe not.

Maybe the Torah's intent in choosing that particular word was to evoke myriad relationships and connections with that word as is used elsewhere.

If poets do this, why would we think that the Torah doesn't do it?


  1. Torah uses poetry too,
    and surely there are so many interpretations on each and every word.
    The idea though, that it is holy and that there are many intentions in every word does back up the idea that language can be something much more complicated, more special than just to communicate a message, it can contain insight into how to live and how to believe and how to be in this world in accordance to the moral ways of the forefathers and foremothers .
    lots of layers
    and yes i do appreciate the Dylan Thomas
    it is no wonder our brother Bob chose his name, can you imagine bob zimmerman breaking the charts ?
    would be nice though..

  2. What I am getting at, though, is not just that Torah uses poetry but that Torah *is* poetry. Yes, it contains all those nice things which can help us. It is also a window into the Divine and a reflection back upon our world.

    For the moment, though, I will be happy to just get/give some idea of how to approach the reading of the Torah. We cannot expect the Torah to give us so much without making a respectable effort to understand it, right?