When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?
— Yehoshua November, “Two Worlds Exist”
These lines are from the opening poem of Yehoshua November’s new collection of poetry, Two Worlds Exist. When I first read them, they went directly to my heart.
Yes: the great teachings of my tradition often offer me comfort – and there are sorrows those teachings cannot touch. It is childish to imagine that if only I could find the right teaching, the right text, I could erase grief — my own, or that of someone I love. Better to let the texts do as November describes: to let them open up for me the sacred text of my own life and wait for me to answer their question with my choices, with my living.
The theme of confronting sorrow echoes throughout the collection, as in the poem which describes yeshiva boys in the middle of the night after a fire alarm. The alarm, the poem reveals, has been pulled by the youngest boy in the school who has just learned that his parents are divorcing. That poem concludes:
And because the yeshiva caters to souls
but also bodies,
the early morning mysticism class
on why the Divine Presence cannot dwell
amongst those plagued by sadness
has been cancelled.
— “2am and the rabbinical students stand in their bathrobes”
The Zohar, the germinal work of Jewish mysticism, teaches that the divine presence cannot dwell amongst those plagued by sadness… and yet our tradition also teaches that the divine presence weeps when her children grieve. Jewish tradition commands us to be joyful at the appointed seasons, and yet we all know that every life contains sorrow as well as joy. These are among the koans with which this book wrestles. November does not offer easy answers. Indeed, he doesn’t offer answers at all. This collection of poems functions for me as a contemporary Hasidic text, shining a light on my life and expectantly awaiting my response.
These poems are pregnant with grief and wonder. November seems especially attuned to the kind of wonder that can arise not despite grief but in the midst of it, the wonder that partakes both of sorrow and of joy. The poems remind me of Alan Lew’s teaching (in This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared) that joy does not mean “happiness,” but rather any emotion we allow ourselves to inhabit fully.
One response to sorrow, in this collection of November’s poems, is love:
But love is a rusting machine
you call to have serviced over and over again…
— “Between Lifetimes”
It seems unfair somehow that sorrows arise so easily (all one has to do is live in this world, and reasons for sorrow will accrue) while love requires maintenance.
But November hints that something redemptive can arise in that maintenance, in the connection that flares to life between two souls. “I am not from here,” muses the soul in another of his poems, “I am not / from here at all.” But when we connect with each other – as parent and child, or teacher and student, or friend and beloved – sometimes we partake of the eternal current that sustains all creation.
That’s my answer to the existential question his collection asks me. What will I do with my life? If I am lucky, and if I keep trying, and if I am true to my deepest self, I will love.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).