Jewish chaplain Ethan Levin presents a powerful poetic interpretation of a biblical psalm with his “Midrash on Psalm 13”. A midrash is an interpretation of any text, particularly a biblical or sacred text. Ethan explained to The Dewdrop that his poem is a poetic commentary on a sacred text, drawing from his experiences as an Ashkenazi Jew and his work as a chaplain in the heart of the Bible Belt. “The first poem reflects on Psalm 13, that questions why God has turned God’s face from humanity, searching for hope in connection with self and the ancestors,” Ethan stated.
Midrash on Psalm 13
A student asked: What does one say to the dying who feels abandoned by God? To which the rabbis replied with a parable: It is like this…
“Who has a share in the World-to-Come?” said Moses on Mount Nebo, awaiting his death. The Midrash says that when God made the decree that Moses was to die before entering the Holy Land, he drew a circle and refused to move from it until the proclamation had been voided.
God shut the gates of prayer, so that Moses’s requests would not be heard in the heavens. Anger cemented his feet with evergreen moss. Yet Moses continued to pray.
Joshua approached Moses in his circle of defiance. “Why do you continue to pray? Can you not sense that the gates of heaven are closed?”
Moses moved up and down, and side to side to the rhythm of the earth, feet firmly planted, muttering silently the words known from before the creation of the world and revealed to him on Mount Sinai.
“Do you not know that I will lead the people Israel into the land and win many battles there?” Erupted Joshua into the silence. Moses continued to pray.
Joshua cried out in desperation: “How am I to teach Torah when it is known you are Her only teacher? Did not God swallow Korach and his followers whole for challenging your teachings?”
To this, Moses paused his utterances, looked up, and said: “Know that when I leave this circle, I will be your student.” Moses resumed his prayers, continuing to sway. Tremulously, Joshua left in tears.
Elijah was next to visit Moses in his circle. The later prophet descended in a whirlwind right into the circle next to Moses. The fiery chariot of the Lord hovered above them, with its horses galloping around the nebulous boundary. Elijah extended a hand to Moses.
“Prophet to prophet, ascend with me now in body to the firmament of the heavens.”
Moses closed his prayer book, and sighed. “What could it mean for a prophet to die on this earth, and rot into the ground, becoming sustenance for worms? I once fed all Israel, now let Israel feed on me.”
Moses would have stepped out of the circle at this moment, were it not for the flurry of blazing hooves blocking his exit. “Leave me to my prayers, Elijah. See what other child of Israel is in need of your helping hand.”
Elijah frowned. Surely to escape in a rustle of the Holy Spirit was better than to be chased down by death in this world. He shrugged.
Upon Elijah’s ascent, Moses felt the gates of prayer open to him. He could hear the voice of his sister, Miriam, pleading on his behalf in front of the throne of God.
Moses looked up to listen. “O God, pray heal him!” she cried. The gates closed.
Moses breathed deep. The anger dissipated out of greenery and into mist.
He stepped outside the circle. He opened the prayer book again, and was joined by a minyan of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Joseph and Serach bat Asher, and Pharoah. Moses continued to pray.
Ethan Nosanow Levin is a Minnesotan-born poet, author, and theologian. His work has appeared in Theopoetica: An Anthology, from April Gloaming Publishing, The Conversation Project, In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies, and Theophron: Journal of Christian Studies. He received his Masters of Theological Studies, concentrating in Jewish Studies from Harvard Divinity School in 2022, and is currently working as a Jewish chaplain in Nashville at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.