Jewish Poems based on the Medrash

        May 2014    
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EXODUS, Midrashic Poems

By Janet Ruth Heller

The poems in Exodus are modern midrashim, re-interpretations and psychological explorations of the people and events in the Bible. A central metaphor is the exodus from Egypt, which represents the journeys that people make: trying new experiences, leaving a bad relationship, finding a new job, taking risks. Many of the poems are dramatic monologues from the perspective of a character in the Jewish Scriptures.


My boat is tossed by waves,
buffeted by winds from the storm,
battered by torrents of rain.
It is so dark that day blurs into night.

As the ship pitches,
the animals groan.
My children are seasick.
After five months of storms,
a heavy silence hangs
between me and my wife.

Then the rain slackens
and our ship comes to rest
upon the mountains of Ararat.
We wait for seven more months,
listening to the howl of the winds.

Hoping for a miracle,
I send out a plump dove.
She returns at eventide with an olive leaf.
The children scream with joy.
My wife and I embrace.

Our feet tread gently on the firm ground.
It feels strange not to be tossed as we walk.
Without the sound of rain,
the world seems hushed and still
like a synagogue on Atonement Day.

Slowly, a rainbow arches across the sky,
as colorful as Josephs coat.




I wanted to flee from Esau,
to escape his taunts
and his bands of thugs.

I ran to the river Yabbok,
but you seized me
and we began to wrestle.

In the gloom between twilight and dawn,
I struggle with you,
clinging to your torso,
always maneuvering,
demanding your name.

Sometimes you twist my sinews and my heart;
sometimes you strain my back and my thigh;
sometimes we hold one another,
amazed at our own power.

Until you bless me,
I will not let go.



Rachel, to Rebekah

In my travail, you hold me,
your round arms freckled like fawns,
your body as large as your heart.

Under the oak tree,
you tell me stories about Jacob:
the time he stole the birthright
and the time you helped him
win his fathers blessing.

I want my son
to be like Jacob.

We entered this family of chosen ones
because we were not afraid
to speak to strangers
by the well of Haran.
But now both of us are quiet.

Your steady eyes are the color of honey.
I watch their tender gleam.
When I rest my dark head on your shoulder,
I think I can bear the pain.




Pass the mandrakes, Reuben!
Your fathers had a long day.
He looks like hes been through Valley Forge.
Jacob, I missed you.
All these business trips. . . .
I cant go on like this,
alone six days out of seven.
Youre right--we shouldnt argue
in front of the children.
Have a mandrake, Jacob!




And there was thunder and lightning
about Mount Sinai. We were afraid.

The thunder made us cover our ears.
We closed our eyes to shield them from the blinding rays.

The earth shook with the storm.
In awe, we huddled together.

Moshe, the stubborn shepherd,
doggedly clung to his staff, daring
the wind and rain to lash his face
and his upright body. He sang
praises, though he did not know
what the storm and the terror
would bring.

Her eyes on her brother, Miriam
sat alone. She tried to pray,
but the words would not come.
She watched Moshe slowly ascend
the trembling mountain. All at once,
she remembered the chant that Jochebed
had taught her: Adonay melech, Adonay malach,
Adonay yimloch lolam vaed.*
Miriam whispered the words,
and the thunder quieted, the lightning
deserted the sky, the wind and rain

Moshe turned toward his sister,
smiling, and then walked on.

The hushed people stood as one
and the still, small voice
began to utter its mystery.
All cried, We will hearken and we will obey.
The voice penetrated to the marrow of our hearts,
searing the Ten Words deeper than thought.

*God reigns, God reigned, God will reign forever.




I hurl rocks of words
at Hannah, the woman with a mission,
a full-time job and a loving man.
Everything her hands touch
becomes a work of art
and a front-page headline.

No one listens to me
except my ten children.
Unnoticed, I bear Elkanahs sons,
fashion their clothes, wash their limbs,
and teach his daughters how to sew and weave.
I stay up all night with a coughing child
or a child with frightening dreams.

Who cares about my dreams?
Who wipes the grime from my brow?
After I die,
who will write my legend?



Jana Spurned

My desert wanderings are punctuated
by encounters with women prophets.
Each casts a mantle over my shoulders
and I follow her for seven years.

Like Elisha, I poured water over your hands,
served your meals,
accompanied you across the deep Jordan,
and prayed to share your spirit.

But you spurned my devotion,
taking back the garment
I clutched so tightly.

Transformed with anger,
you hissed, Return,
for what have I done to thee? *

* I Kings 19:20



Sunday School Lesson

Once upon a time, King Solomon
had a hard choice to make,
I tell the six year olds
in my Sunday school class.
God let him have one wish.
If you were Solomon,
what would you wish for?

All of the children think for a minute.
Then Ben wishes for money,
Sarah wishes for a new dress,
Lauren wishes for a Barbie doll.
John requests a kite to fly
when spring comes to snowbound Chicago.
Becky wants a new friend
to replace one who moved away.

Now I call on Lisa.
She speaks shyly, intently,
the pain of a custody battle
in her delicate face:
I wish I was a baby again.




Janet Ruth Heller has also published the poetry books Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011), the scholarly book Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990), and the award-winning childrens book about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, 2006). Her website is

Exodus is 88 pages, and the list price is $18. You can order Exodus from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The books website is


from the May 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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