No Greater Portion

No Greater Portion

by Amy Bornman, author of There is a Future: A Year of Daily Midrash

I started reading the bible every day in the middle of 2018 and it nearly knocked me over. It occurred to me one day that I really ought to do it for how much I like to think about God. In late 2017 and early 2018 I was walloped by mysticism and reeling from what I was learning, and then I settled into a wonderful season of practice and needed something to ground me. I’ve often felt like I should read the bible every day but could never figure out how to make myself, or, more problematically, I could never figure out what part of the bible I ought to be reading (because shouldn’t I just know???) — and then all of a sudden one day it started working. I found the Daily Office lectionary in the back of my 2007 Book of Common Prayer and off I went in year one. I can tell where I began since I marked days off with pencil as I went. Proper 10. Week of the Sunday closest to July 13. First mark — Thursday.

And every day since then. (for the most part)

As I’d read, I’d copy down pieces of passages. A phrase or a whole page, some days very time consuming. The reading was doing something to me, but I needed some way to process what I was ingesting. I’ve always loved transcribing, or copying writings down longhand, but it wasn’t fully satisfying. I’d finish my morning reading feeling full but unresolved.

Around this same time, I became obsessed with poetry. You’ve seen this unfold. I’d finish my daily office reading and pick up an anthology next. Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, Kathleen Norris, Lucille Clifton. The two practices began to almost go together, the daily bible office and the daily poem office. And why shouldn’t they? Two iterations of sacred text, all the better with the intertwining.

Late last year I remembered “midrash,” a traditional Jewish interpretation practice a friend told me about in college, and things began to get exciting. To fill you in –midrash, at its heart is about spaciousness and imagination. It’s a spiritual practice and a literary practice, both, and its place in the Jewish faith traditions has changed over time. Traditionally, midrash was a way for rabbis to interpret the text to try to reconcile inconsistencies and contradictions they found within it. According to My Jewish Learning, “Traditional midrash, written and compiled between the first and 11th centuries, are commentaries on the books of the Bible which often focus on specific words, verses, or chapters. In these works, which include Genesis Rabbah and Midrash Tehillim, a darshan, or interpreter, looks for unusual words, curious plot twists, or contradictions and uses these textual anomalies as a window for interpretation or re-imagination of the back-story to the brief biblical tales.” According to scholar Alicia Ostriker, “traditional midrash [practiced mostly by rabbis] may be homiletic, witty, mystical, wildly imaginative; it is always, however, deeply religious in intent.”

Contemporary Jewish midrash has been adopted as the work of the people, by artists and writers in particular. Much contemporary midrash takes the form of poetry or theater or song. Midrash, at its heart, is the people of God honoring the text by wondering about it, aiding their hoping human minds by imagining what could fill the holes. Jewish midrash often gives a voice to voiceless characters, imagines backstory where there isn’t one, and bridges the gaps in a text that is, admittedly, full of plot holes and jumps in logic. Contemporary Jewish midrash often ties in issues of social justice and modern history, finding connections in the text to the moment we are in. In other words, midrash is about restoring human imagination and immediacy to a text that can often be decided to be static. This definition deeply inspires me, and feels sharply in contrast to some of the more stressful aspects of my christian education as a child. In so many ways, it felt like the Bible had already been imagined for me — that there was one orthodox interpretation and it was already in a commentary somewhere. The Bible felt rigid, black and white, simple, straightforward, true — a way to look at it that, in retrospect, felt comforting as a child and much much less comforting as an adult.

I’m so encouraged by the shift in perspective that beginning to consider midrash has given me. The bible is what we have, and if I have learned anything about it in finally reading it every day, in having read the Psalms straight through three times over now in the past few months, I have learned that it is undeniably extremely beautiful. This thought by Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, an ancient Jewish teacher, has been caught in my mind since I heard it: “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Look deeply into it, and grow old with it, and spend time over it, and do not stir from it, because there is no greater portion.”

There is no greater portion. Everything is in it.

I already agree wholeheartedly, and I have only barely skimmed the surface of the text of the Bible. It is challenging. It is strange. It is full of holes and things that make me squirm. And it is gorgeous. It makes my jaw drop sometimes. This book that I’ve been reading in snatches (so much!) all my life has been astonishing me since I finally actually committed to it, day by day. And I think a part of that astonishment is the permission I feel from the tradition of midrash. Permission to imagine, to not assume there’s only one explanation and someone else knows it. Permission to give voices to the voiceless, to feel frustrated with what’s unspoken or what makes no sense. Permission to ask, and, maybe most of all, permission to respond from where I am and who I am and what is happening all around me. I’ve spent so, so many years of my life in christian education. Truly I have — from the bible classes at my church and my private christian elementary and middle school to my theology classes at Wheaton. All of these things were wonderful, and I truly wouldn’t trade them. I am probably among the most bible-literate people around for all the time I’ve spent formally learning. But I know and can feel now that I spent so much time learning the Bible, but so little time reading it and almost no time imagining it or digesting it. The learning was incredible but rigid. In so many ways, all that learning gave me very little space to practice, to stretch out, to “turn it and turn it” as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag so beautifully suggests.

And that’s what I’m, finally, beginning to practice now. And I can feel it changing me.

It feels important here to say — I am not Jewish, and this is, thoroughly, a practice from the Jewish faith tradition. My google searching has shown that it’s not a practice adopted by many christians — probably due to the big evangelical emphasis on the bible’s inerrancy and infallibility and other arguments that are certainly important but also harmful and that bore me to tears (sorry big-evangelical pals). This practice is a spiritual practice and an artistic practice. It’s personal and hopeful — like prayer, like wonder. I am so thankful for midrash and for the commitment to it that has remained within Judaism for so many centuries. I am so thankful that I can be a woman in 2019 exploring sacred text with poetry and feeling connected to so many others before me. I am not alone as I turn and turn this text in my hand. So many others have too. Less rigidity, more spaciousness. That’s a lesson we always ought to be seeking to learn — and midrash is an excellent tool to practice with.

This is not to say that no Christians practice midrash — they just don’t seem to call it that. I’m deeply influenced by Madeleine L’Engle’s collection of poetry A Cry Like a Bell, which is mostly poems written from the imagined perspective of people in the Bible, both old testament and new. And so much beautiful poetry by people of faith (and not) could be placed in this same category. Denise Levertov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lucille Clifton, so many others — jumping directly from the pages of scripture to poem, adding color and life to the text as we all, all of us, turn it and turn it, finding everything in it.

I think the key to the beauty of midrash is not that it’s calling out a sparseness in the text, adding color to something black and white. That’s not it at all. Rather, midrash takes the incredible spectrum in the text and finds one hue to really hold and consider, to imagine how the colors can blend. Midrash speaks directly to the fullness, the life that already flows from the page. Midrash honors how very much there is already by finding even more to sing. The text is one thing, and who am I next to it, what do I have to bring? It’s a deeply artistic endeavor. There has been no shortage in history of sacred art (except, perhaps, recently). The bible seems to draw artists to it, and I feel that pull myself. But midrash is specific — not all art inspired by the bible is midrash. It is, essentially, commentary. It is poetic interpretation, a practice in the word made flesh. It is coming to the text with everything you have and are and carry, and seeing what there is to find. It’s connecting some dots and making a song. It’s saying what you see with all the wonder you can muster. It’s finding the gaps and calling them holy. It’s embracing the mystery and choosing just that spot to sit in a while.

Poetry of mystery — that’s what midrash is.

And there is no greater portion.

So, I have decided that my project for the year (the entire year?!?) is to write a short low-stakes poem every time I read the daily office. The readings consist of a handful of psalms (we go through the entire psalter about every six weeks, I think), an old testament reading, a new testament reading, and a gospel reading. As I read each day, I write down what words or phrases or passages stick out to me — either poetically or because they are challenging or beautiful or odd. Then — from those words or phrases, all jumbled together in my head and heart with my own life and what I’ve known and seen and what I know of the world — I write a poem. The phrases of scripture that find their way, somehow, into the poem become the little epigraphs at the end. This is the project.

It has already been so challenging and so, so surprising. I so often read the readings and think hmmm — where’s the poem in that?  It isn’t often apparent until I begin to write. It’s most exciting when the poem becomes an odd sort of fusion of all of the scripture and also my life, which is really a lot to put into a poem. More often it’s just one idea, followed down a rabbit trail. I often delete the first few stanzas I write, finding the rhythm once I’ve already begun. I never wrote poems until late last year, and now I can’t seem to stop. I don’t know what changed in me. There’s so little I understand about where these things come from. But here I am, and I see inherent worth in these poems that I write, that so often feel like they drop from the ceiling, flow out of this text that has been my companion for so long, now so new. I am learning myself and my faith as I write, and I am ever more romanced by the mystery of god, by how little I can say for sure and how beautiful that is. I’ve been experiencing a sort of deconstruction lately in the best way, and I don’t know how to talk about it yet but it’s wonderful and good. I can see so much further than I could before. There’s a much wider expanse before me, and it’s beautiful. So much ground to cover. So much specificity now to bend down and see. So I’ll be here, every day, writing these little specific poems. I don’t know if they’re objectively good as poems, I mean in a literary sense, but they’re good for me. They are a way to work out my faith with fear and trembling, a place to put my questions and my fear. They are something I can offer up to god. And I know they are received. I feel more surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses now than ever. So many poets before me have turned this same text over and over, letting its words become their words, but slant and strange and new. So many odd prayers of the poets, and I feel myself stepping into the line of the singers with new songs. I don’t think it’s a life of satisfaction, but it is a life of worship and wonder, and that’s more than good enough for me.

For I am certain, more than certain, that there is no greater portion.

And here, a post-script:

GOD gave a loaf to every bird,
But just a crumb to me;
I dare not eat it, though I starve,—
My poignant luxury
To own it, touch it, prove the feat 
That made the pellet mine,—
Too happy in my sparrow chance
For ampler coveting.

It might be famine all around,
I could not miss an ear, 
Such plenty smiles upon my board,
My garner shows so fair.
I wonder how the rich may feel,—
An Indiaman—an Earl?
I deem that I with but a crumb 
Am sovereign of them all.

-Emily Dickinson

Someone shared this Emily Dickinson poem somewhere recently and it’s been stuck in my head since. God gave a loaf to every bird, / but just a crumb to me. It calls up, too, Mary Oliver’s words “joy was not made to be a crumb!” In both of these texts, the crumb evokes something in me. So often, I, like Emily, feel like a crumb-person. Here I am with just the tiniest little bit of what it was supposed to be. Here I am with a crumb of understanding when it seems like everyone else has a loaf. But what is so beautiful about the poem is the bit that I am beginning to understand. Even with just a crumb of vision or understanding or whatever, I am as rich as I’ll ever need to be. With even a crumb of the bible, there is no greater portion. It’s possible I have in my hands much more than a crumb, but I don’t know. I’m a student at the very beginning of wisdom. I know so little, I fear so much. But this crumb in my hands is immeasurably precious, and I’ll sing it with all of the words I know. I deem that I with but a crumb / am sovereign of them all. This small life, this small understanding I hold, my smallness itself can be beautiful if I let it. Here I am, in a room of my own, with poetry and sacred text, and there is no greater portion. I’ll turn it and turn it till there’s nothing more to turn, till I’ve grown old with it. For everything is in it.

Here, below, sharing the firstfruits of my year of practicing midrash, seeing what is possible, only just beginning.

{I will also be posting many of my daily midrash poems on my twitter account if you’d like to follow along throughout the year. I’m thinking about compiling the full year’s midrash poems into a book at the end of the year, so keep an eye out if that’s something you’d like on your shelf. If you’re curious about midrash and want to have a midrash-writing-club or want some daily-office resources or have personal experience with midrash or if you’re a jewish scholar and I’ve gotten it all terribly wrong — reach out! I’d love to talk about it, all of it!}


year of midrash, 2019

(small beginnings, dec 20)

The spirit of god is a mystery of meekness
and this is where I resemble her —
the one who fashioned my heart.

I am only small beginnings
and small middles
and no ends. Who can open the scroll,
finish what’s begun? Not I.

I must learn to see my work as
the moving of a mountain, the building
of a temple, something truly big —

but only accomplished in smallness
that I have and am and carry
because I am like my grandmother
in meekness and wisdom and might.

She, who has already seen the end
and has called it very good.

Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts. Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. (from Zech 4, esv)

Does anyone dare despise this day of small beginnings? (from Zech 4, the message)

he who fashions the hearts of them all / and observes all their deeds (from Psalm 33, esv)

and no one in heaven or earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.  (from Rev 5, esv)

(you shall be a blessing, dec 22)

Meet me in my house at the bottom of the sea.
Meet me in my mountain house, where we will
tremble and sing, as the sky slides shut and
the moon turns red and the cars won’t start
and the stars blink and drop.

Meet me in my dove-house, fly away with me,
oh children whose names are
wait and start, I’ll keep
the light on, put the fear out,
and lock my hate in a chest in the
attic to rest awhile, and be.

Come, please, to my treetop house
where I will make you herbal tea
and we can sit on the porch of my
wait for

and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong. (from zech 8, esv)

and I say, “oh that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yes I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest. (from psalm 55, esv)

where shall I go from your Spirit? or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. (from psalm 139, esv)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? (from psalm 139, esv)

“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?…” “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (from matthew 25, esv)

I watched while he ripped off the sixth seal: a bone jarring earthquake, sun turned black as ink, moon all bloody, stars falling out of the sky like figs shaken from a tree in a high wind, sky snapped shut like a book, islands and mountains sliding this way and that. And then pandemonium, everyone and his dog running for cover — kings, princes, generals, rich and strong, along with every commoner, slave and free. (from rev 6, the message)

(under the broom tree, jan. 2)

Arise and eat, small prophet.
This cake shall be your food —
made up of a child’s loaves and fish
and my body and blood
and some cinnamon too.

Arise and eat, small prophet.
For the journey is too great for you.
Come measure your stature to the
fullness of mine in the fullness of time
to see if you grew.

Arise and eat, small prophet
for there’s only one body in all,
and your flesh is a part of the stuff
all around you. Could that be a reason
to chew?

Arise and eat, small prophet.
It will take forty days to go
to the top of the mountain
where all will be needed, so
hear me say: “I’m going too.”

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die. saying “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. (from 1 Kings 19, esv)

there is one body and one spirit (from Ephesians 4, esv)

to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (from Ephesians 4, esv)

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” (from John 6, esv)

(epiphany sunday, jan. 6)

I was made like
the earth was made
to be beautiful and movable
and prone to decay.

I was made to
give way to one thing
though I give way to many things
every day.

I was made to melt
like wax in the presence
of flame even though
I think I’m stone.

I was made to sing
for joy a song that is
also sung by the trees
and their roots.

I was made for a
sun-lit city without
night or lamp because
it’s always bright.

I was made for
the heart of the
sea where there is
only mystery and my name,
mystery and me.

though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea (from psalm 46, esv)

the mountains melt like wax before the LORD (from psalm 97, esv)

then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy (from psalm 96, esv)

listen to me, o coastlands. from the body of my mother he formed my name. (from Isaiah 49, esv)

and the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the lamb (from rev 21, esv)

(what ails you, o sea, that you flee?, jan. 7)

I was hungry and
all there was was
manna, that very
bread of life that I
stepped on, kicked

Eyes not seeing, ears not
hearing, mouth not tasting
what was good and present
and true.

Oh Jesus, what do you think
when I run and kick and
turn my back?

Oh Jesus, how does it feel to be
everlasting among us
so starved and

Oh Jesus,
how can I
learn that
and eat?

as for man, his days are like grass (from Psalm 103, esv)

everlasting to everlasting (from Psalm 103, esv)

What ails you, O sea, that you flee? / O Jordan, that you turn back? / O mountains, that you skip like rams? / O hills, like lambs? (from Psalm 114, esv)

they have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear (from Psalm 115, esv)

and he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna (from deuteronomy 8, esv)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (from john 6, esv)


NOTE: This article was originally published on the blog Synchronized Swim on January 14, 2019

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