Why this rabbi loved Mary Oliver

This is completely contrary to what I have believed about the state of literature in America today, but here goes.

The greatest growth sector in the American literature industry today is poetry.

According to a National Endowment of the Arts study, between 2012 and 2017, the rate of poetry-reading among adults grew by 76 percent, to 28 million people in 2017. More than that, the number of 18-24-year-olds who read poetry more than doubled. There were significant increases in the number of women, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians who are reading poetry.

That would be sufficient reason for us to mourn the loss of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died today at the age of 83.

My colleagues and I read poetry. It comes with the rabbi gig. With the exception of the late Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, the most read poet in our circles was undoubtedly Mary Oliver.

What was Jewish about her? She linked her awe of the natural world with a deep sense of Christian spirituality and prayerfulness.

If there was a place where Christian (and other) spirituality met Jewish spirituality, it was Mary Oliver. That is why so many priests, ministers, and rabbis are in mourning today.

There have been times when I have kept a books of her poems next to me on the pulpit. I read from it during silent prayer.

Here are some of my favorite Mary Oliver poems.


THE WORLD I LIVE IN (from Felicity: Poems)

I have refused to live

locked in the orderly house of

reasons and proofs.

The world I live in and believe in

is wider than that. And anyway,

what’s wrong with Maybe?


You wouldn’t believe what once


twice I have seen. I’ll just

tell you this:

only if there are angels in your

head will you

ever, possibly, see one.

My commentary: Mary Oliver rejects logical explanation. She leaves room for uncertainty; in fact, she embraces it.

This is deeply Jewish; it goes back at least as far as the diagonal direction of the mezuzah that adorns Jewish houses.

It is slanted, because of the controversy over whether it should be placed vertically or horizontally. In the face of uncertainty, diagonal seems like a good (temporary?) solution.

About angels. Yes, Jews believe in them -- or have believed in them, or at least some Jews have believed in them, or at least some Jews still believe in them. I define an angel as a human embodiment of God's active presence and goodness in the world.

If you never see one, it is probably because you don't believe in them. Which is OK, too.


WHISTLING SWANS (also from Felicity)

Do you bow your head when you

pray or do you look

up into that blue space?

Take your choice, prayers fly from

all directions.

And don’t worry about what

language you use,

God no doubt understands them


Even when the swans are flying

north and making

such a ruckus of noise, God is

surely listening

and understanding.

Rumi said, There is no proof of the


But isn’t the return of spring and

how it

springs up in our hearts a pretty

good hint?

Yes, I know, God’s silence never

breaks, but is

that really a problem?

There are thousands of voices,

After all.

And furthermore, don’t you

Imagine (I just suggest it)

that the swans know about as

much as we do about

the whole business?

So listen to them and watch them,

Singing as they fly.

Take from it what you can.

My commentary: Mary quotes Rumi, the great Sufi poet whose poetry has undergone a renewal of interest in recent years. Rumi was right: there is not proof that the soul exists, but in moments of nature we find (often mute) testimony to its presence.

She has imagined that the swans are wrapped in a posture of prayer. There is something religious in their gracefulness.

Also very Jewish. In Perek Shira, the ancient Jewish poet imagines the prayers that animals could utter if animals could speak. God hears prayer in all languages, which Judaism affirms.

STORAGE (also from Felicity)

When I moved from one house to


there were many things I had no


for. What does one do? I rented a


space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and

looked in,

but nothing happened. not a


twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared

about great fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the


and called the trash man. He took


I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a


fire! More room in your heart for


for the trees! For the birds who


nothing – the reason they can fly.

My commentary: Yes, yes, yes. Ask anyone who has ever moved, and that person will tell you that there is that moment when you realize that you are drowning in your stuff.

I think of the Hasidic story of the rabbi who welcomes some guests into his home. He has no furniture. There is no place for his guests to sit. Finally, someone asks him: “Rabbi, where is your stuff?” The rabbi responds: “And where is yours?”

“But, rabbi, we are just passing through.” “Ah, he said. “So am I. So am I.”

That is the great truth of life: we are all just passing through.

And finally, my favorite:


One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Commentary: I have used this poem in pastoral counseling, Because it is about your life, and it is about my life, and it is about the Israelites getting out of Egypt in this week's Torah portion.

Because, ultimately, the only life you can save is your own.

Irony: Mary Oliver died during the week of Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat when we read the Song of the Sea -- the oldest song/poem that we have in our canon, the words that Moses and Miriam sang.

If Mary Oliver had been blessed with a Hebrew name, I think -- no, I am sure -- that it would have been Miriam.

I wish Mary Oliver a sweet, blessed final journey -- to the place where prayers soar with nothing to hold them to earth.