I’ve been writing poetry since my sophomore year of high school. And the first poem I remember writing, with the mortifying title Unanswered Desire, was a sincere, but deeply flawed, attempt to articulate my unrequited love for a girl I’ll call “Z.” I was, at fifteen, a terrible poet, but an authority on unrequited love.
I don’t remember much about the poem and, thankfully, it has not survived the decades. But, I remember comparing the shape of Z’s eyes to almonds—what every teenage girl longs to hear—and describing how I “ached for her touch.” Horrible, I know. But, in fairness, I was unskilled in the art of poetry-writing and, to complicate matters further, drowning in a tsunami of hormones that made it hard to breathe whenever the object of my desire strolled by.
When I finally summoned the courage to read the poem to her, it did not elicit the hoped-for response. Instead of rushing into my arms and proclaiming that she loved me too, Z laughed; a nervous, tentative sound, as if she couldn’t decide whether to feel sorry for me or obtain a restraining order. It never occurred to me that she’d reject my grand gesture. But, worst of all, in my moment of humiliation, I knew that Z would never be mine. At the time, I was sure that I could never love anyone as deeply as I loved her. And, I was equally sure that no one could ever love me like that.
Fortunately, I was wrong, although it took me some time to figure this out. And then I met L and we had J, M, R and J and I finally began to truly appreciate the alphabet of love. Today, I write with more skill than I did as an hormonal youth and, these days, the tsunami has slackened to a gentle wave, barely breaking as it touches the shore. But, I’m still trying to impress the girl that I love with my writing. And when I read my poetry to her and she laughs, the laugh is intimate and uninhibited and I know that she is mine.
I thought of this as I considered the love story of Yaakov and Rachel, as described in Parashat Vayetzei. One of the elements I find most striking, is the depth and immediacy of Yaakov’s love. The Torah tells us that when Yaakov sees Rachel for the first time, God shows Yaakov that though they will marry, Rachel will not be buried with him in Ma’arat Hamachpelah. And, with this heartbreaking news, Yaakov weeps. So, it’s no surprise that, soon thereafter, when Rachel’s father, Laban, insists Yaakov work 7 years to gain the right to marry his daughter, Yaakov agrees without hesitation. And, when Laban tricks him into first marrying his older daughter, Leah, and insists upon another 7 years of labor in exchange for Rachel, Yaakov agrees again. How powerful a force is love, that a man will sacrifice 14 years in its pursuit. But, anyone who has been in love knows Yaakov has no choice in the matter. His future is set from the moment he sees her face.
Inspired by Yaakov’s passion for Rachel, I remembered a wonderful line from a poem called To My Wife by Philip Larkin: “For your face, I have exchanged all faces.” I’ve included this line as an epigraph to my current parsha poem; also entitled, To My Wife.
To My Wife
…for your face, I have exchanged all faces
–Philip Larkin, To My Wife
I did not choose you because you are beautiful,
though you are beautiful.
And I did not choose you because you are wise.
Wiser than I am, in all that matters.
I did not choose you because you chose me,
instead of him (thank you, by the way, for that).
And I did not choose you because you loved me
when no one should have.
I chose you because I had no choice in the matter.
From the moment I saw your face.