Raised, Not Razed

Here in a place where a ruin wants once more to be
a new house, its desire increases our own….

Everything here is busy with the work of remembering:
the ruin remembers…

(Click here for complete Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

The poet, Yehuda Amichai, lived in Jerusalem, a city that is always learning how to live among its ruins. Are ruins the wrecked and violent tumble of a paralyzing past? Can they become the strong foundations of a propelling future? Living among the ruins of Jerusalem is a project as old as destruction:

Rabbi Yosi said: Once I was traveling and I entered one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray. Elijah, always remembered for the good, came and waited for me at the entrance until I had finished my prayer.

After I finished my prayer, he said to me: Shalom alecha/peace be upon you, my master! I answered: Shalom alecha, my master and my teacher! He said to me: My son, why did you enter this ruin? To pray, I replied.  Said Elijah: You should have prayed on the road.  I was afraid, said I, lest the passers-by interrupt me. He said to me: You should have prayed a shortened prayer.

And so I learned three things from him:  I learned that one does not enter a ruin. I learned that one prays on the road, and I learned that one who prays on the road prays a shortened prayer.

My son, Elijah continued, what sound did you hear in that ruin? I told him: I heard a heavenly voice cooing like a dove and saying:  Woe to the children on account of whose sins I destroyed my house and burned my Temple and exiled them among the nations!

By your life and breath, said he, it is not only in that moment that she cries so. It’s three times every day that she coos like a dove: wooo, wooo, woe to the children… And not only that, but whenever Israel enters its synagogues and study houses and recites: Y’hei shemei hagadol m’vorach/May his great name be blessed, the Blessed Holy One, shakes his head and says:  Happy is the king who is thus praised in his house! What a thing for the father who banished his children to hear! Woe to those children who are banished from their father’s table!

(Click here for Talmudic story in Hebrew and English)

Modify your prayer in order to pray on the beaten path, Elijah advised.  Yet, the prophet insisted that Rabbi Yosi attend to that which he could only have learned in the ruins. There is divine ambivalence in the world—regret along with resolve, pride, despair, and hope together in the same ruined house:  Happy is the king who is thus praised in his house! What a thing for the father who banished his children to hear! Woe to those children who are banished from their father’s table!

Whether in Jerusalem or in our own environs, perhaps the beaten path is better—for most days.  But we need a hero like Rabbi Yosi who can enter the ruins. We also need Elijah, always remembered for the good, who prompts us to discover that here in a place where a ruin wants once more to be a new house, its desire increases our own….

One participant at the 2012 Sicha Shabbaton took his own place in the conversation as he related the ancient story to a recent profound family loss:

I propose that Elijah somehow entices, pulls or even forces Rabbi Yosi into the ruins. Elijah exposes Rabbi Yosi to a place of ruin, rather than allowing the good Rabbi to continue on a relatively easy path with minor blips. In this place, in these ruins, he is exposed to expressions that anger, that challenge and even inspire him.

When we enter the ruins in pursuit of meaning, we might succeed in affirming the poet’s claim:

Everything here is busy with the work of remembering:
the ruin remembers…

Ruins are to be raised, not razed.

This entry was posted in Elijah, Jerusalem, Poetry, Prayer, Talmud. Bookmark the permalink.

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