The Nature Of Teshuvah

An early rabbinic teaching concerns our place in the world’s time: How should we count the years and account for the crops tithed to the Temple? Each season would begin on the first day of the well-chosen month, except for the new year of the trees, about which there was a difference of opinion:

There are four new years: The first of Nisan is the new year of the kings and of the festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the new year for tithing cattle is the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei, they all agree, is the new year of the years, of the sabbatical years, and of the Jubilees, of planting and of tithing vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year of the trees, according to the school of Shammai. The school of Hillel says that the new year of the trees is the fifteenth of that month. (Mishhah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Breaking the first-of-the-month pattern, Hillel insisted—without explanation—that the 15th of Shevat should be the new year for the tithe-able produce of the trees. Later sages explained that the rains of the preceding month continue into the first two weeks of Shevat and, by the 15th of the month, they coax more fruit into the “tithing circle.”

Despite the plausible explanation, I like to think that the splendid 2-week difference in bloom and blossom, together with the luminous full moon, moved Hillel to select the 15th of Shevat as the new year.

Certainly the atmospheric grandeur of Tu (15th) B’shevat attracted the poet, Hava Pinhas-Cohen. For her, Hillel’s new year of the trees is also the new year that best invites teshuvah—repentance and return—that begins with the 1st of Tishrei new year, the only cycle of counting called Rosh Hashanah, “the new year.”

In her poem, This Is The Time, Pinhas-Cohen celebrates what she has been looking for—a season that deeply fits the nature of teshuvah.

Now, the fifteenth of Shevat, this is the time when I’m
ready for Yom Kippur, for a day of fasting, and to make
full teshuvah
and a meeting between me and you,
this is the time to open the windows and search the heavens
after the rain has fallen in its season
and in the secret recess among the trees stirs something hidden from the eye

this is the time for words, to speak them, and in short order, to enact them.
My soul is open to you and there is no man
demanding your time with the rigorous insistence of sages
and there is, in the world, a kind of attentiveness to a divine voice hidden
from the eye that goes forth in her season and Adar brings its rains
and the doors of houses open to one another with bowls of fine flour mixed
with oil and a pleasing scent rises, and a woman and her daughter
who saw the new moon go out/

to the field. This is the night on which the moon above the orchards is full
and the earth is pregnant, and I focus my attention
on banishing from the horizon the ugly and the urban
and to seeking a roof on which to stretch out in soft robes of light
and a bath of rainwater in which to immerse seven times
to shed the form of woman and mother, that night
to don the aspect of a soft bride to greet you/

(she is not a Semite) on my right, the desert, on my left, the sea
and we, by the power of the day and the offering
                                                                   transcend the words
if it is not this way, I’ll go on the tenth of Tishrei
amidst a white congregation with my face of fatigue and rebellion, and with clothes
red with blood, I will give my testimony before
                                                                  the lower court.

The season of teshuvah—repentance and return—ought not be at the Tishrei new year culminating in Yom Kippur, the poet insists. Teshuvah and its seekers are better served when nature informs the nature of teshuvah.

On Tu B’shevat, teshuvah is ascendant and budding, not edging towards winter. Such are the conditions for full teshuvah that includes a deep and honest meeting between me and you. Only here do we learn that the poet is not making her case to Hillel or to readers, but to God. Yom Kippur, aglow with the full moon of Shevat, would still be a fast day. But this fast would be draped in the splendid many-colored coat of a renewed world rather than the white shroud of the last one.

On Tu B’shevat, the world is ready for ripeness, for openness—for open doors, open windows, and open hearts; ready for words—spoken and fulfilled—and for gifts offered in fullness. After the rains, the forest holds the fresh promise of a kind of attentiveness, a divine voice—not the sharp insistence of erudite sages. In the radiant pregnant fullness of Tu B’shevat, the oneness of me and you—the divine and the human—transcends ritual and form. The moonlight rooftop bather sheds the form of mother and of woman. (She’s not even Jewish, so no particular ceremony informs the scene.) Teshuvah has nothing to do with studied ritual or legal nuance. With two indented phrases, the poet marks the contrast between the teshuvah of Tu B’shevat that rises beyond words and rituals, and the dense and tense teshuvah of the fall new year season. In Tishrei, she must encounter the heavy and wearying world of the lower court—that earthly counterpart of the yeshivah shel ma’alah, the celestial court. In the liturgy of Tishrei’s Yom Kippur, both the lower and the upper courts convene to hear testimony.

Hava will stand amongst the white-robed congregation on Tishrei’s Yom Kippur. But the upper court will not assemble until Tu B’shevat, when the buds blossom and the moon is full. Carry her poem with you between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Perhaps, “pray” it in a quiet moment and allow it to shape teshuvah of a different nature.

 

Posted in Days of Awe, Holidays, Mishnah, Poetry | Leave a comment

“I” Witness – The Song At The Sea

A fierce wind plowed the sea, piling a wall of water to either side of a seabed blown dry. Miraculously, there was stable footing for weary slaves—notwithstanding the wind that the sea itself could not withstand.

Wind, walls of water, dry ground: These are the elemental facts of the story told in Exodus 14. But facts are not the whole truth.

Facts conceal the sea, said the Hebrew poet, Zelda. Facts are a wall around the “I.”

“I” enter the sea through the Song of Exodus 15, in which similes remove the wall around the “I.”  In the Song, there is no wall of water. The water is like a mound of some sort that I am free to imagine. Like invites me into a sea of personal imagination. More than the story shared by all, the Song invites the moment lived by me.

The Song splits the facts as the “I” witness begins to cross the sea with personal amazement, terror, awe, or dread as Israel triumphs and Egypt tumbles. That water—the likes of which I have never seen before—protects me until the awe-full moment when, according to the Song, enemies sink like a stone, like lead; they are consumed like straw.

Like quickens my pulse.

No simile—no like—unites every “I” except for one. Not a simile-declaration of the comparable, but of the incomparable: Who is like you among the mighty?!

The story of Exodus 14 has no similes. But the Song, with its invitations to personal comparisons, invites the “I” witness. According to tradition, the seventh day of Passover is the very day of crossing the sea. That day’s Torah reading contains both the story and the Song. But it is only for the Song that we rise.

Posted in Holidays, Parshat HaShavuah, Passover, Poetry, Torah | Leave a comment

Slowly, And In Our Days

In a fiery chariot that rose towards heaven, Elijah disappeared from ordinary view and broke into Jewish religious imagination—now appearing at just the right moment, to prompt, protect, and provoke us to deepen ordinary events into Elijah Moments.

As a man, woman, sage, warrior, Bedouin, physician, pauper, and prince, ancient sages recognized him—sometimes in retrospect—on the road, in the ruins, and in the market. Very often, they recognized him in the doorway.

Never did one sage ask another: “But, how did you know that it was Elijah whom you met?”

Each colleague seemed eager to affirm that, even if not yet bringing the Messiah, Elijah could bring redemptive moments of sense and salvation. I cannot prove that this is so, but I too am eager to join the conspiracy to recognize Elijah in his many disguises—among them, anonymity. Here is a case in point, as remembered from my days as a congregational rabbi:

No one had claimed the hand-woven tallit of white wool with black, gold, and silver stripes found in the sanctuary after a Bar Mitzvah; nor did anyone respond to “lost and found” notices.

In the everyday world of remembering and forgetting, of lost and found, that tallit would likely have been forgotten on a storage shelf. But in the world of Elijah moments, the tallit was not lost, only found—a gift from Elijah!

From that day to this in our synagogue, Elijah’s tallit is used only on certain occasions: It becomes a huppah, or the covering of a “Chair of Elijah” at an infant’s covenant celebration. During the month of Elul, Elijah’s tallit covers a chair set before the Ark where individuals can spend private moments looking for Elijah moments at the door of the new year.

Neither we nor our ancestors ever summon Elijah, but the prophet appears to us through, and throughout, the parts of our everyday lives. The work of a whole life is to see as many parts as we can. The possibility of Elijah encourages me to look for a deeper part—hiding in plain sight. Patience is a key:

Said Elijah, always remembered for the good… I do not reveal myself except to one who is not impatient. Happy is the one who has met Elijah, the one who has sat with him. (Kallah Rabbati, 5)

May Elijah come slowly, and in our days!

 

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Hesed Is The Prayer And The Answer

When Sarah died at the age of 127, Abraham’s family lost its hesed, the caring, steadfast acts that connect people and sustain the world. Sarah’s hesed was unfailing, even in difficult times. Let this be your hesed to me, Abraham had once said to Sarah when he proposed how she might save him from threatening rulers by posing as his sister instead of his wife (Genesis 20:13).

Under the best of circumstances, a life as long as Sarah’s is a reminder of the difference between what is sad and what is tragic. But, some say that Sarah died of a broken heart, for Abraham had lost his own hesed to a blinding revelation that he should sacrifice their son, Isaac. In that moment, he was no longer the exemplar of hesed as he had been to hungry and tired strangers at the door, to kin held captive, and to unknown residents of the violent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

With Sarah’s death, Abraham resolved to restore the hesed that he had once known and that Sarah had never abandoned. The new days, going forward, required the connectedness of the old days; they required the old family wellspring of hesed, the unending flow ready to be drawn up and shared.

Abraham’s servant found the very place where the metaphor and the water converged—the wellspring marking his arrival in the home district of Abraham’s family in Aram-Nahara’im. Here, where water was drawn and hesed was offered to strangers, the faithful servant became a master of prayer, an exemplar for all who would follow. He asked for hesed in his master’s name, as Abraham himself had once asked Sarah.  He did not pray for a miraculous divine act, but for a human act of hesed:

He made the camels kneel by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and act with hesed towards my master, Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar  that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘drink, and I will also water your camels’- let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have acted with hesed towards with my master” (Genesis 24:11-14).

Those were days of hesed, back when Sarah had stood at that spring; days so necessary, and now, so absent. Abraham’s servant drew the yearning for hesed into a prayer. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, drew that same yearning into a poem:

“Those were days of hesed,” I heard them say once
on a winter street during days of loneliness and pain.
Even for days of hesed we need at least two,
one to give hesed and one to receive it.
When they are separated, the hesed does not abide
or it is spilled into the street as if from a broken pipe.

Religions do not do hesed, they only inform
empty time, with a bell, with a muezzin’s call,
with a siren or a shofar, with knocks on the door
during days of penitence. Religions are not able
to inform either God or his hesed.

Since the day that sacrifices ended
each person is left himself
to sacrifice.

The hesed of once-upon-a-time is a nostalgic memory especially vivid on dark winter days. Loneliness and pain are most keenly felt in the absence of hesed. Those were the days, they used to say; by days, meaning at least two. Perhaps those days were the last gasp of the plural—the final two days before hesed would spill out for lack of connectedness.

Hesed flows through connected days. Abraham’s servant, as well as the poet, knew that human connection makes for hesed; the day is only a carrier. Religions are only carriers. Even God is only a carrier of hesed. The fullness of hesed flows through human acts, and Amichai taught that each of us has only the self to bring to the task.

Go forth and do small things. Look to fellow humans for the everyday evidence of hesed. The bucket drawn from the spring is not hesed. Hesed is the one who does the drawing.

Posted in Blessing, Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Torah | 2 Comments

Wholly Complete And Holy Incomplete

The Torah’s first creation story concludes:

Va-yechulu…And the heaven and the earth and all of their ranks were finished. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done and rested on the seventh day from all of the work that he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it for upon it he ceased from all the work that he had created. (Genesis 2:1-3)

Since ancient times, these verses have been a part of the prayers for the Sabbath eve. For Rabbi Hamnunah, a 3rd-4th century Babylonian teacher, Va-yechulu was not mere recitation. It was the deepest of truths, personally experienced by participants in the very act of creation:

Rabbi Hamnunah said: Everyone who prays on the Sabbath eve, reciting Va-yechulu, Scripture accounts that person as a partner with the Blessed Holy One in the acts of creation. As it says: Va-yechulu. Don’t read it as Va-yechulu, the heavens and earth and all of their ranks were finished; rather, as Va-yechalu, they [God and reciter] finished the heavens and the earth and all of their ranks.

The very word, Va-yechulu, offered Rabbi Hamnunah the opportunity to press his point into the (finished) sacred text. Va-yechulu, they were finished, is spelled without a full complement of vowel-letters—ויכלו, instead of ויכולו.  The fixed and finished written evidence allows for another reading: not, they [heaven and earth] were finished, but, they [God and humans] finished.

When we raise a cup of wine to make Kiddush and sanctify the day, we first recite Va-yechulu, remembering our role in the making of the world. We recite Va-yechulu with the authority of a creator who, every Sabbath, experiences the satisfaction of the artist surveying the work and deeming it to be finished.

Rabbi Hamnunah held ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ so gently together in the palm of his teaching! As he declared humans to be partners in the world’s finishing, he rendered the blueprint-text incomplete without his reading of it. The letters were finished, but not their meaning.

Rabbi Hamnunah might well have appreciated the insight of the modern Israeli poet Rivka Miriam who made the same Va-yechulu verses into a prayer-like poem celebrating the open-endedness of creation.

Don’t finish like the finishing of your heavens,
like finishing the starry dust of their ranks.
In your mysterious incompleteness I will be sanctified.

The poet declares herself sanctified by— the same word means ‘dedicated to’—endless imagination. Hers is the language of Va-yechulu: The heavens/shamayim and their ranks/tzeva’am were finished/Va-yechulu and sanctified/va-yikadesh. But for Rivka, the finishing of creation must prompt the beginning of creativity. At a certain point, the creator-poet lifts her pen for the final time and deems her poem to be finished, even though its meaning is not complete.

With the help of our teachers, Rabbi Hamnunah and Rivka Miriam, we renew the cycle and roll the scroll through another year, celebrating what is wholly complete and holy incomplete.

Posted in Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Prayer, Shabbat, Talmud | Leave a comment

Heroes Who Limp

Jacob’s midnight assailant was surprised at his adversary’s great strength. He wondered if Jacob might be an angel like himself. Angels have no leg joints, the midrash teaches, so he touched Jacob at the hip to determine whether his opponent’s power was earthly or heavenly. The angel’s mere touch dislocated Jacob’s hip, but the attacker gained no advantage. Indeed, the angel’s surprise that Jacob was only human might have helped the patriarch to prolong the struggle until first light when he could wrestle a blessing. The angel departed as daylight grew and the wounded Jacob set out to meet his brother Esau.

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping on account of his hip (Genesis 32:32).

It intrigues me to imagine that Jacob’s earthly joint brought the heavenly blessing of a new name, Yisrael: You have struggled [sarita] with God [el] and you have prevailed (Genesis 32:29). My intrigue is of a personal nature; his story is mine. My Hebrew name is Yisrael. My grandfather was Jacob, and I also have a joint that has been touched by wear and tear. I am always struggling to make my earthly knee—berech—into a source of heavenly blessing—beracha. I, for one, am heartened by a hero who limps.

Many ancient sages applied their interpretive arts to quickly heal Jacob of his limp. More than a few taught: Don’t read, the sun rose upon him. Rather, read the verse literally: The sun rose for him [va-yiz’rach lo]; it rose with the added purpose of healing him. A prophetic verse encourages the claim that the sun of righteousness shall rise upon you [or, for you,] who revere my name, with healing in its wings (Malachi 3:20).

In pursuit of the healing for which they were so eager, these teachers reread, The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping, as, The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel while he was still limping on account of his hip. But after he passed Penuel, Jacob was limping no longer. The Torah narrative soon confirmed the healing, the sages taught, noting that after that day’s reunion with Esau, Jacob arrived safely [shalem] in the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18). Don’t read it that he arrived safely [shalem] in the city of Shechem. Rather, understand the verse to mean that Jacob had become whole, shalem, in body by the time he reached Shechem. His limp was gone and never mentioned again.

I prefer a hero who limps, and I seek out the company of those teachers who allow me my hero. Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Rashi) was of two minds as to whether Jacob continued to limp. On the one hand, Rashi taught that the sun rose upon him is a common figure of speech: “By the time we reached such-and-such a place, the sun rose upon us.” In other words, Jacob had broken camp early and was already limping along when the sun rose. On the other hand, Rashi could not resist citing the midrash that the sun rose with a special benefit for Jacob, to heal him of his limp.

Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), earned my gratitude by unequivocally confirming Jacob’s limp as an ongoing condition. According to him, the plain meaning of verse was that the sun rose upon him [making it clear for all to see that] he was limping! The sun did not serve to heal, but to reveal to all that Jacob bore his blessing in the imperfect carrier that was his body.

When Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd century) returned from a mission to Rome, Rabbi Hanina met him as he limped off the ship: “You resemble [Jacob,] your grandfather,” he said. Did Rabbi Hanina note his friend’s limp with surprise? Was Rabbi Joshua’s halting step perhaps the result of a recent accident, or of cramped quarters aboard ship? Or perhaps Rabbi Joshua had always limped—although that characteristic is ascribed to him only this once.

In any event, Rabbi Hanina saw in Rabbi Joshua’s limp the renewed story of a hero who emerged limping from an epic struggle. Jacob’s struggle had been with the guardian angel of Esau; Rabbi Joshua’s contest had been with Rome—founded by Esau’s descendants. Merely by “touching” Rabbi Joshua’s hip, Rabbi Hanina renewed the ancient blessing that had emerged from that weak place.

Rivka Miriam is a modern Hebrew poet who continues the tradition of Rabbi Hanina by preserving Jacob’s limp as an asset, not as an infirmity:

And in the inner room we keep Moses’ heaviness of mouth
Isaac’s weak eyes, and Jacob’s dragging leg.
And when war stirs us, it is to the inner room we go
To examine them closely.
For each one who goes out to battle wraps himself in just these.

Jacob’s limp is among our treasured images of the courage and persistence that thrive in the company of our frailties. It is nothing less than a struggle-with-an-angel to wrestle forth the blessing that emerges from the weak place. If we remember that we grow—skin and bone—most vigorously around the wounded spot, then the limp itself can be its own blessed reminder and encouragement, sunrise after sunrise.

Posted in Angels, Blessing, Midrash, Poetry, Torah | 4 Comments

Meaning Beyond All Blessings And Poems

“I want my kids to say Kaddish for me after I die, but I can’t explain to them why, or what Kaddish means to me. I’ve looked at the translation—but that’s not what the Kaddish means to me; and if that is what it means, my kids will never say it.”

As a rabbi, I have heard versions of this predicament many times from American Jews who have inherited the western, secular, intellectual culture that is the primary source of meaning in their lives. But the people who speak to me about such matters also feel the pull of their Jewish legacy, The Jewish inheritance of deepest concern to them consists of customs, symbols, and words addressing mortality, love, faith, frailty, and future. Each of these a theme beyond expression gathered into a prayer that words can barely contain.

It’s easy to get lost in the ravine between the prayer book’s facing pages—the mysterious and resonant vocabulary of Jewish religious imagination on one side, and what is often the thin sound of translation on the other. The multiple meanings of the Kaddish are deeply held but not easily explained and are perhaps incapable of being understood by way of translation.

“How do I tell myself what the Kaddish means?” my questioner implicitly asks. Equally implicit and moving: “How do I share that meaning to make it understood by—maybe even compelling to—my children?”

In earlier generations, the authority of traditional practice likely subdued such questions. But now, in an environment where individual articulation and self-understanding are prized, the authority of tradition is less important than the personal inspiration that those traditions might offer. And yet, articulation is trapped between the blessings of communal tradition and the depths of personal meaning.

Modern Jewish poets reflecting on the Kaddish might especially inspire those who struggle to express personal meaning. Poets test the limits of language; whereas, most of us are reluctant to speak an untested word – a word that could press on a sensitive spot in one who relies on the reasonable and the rational. Exacting, literal translations do not satisfy. But the poets might free us from such tired literalism, and from an unsatisfying crossing of the ravine between the prayer book’s pages.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai animated the first two words of the Kaddish, commending a lost friend to their vigilant care: “Two giants, yit-gadal and yit-kadash watch over your death.” These first words of the Aramaic Kaddish are unchanged in Amichai’s modern Hebrew. Their mysterious power overwhelms literal meaning. Any translation misses the drama of words come-to-life, as giants taking upon their enormous shoulders the task of protecting the dead. To recite the Kaddish is to call these giants once more to their task and to enter the mysterious dynamic of keeping the images that keep us.

In his poem “Kaddish,” a memorial to his mother, the great Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg recounts being “up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph, the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—and read Adonai’s last triumphant stanzas aloud.”

Meaning and mourning are alive in the sound, in the sway of the Kaddish; in “the rhythm the rhythm” of sounds remembered and recited: “yit-barach, v’yish-tabach, v’yit-pa’ar, v’yit-romam v-yit-nasei, v’yit-hadar, v’yit-aleh, v’yit-halal…”  Meaning carried by rhythm and blues is, in the very words of the Kaddish, “l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata – beyond all blessings and poems;” meaning that is deeply understood when the “blues shout blind.”

Both for Amichai and Ginsberg, the Kaddish offers a personal meaning for personal mourning against the backdrop of the ancient communal prayer. Amichai summons his powerful image of the Kaddish in an unnamed poem of eleven lines about a lost childhood friend. Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” names the ancient mourning rite as the framework for his individualistic, idiosyncratic, mourning that spans fifty pages.

For the contemporary American poet, Marge Piercy, the Kaddish does more than name her into an ancient tradition of mourning. Rather, her poem makes of the  Kaddish a meaningful contemporary response to loss, in a work that blurs the distinction between poem and prayer. Refusing to let the Kaddish rest in the mysterious peace of its own ancient power and pull, Piercy transposes the Kaddish into a modern English liturgy. She names her poem, “Kaddish,” as did Ginsberg. The name, “Kaddish,” is a testament for Piercy to a communal tradition both revered and renewed. Her project prompts me to produce the poem in full:

Look around us, search above us, below, behind.
We stand in a great web of being joined together.
Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us is the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let’s say amen.

Time flows through us like water.
The past and the dead speak through us.
We breathe out our children’s children, blessing.

Blessed is the earth from which we grow,
blessed the life we are lent,
blessed the ones who teach us,
blessed the ones we teach,
blessed is the word that cannot say the glory
that shines through us and remains to shine
flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.
Let’s say amen.

Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,
but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let’s say amen.

Peace that bears joy into the world,
peace that enables love, peace over Israel
everywhere, blessed and holy is peace, let’s say amen.

Piercy begins by enjoining all to acknowledge the “great web of being.” Thus, does she replace the theology of the ancient Kaddish which begins by enjoining all to “Magnify (yit-gadal) and sanctify (yit-kadash) the Great Name.” Amichai’s giants have no power; praise of the “Great Name” of God is nowhere to be found. Piercy does not call for a life of praise, but a praise of life; not unending life under divine sovereignty, but life that is its own end, and unending; combining and surpassing the span and vitality of an individual’s years.

Piercy’s “Kaddish” elaborates the importance of community. In her first stanza, it is “we” who twice extol life. Five times in that stanza, Piercy reminds “us” that life is to be loved and praised. This set of five is followed by one more “us” contracted into “let’s say amen,” an informal inflection of the final exhortation concluding the short prayers for life and peace that conclude the Kaddish; the two prayers that Allen Ginsberg calls, “Adonai’s last triumphant stanzas.”

Piercy concludes four stanzas of her “Kaddish” in this manner, finally expanding the ancient prayer’s concluding plea for peace; a plea to which, with softened authority, she invites all to say, “amen.”

Against the backdrop of new meaning, Piercy refocuses old language.  Words such as “praise,” “blessing,” “holy,” “amen,” “forever,” and “Kaddish,” resonate with meaning larger than the poet who meant them; demonstrating anew the durable and enduring vocabulary of Jewish religious imagination that transcends translation. As Piercy renews religious language, she also celebrates its limits; standing at the edge of her words to “bless the word that cannot say the glory that shines through us.”

Perhaps these three poets will inspire us to trust our own imaginations as we search for what cannot easily be said—or read—from the translation across the ravine of facing Hebrew and English pages. As with the poets who inspire us, perhaps there is something deeply known—not new—that we will liberate from silence. On the other hand, perhaps the inspired search for meaning will lead us to a deep and meaningful silence that we can finally, unapologetically, liberate from words.

May we—in addition to our words—discover an informed and eloquent silence in which the unsayable is not an awkward failure of speech, but rather an occasion of hushed reverence for what is beyond all blessings and poems. And let’s say amen.

 

 

 

Posted in Kaddish, Poetry, Prayer | 3 Comments

Jerusalem And The Held Back Scream

The Jerusalem Talmud recounts:  When David came to dig the foundations of the Temple he dug fifteen thousand cubits but had not reached the Deep.  Finally, he uncovered a cluster of stones and was about to lift it when one rock spoke to him and said:  Do not touch me… Even so, David did not listen and once the rock was lifted the Deep arose, threatening to submerge the world.

Jerusalem, with the Temple Mount at its center, is the place where the heavens and the depths touch. The very foundation of its foundation is a place of awe-filled and awful power. Says the poet, Yehuda Amichai, it is upon this precarious foundation that Jerusalem exists:

Jerusalem is built on the arched foundations
of a held back scream. If there were no reason
for the scream, the foundations would be shattered, the city would collapse,
if the scream should be screamed, Jerusalem would explode into the heavens.
arches

The living, breathing architecture and anatomy of Jerusalem are one and the same. The arch of the inflated lungs is the foundation of the city. The arch keeps its shape only because of the stopped throat holding back the justifiable scream, a scream that takes no sides.

The city exists because of the tension between reason and responsibility.

So we have been warned by David, Jerusalem’s the ancient poet, and by her modern poet Amichai:  brazenness that ignores Jerusalem’s complexity threatens the core of the world.

Posted in Jerusalem, Poetry, Talmud | 4 Comments

Naming The Unimaginable

At the harrowing end, a ram replaced Yitzhak as the sacrifice; a narrow escape that came only after two divine interventions to divert father Abraham from his unimaginable mission.

Generations of rabbinic storytellers imagined even narrower escapes for Yitzhak, placing him as close to death as they dared; hoping to keep Abraham’s faithfulness (and Yitzhak’s resolve) intact beyond any question, to the point of no return.

In one sequence, Abraham began the sacrifice of his son, shedding a quarter of Yitzhak’s blood. Yitzhak would have died from this mortal wound had angels not taken him away to the Garden of Eden where he was healed over three years.

Another account relates that Yitzhak was—almost literally—frightened to death. Upon realizing that he would survive, Yitzhak created the blessing that would become fixed in his name: Blessed are You… who revives the dead.

In the most extraordinary escape of all, Yitzhak was actually sacrificed, reduced to ash, and then resurrected. In this story, the angels—not Yitzhak—created the blessing that celebrates reviving the dead.

An escape story much closer to the Torah’s narrative relates that Yitzhak was replaced on the altar by the bellwether of Abraham’s flock, a sheep named “Yitzhak.” Thereby, “Yitzhak” was sacrificed—even as Yitzhak lived.

A mortal wound and a miraculous recovery, a near-death trauma, a resurrection, and a pet sheep—not a ram—named Yitzhak: Each story set aside the scriptural account, edging closer to the unimaginable.

Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, added a more astounding tale to the tradition of such stories in which he went so far as to name the unimaginable: A father did, in fact, sacrifice his son; and that son’s name was Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry, a tragically prophetic name:

Abraham had three sons, not just two.
Abraham had three sons:
Yishmael/ Let-God-Listen, Yitzhak/Let-Him-Laugh, and Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry.

No one has heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest
the beloved one offered as an offering on Mount Moriah.
Yishmael was saved by his mother, Hagar, Yitzhak was saved by an angel,
but Yivkeh was not saved by anyone. When he was little
his father loving called him, Yivkeh, Yiv’k, Yeiv’k my little
darling. But he sacrificed him at the Akedah.
In the Torah is written the ram, but it was Yivkeh.
Yishmael never listened to God again in his life.
Yitzhak never laughed again in his life
and Sarah laughed only once, and never again.
Abraham had three sons,
Yishma/Let-Him-Listen, Yitzhak/Let-Him-Laugh, Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry,
Yishmael, Yitzhakel, Yivkeh-el.
[Let-God-Listen, Let-God-Laugh, Let-God-Cry.]

The Torah would not say it, but the poet insisted: Abraham sacrificed a son, Yivkeh—not a ram—on Mount Moriah. It is a fact that Yitzhak did not die. But Amichai allowed no escape from the truth into the facts. You don’t remember a child named Yivkeh from the Torah’s story? No matter; you don’t remember a wound, a resurrection, or a sheep named “Yitzhak,” either.

Yivkeh, not Yitzhak, was the beloved one offered as an offering on Mount Moriah (although Genesis 22:2 described Isaac with this language). Yivkeh, alone among the sons, was the beloved one of nicknames so endearing that those names underscored the horror of what would come.

His name foreshadowed his fate. Just so, his brothers’ names ironically described their own lives after the traumas from which they would escape. Yishmael would never listen again. Neither Yitzhak nor his mother would laugh.

The poet named the unimaginable from the very beginning: Abraham had three sons, not just two. But in the end, indirection powerfully carried his point from earthbound life to the very heavens.

Indirectly, Amichai revealed that the name Yivkeh itself is a nickname—a short form of Yivkeh-el/Let-God-Cry. Just so, the name Yitzhak shortened the fuller Yitzhak-el/Let-God-Laugh. Both names follow the full-name form of the oldest brother, Yishmael/Let-God-Listen.

God’s presence, visible or not, makes of a name a hope, or a prayer: Let God listen, Let God laugh. When naming the unimaginable, a name becomes a living protest, an indictment, a demand: Let God cry!

 

Posted in Midrash, Names, Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Torah | Leave a comment

Believe it—And Not

Noah was lacking in belief, taught the 3rd century teacher, Rabbi Yohanan. If not for the water reaching his ankles, he would not have entered the ark.

Lacking in belief? Noah, who fulfilled the twin tasks of building the great ark and gathering its passengers? Rabbi Yohanan pressed his extraordinary claim through the verse:  Noah… went into the ark because of the flood water (Genesis 7:7).

The verse itself does not shout Noah’s lack of faith. True, an earlier verse (Genesis 7:1) related that God’s command to enter the ark came before the rain began, helping to make the case that Noah hesitated. But hesitation is not the same as lack of belief. Something more compelling than the Torah text demanded the sage’s conclusion; namely, that these verses pointed to a deep human characteristic. Despite any indications, just like Noah, we sometimes simply refuse to believe that a thing will happen—until it does.

800 years later in northern France, Rashi elaborated Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching. Said Rashi: Noah, also, was among those people who are lacking in faith. He believed, and he did not believe, that the flood would come; so, he would not enter the ark until the water forced him.

For 800 years—from Rabbi Yohanan to Rashi—there is no evidence that any other teacher saw in the Noah story the Torah’s timeless assurance that contemporary souls are not alone in the tangle of belief.

To believe and—at the same time—not believe is unprecedented language unique to Rashi describing a human condition that is not unique at all. The Torah whispers it, but the compassionate teacher shouts it; assuring fellow-travelers that they are not alone in a world where floods threaten and believing is complicated.

Posted in Midrash, Parshat HaShavuah, Torah | 4 Comments