(Note: I’ve requested that this piece be published as nonfiction, even though it looks like poetry. It was originally written as a Hebrew poem that began in rhyming couplets and continued in blank verse, but it is really a kind of essay. BTW I am not a person who sees signs every day; only every now and then there comes a flurry of things that seem symbolic. In this case they served just to get me into the subject. — EC)
Each day and its signs,
Each week and its signs.
Before the election someone said to me:
Whatever you encounter this week, write down.
The first thing did not seem like a good sign:
I was asked to translate
A detailed poem about the Shoah.
The poet wasn’t there, but in imagination he saw,
And he described in living colors
How people perished by slaughter, hunger, cold, plague, fire and water
And his words put fear into my very bones,
For I asked myself, are we better than they were,
Who before the cataclysm
Were living completely ordinary lives?
True, we have a state and an army,
But what if the state and the army have lost the will to defend us?
Each day and its signs,
Each week and its signs.
Well, and a couple of days before that
A set of the Zohar with the Matok miDvash commentary that I had ordered came –
I may finish reading it in the middle of my next incarnation
If HaShem preserves the world that long,
And what will I understand?
But something attracts me to the mysteries,
And I started to read, and in the commentary this sentence stood out:
“Binah (Understanding)…will repair the defects in Malkhut (Kingdom).” I’m almost sure
The author didn’t mean to say:
If we deepen our understanding
Of the complicated situation, perhaps some way out will appear –
I read it in the light of what I want.
By the way, during these days I had another conversation
That ended with my friend saying, “Mashiach
Is coming any day now, and then everything will look different,”
And I said something vague and did not remark,
“Before the Shoah they were saying the same thing!”
If it won’t do any good, why make people feel worse?
But it’s interesting, two or three days later
I read in “Netzach Israel” [a text I’ve been studying in chevruta] that it’s true
Mashiach, as far as he’s concerned, could come any day, for he is outside time,
But in fact he will come only when the receiver is ready
And if I may understand one thing from another,
I’ll add: since the receiver is flesh and blood
And therefore time-bound, there is a place
For human action, it is worthwhile to insist.
What else did the Maharal [author of “Netzach Israel’] have to say?
That Mashiach is not part of this world, therefore he is like the sick and the poor.
And now my old friend Paul Celan steps up to me and says,
“Therefore the receiver has to be willing
To step out of time, to get away
From everything that got him prestige
In this world, in the ranks of society
To deliver himself to be outcast and ostracized
For that is the price of admitting the truth.”
And in my humble opinion he is certainly right –
Finita la commedia [Italian for: quit fooling], gentlemen!
Each day and its signs,
Each week and its symptoms.
One other thing happened, though it’s a bit more personal:
On Shabbat Tisha b’Av a poem had started to take shape
In which the rose comes up three times
In connection with Celan’s readers, whom I’ve been straining
To connect with for years,
The problem is that they look down on me
– deluded spinster, something like that,
And on the other hand Celan’s poetry is despised
By the righteous, for my old friend,
By many criteria, was no tzaddik.
He went down, let’s say, to the husks, and there fished me up,
That is, I tried to climb up but have remained on the bottom.
The day I finished that poem – a week before the elections – a box of candy arrived
And on top of the box was a rose
Made of silk. And on the first page of that Zohar commentary I read
– it was new to me, though the symbol of the rose has pursued me these fifty years –
That the word “shoshanah” (rose) is equal in gematria to “Esther.”
So maybe I am meant to give an explanation
Of that symbol in the context
Of the thorns that are growing so luxuriantly today.
Thus I wrote in creaking rhymes [the first part of the original is rhymed, the rest is in blank verse],
For my power is too weak for the subject.
I think of two lines from Shakespeare:
“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”
I sought them in Broida’s Hebrew translation
And saw he translated “flower” with “vered,” which means “rose.”
If there is no Will that sows
Such signs, then I’ve been mistaken
Ever since my soul imagined that it woke up.
From now on I’ll use blank verse [not trying to do this in translation]
Which is the meter of seriousness. Oh HaShem,
Why didn’t you give me the talent of Dante at least?
The power to create a sign that would flash
So brightly that even blindness would see.
I can only try; may You make up the deficit.
The rose is a concentric shape,
It has many petals, arranged
Around a central point, through which
The sap of life is conveyed to the petals
Each of which is as if complete
In itself, but if that hidden conduit
Which connects it to the center
Is stopped or is cut off,
Then it soon loses its freshness.
(According to scientists, every system,
All order, is maintained by energy
That is poured into it from outside,
And if it is cut off from the source of energy
Then it is subject to decay and disintegration. Here
Natural science agrees with the theologians
Who say that the Creator at every moment
Sustains the universe, which without His uninterrupted
Inflow, would soon revert to chaos, waste and void.
And this parable applies to many things.
One can see the rose as a symbol of the personality
Which has many abilities and powers
And many concerns
In various directions, but all
Are ordered around a hidden will
Which makes a whole of all these various things
As long as the heart of hearts
Is not disconnected from that one point
Through which the unifying force flows to one’s being.
And human thought, too,
As a whole, may be likened to a rose:
It has many topics and professions –
Humanities, natural and social sciences –
But each one touches, at some point, on the human being made in HaShem’s image,
And even if this point is not central to the profession,
Still it is connected to this point and through it
To all the enterprise of mind, by which
The human being is set apart from nature and connected with HaShem.
And if that connection is severed, the world
Of human thought also reverts to chaos.
This symbol also can mean the state.
In the state are many individuals,
Each one with his or her concerns,
And also groups of individuals, in which
Some concern or other acts as the unifier,
And the state as a whole also has
Many concerns and departments:
The need for defense and for success
In the arena of the world economy,
Law, education, culture, transportation,
The demands of justice, so many and varied,
And each of these concerns has
Its advocates. But if all of these
Are not attentive to their connection with the hub,
If they do not feel their belonging
To a single all-embracing creation
Then the state will certainly be torn.
Without the connection to the whole, without the vision
Of a whole that is common to all its subjects
It is not possible to seek a solution
That will meet the needs of each,
There will be no understanding among them
Nor any blessed cooperation.
One can even broaden this and see the rose
As symbol of Creation as a whole.
In which there are many and varied creatures
And various groups of creatures
And in every individual and every group
There is this central point
And each demands its own in competition
With all the others, unless
They all sense the one center,
Which calls them into being and sustains them
And orders and arranges all the details
Together in an all-embracing form,
Where each detail is included in the whole
And shines by its light, as in a poem words and images.
This is a rose composed of roses!
But without the putting-together
Without that unifying light,
Rose clashes with rose
And they turn into thorns.
And this is the sorrow
Of Israel, a nation among nations,
Which was supposed to be the rose
In which the unifying light would shine.
Why has it not yet shone forth to all?
Why does this awareness, which HaShem imposed on us
At Mount Sinai, seem to the rest like arrogance?
This is simply the concealment of the Divine countenance.
As if the Creator lacked the power
To give once more an unambiguous sign
Like the encounter at Sinai or, saving the difference,
Like that “Divine Comedy,” in which it seems
As if the universe, in all its details,
Had taken on a form, a structure of verses,
Whose beauty was admitted by many generations
Which tried in vain to compete with its perfections.
To give some such irrefutable sign…
My power is faint. And the power of the nation?…
There was one who wanted to give such a sign,
Wished to form the nation such
That no enmity would stand against its radiance.
Rav Kook! How he wrestled, how deeply
And loftily he feared and hoped!
He saw that at the center of the sciences
Torah must stand as the unifier,
The expression of the soul of creation
Struggling to unite the name of HaShem,
That at the center of the earth must be
The Promised Land as the central point
In which the circumference is sensed and embraced,
And within which must come reconciliation
Among the teaching of the fathers, the needs of the nation,
And universal justice,
Lest these three concerns should become
The flags of warring camps,
Where each in the eyes of the others
Puts on the mask of the loathed stranger
So that in the heat of enmity each forgets
The very good with which it was entrusted
And empties out, and lays waste to the whole!
These things he saw, although his soul
Longed to think only of the growth of redemption,
Of consolation and deliverance,
And did not always utter all his fear
The root of the thorns by which
The rose of Jacob has always been surrounded
He discerned: that rebellion against the yoke of Law
And the will of the Highest, to Whom
Each single thing must give itself up in order
To find itself in the beauty of the whole,
And the venom of this rebellion has become mixed
With the venom of that natural antagonism
Which every group feels for the other group,
And to these is added the revulsion
From the mark of the beaten and ostracized one,
Which the rod of the haters stamped upon Israel
Throughout the long exile.
And that threefold root which still secretes gall and wormwood
Has not been uprooted from the ground
Of those cultures on which our culture set its stamp
But the form of the seal did not penetrate to the heart
And Rav Kook saw that the day would come
When the impression would be wiped out
And from that root a more poisonous growth would sprout
Than had ever been before.
And perhaps he did not want
To see that that growth could also
Send a branch onto our ground
To root in the heart of a child of our people
And make him hate the tradition of his fathers
And blind him to the justice of our cause!
Unceasingly the voice of the accuser knocks,
Whispering, “If you say bad things about your people,
Call light darkness and darkness light,
You will be loved by us, or at least less hated,
You will be well paid and honored,
And in the eyes of universal morality
You will be considered just.”
Who have accepted that invitation, there is
No possibility of peace, brotherhood, and there is no use
In holding out a brotherly hand to them, any more
Than to the external enemy whose desire
Is to kill, destroy and wipe out,
And that desire cannot be satisfied by compromise,
Although the heart of one who has not cut himself off completely
From his country and his people
Will weave illusions that one more sacrifice of land
Will satisfy the appetite of enmity,
And that hope is a yawning abyss
Into which the deluded one will toss
The homes of his brothers whom he views
As strangers because of their loyalty
To the banner of the tradition and the land —
And that widening estrangement
Is fed by perceptions of the flaws,
Real or imagined,
Of the tradition, into which the faithful
Have withdrawn and barricaded themselves
Against the demands, both the justified and the unjustified,
Of the modern era.
Rav Kook, whose heart was bursting with love,
Tried to find in each of the camps
The point of merit, as the point
At which it could reconnect
With the whole, with the Congregation of Israel.
And thus he wrote in a letter
Published only a few years ago:
“Judaism needs to give answers
And solutions to the questions of the time,
Not only to the questions of eternity.
This is the demand of the period of national revival.
We must shake off cowardice, that curse
with which exile has fettered our spirit,
And include every science in our Torah,
And relate to the needs of the community
No less than to the Scriptures” –
I summarize this letter in terms less sharp than the ones he used.
He wrote similarly clear words
In a number of letters, but the message
Did not get out quickly
And has still not been entirely absorbed,
And the same is true of his declaration
Of the need for poetry.
Whoever has felt the form of a poem taking shape
Out of the mists and whirlpools
Of impressions and thoughts, has felt
Within himself or herself a spark of the will
That brought forth the world from chaos, from particles,
Drew the boundaries of seas and continents —
How is it possible not to sense that in Rav Kook’s view
Poetry was not just a “medium of communication”
(As such, now outmoded)
But the expression of the holistic spirit,
That unifies, gives order, and draws us back
To the Source, to the point
Through which that energy streams to the world
By which it is renewed and maintained,
And on its wings the human being rises
To the height of Understanding, the expanse of freedom,
From which it is possible to see the straight path
And rectification of the community (Malkhut), the state, and the world
Of course, there are pitfalls upon this path.
The Evil Inclination deceives us into confusing freedom with license,
And who could claim the ability to distinguish reliably between them?
Perhaps for this prophecy is needed,
And that is why the inheritors of Rav Kook
Recoiled from poetry, did not raise it up
And make a place for it in their study halls,
Did not try to plant in their garden
The seed of the poem of all-encompassing repentance
Whose reverberations in the expanses of the future
Rav Kook so wished and strained to hear.
Poetry seemed to them impractical
Beside the enterprise of settlement,
The redemption of the land. But it is said
That Malkhut is first of all speech. On that ground
The land and the earth are founded!
In the absence of the poem that could raise
The soul of the people, the ground was cut
From under Netzarim, Katif, Amona,
Whose residents, in the eyes of the deluded of the people,
Were like aliens, whom it was permissible
To sacrifice to the Moloch of false peace,
Rather than the apple of their eye, their shield,
Their treasure of courage and devotion —
And the bulldozers have not yet been dismantled.
Repentance, repentance, repentance!
Is there a way back? Rav Kook pointed
Not to a step backward in time, but
To a step outside time, toward
The source of all that happens, and of a force
That can break the chain of causality.
And this step is the step of poetry, the call from dire straits
That HaShem answers with expanse!
In the light of the continuing darkness
Paul Celan, I believe, arrived at this perception;
He focused on the point of poetry,
Even if he cast off many commandments
and, in the end, life itself!
But as Rav Kook said, “Every good characteristic,
When it comes up, brings something detrimental with it,
And this is the complete task, to bring the good traits to light
Cleansed of all the dross of the detrimental.”
(To this passage the collection of Rav Kook’s writings
Opened this morning.)
If this complete task could be undertaken
With respect to poetry,
Then to the store of human hopes would be added
One more hope — a slim one, admittedly,
But it would be well to grasp at any thread.
Poetry: its definition is not confined
To words arranged in lines and stanzas.
It is the view of the maze from above,
It is the will to the image and the form
Of the human being and an environment favorable to the human.
And therefore any poem that is awakened
By something from which the beauty of creation flashed
Builds the world and guards its inhabitants,
And even if it comes to rebuke,
It does so in defense of Creation.
And from the form of the poem a light shines forth
By which justice appears, a spirit goes forth
That animates enterprise on behalf of Malkhut.
And perhaps if the faithful will cultivate
The seed of poetry, a wind will indeed
Blow through the land bringing rains of blessing
And other good plants will spring up.
And some fine morning someone will wake up
Who loves his country the way a poet
Loves the poem that is coming into being.
Perhaps he is an engineer or a lawyer
Who reads Rav Kook and does not shy away from poetry,
And he will appoint himself as the Rectifier
Although he knows he does not know everything
And has no power. He will not work by power.
He will find friends, each of whom
Knows something: professionals
And people who have had various experiences,
Poor as well as rich, he will not despise anyone,
For everyone who comes to help, the company will find a task,
Their ears will not be deaf to the voices
Of those who are not counted among the talkers,
Those who do not yet know how to speak
And those who are forgetting how to speak,
Generations past and not yet born,
Voices from the animals and the plants
Who also share our fate.
Together they will build the model of the nation
That HaShem desires.
Slowly it will be built, slowly it will grow,
It will bear fruit whose scent will waft abroad
To all corners of the world, by honest ways,
Not propaganda and manipulation.
Slowly its beauty will conquer the heart of the people
And the world, until it becomes reality.
How far away, at present, appears
That land beneath the sun of truth and justice!
When we hear from all directions
The roar of the storm of hate which has penetrated
To our streets and meeting halls!
When I contemplate our situation
I think of the time of King Hezekiah,
When before the walls of Jerusalem
Sennacherib bragged, and behind him
The cities of Judea lay devastated
And the kingdom of Israel was bereft forever
Of the tribes that have not been found to this day.
One more breach, one last wall
Thrown down, and from the soil of the world
The root of the rose would have been torn forever,
The world would have remained without a moon.
Only a plague stopped the siege –
This is written in the book of Isaiah
And not contradicted by the tablets of Assyria.
Our lamp did not go out! And let us pray
That this time too HaShem will help
Despite the siege on all sides.
I think also of a tree planted on the shore
Of a continent in whose interior
A glacier, which nothing growing can withstand,
Is creeping slowly toward the shore.
The tree cannot run away. But still
It can grow, and maybe
The sun will come out and melt the glacier
Before it reaches the shore.
Let us hope that it may be so with us,
And that the rose will grow, as a manifestation
Of the will of the Creator who wants His world to exist,
And that for its sake the power of the hidden
In the middle of this writing
Rosh HaShanah arrived. I went to spend it
With friends. Five minutes after I arrived,
Their daughter sang to her child a song that began:
On Rosh Hashanah
A rose bloomed…
Each day and its signs…
May there be a good sign for us all.