I’m having a hard time this Chanukah, feeling weighed down by a sense of oppression. The following is my attempt at hewing through it.
In a shiur on Hasidism meant to prepare us for the Chanukah holiday, someone was moved to sing a song from the secular Zionism of the ’30’s. I gathered that it is a song every Israeli knows, which is still sung on Independence Day. Afterwards the teacher photocopied the words for me. A translation is as follows:
We Carry Torches
We carry torches in the dark nights,
The paths gleam up beneath our feet.
Whoever has a heart thirsty for light –
Let him lift his eyes and his heart to us,
To the light –
No miracle happened to us,
We did not find a cruse of oil in the cave,
We went down to the valley,
We went up on the mountain,
We uncovered springs
Of hidden lights.
They were blocked
By heavy rocks’
We hewed the rock
Till blood flowed
And there was light.
And we carry torches in the dark nights,
The paths gleam up beneath our feet.
Whoever has a heart thirsty for light,
Let him lift up his eyes and his heart to us,
To the light,
The hidden light
At first hearing, it sounds as if the speaker is denying the miracle of the oil at Chanukah. And we know that the secular Zionists did in general deny miracles and preferred self-help to prayer. However, the words do not have to be read that way. They’re not talking about the war of the Maccabees but about their own time – and they speak of “hidden lights”! If secular Zionism was fed by hidden lights, it would explain why its fighters merited miracles in the War of Independence and the Six Day War.
In the present secular generations, that spirit does not seem to be continued. I’m in the middle of a hareidi novel – Leah Fried’s Abba Chozer (Daddy Returns), in which some of the characters are secular. The grandfather, who was born to an Orthodox family in Poland but became the sole survivor of his family by turning Zionist and making aliyah, says to a friend, “The sense of mission which we had in those days, the fighting spirit and love of the land, — these things are already clichés which no one uses today.” It’s a sentence one hears often in the Hebrew literary milieu.
What if the flame is going out?
Since we are “religious” perhaps we should say this does not concern us. Yet it is thanks—ultimately to HaShem of course, but through those who sang that song with its original fervor, that we are sitting here in Israel today, in this refuge which the outside world is teaching us more and more to appreciate. And what becomes of us, if that flame goes out?
To some extent, the torch has been passed to the students of the Hesder yeshivas, who combine Torah study with army service. A Hesder yeshiva is one of the most inspiring places to daven, as I’ve felt in past years. I davened in one this year on Rosh HaShanah, and duly wrote a poem that tried to capture that sense of uplifting.
But the truth is that the energy was largely stored from previous years. This year the hakkafot were shorter…. It mirrored the sense of oppression I’d been living with, and which I’d hoped the davening would dispel. I guessed that they even more than I must be affected by a military situation where we are being attacked but the army is prevented from retaliating, apparently in deference to world opinion which seems to regard any military action on our part as a war crime. Too, there has been a change in the means of warfare that sometimes seems to make personal valor irrelevant. “It’s all girls in rooms with computers,” as I heard during Succot from someone who was showing our tour group an Iron Dome installation.
I am surely not the only one who has this sense that there is something we need to fight and we are not fighting it.
Where is the fight, and what is it against?
Where is it, exactly? Evidently, in Gaza, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iran, in the EU, in the UN, and even in the American diaspora, all those groups that support BDS. What powers it? Evidently, a recrudescent anti-Semitism, powered this time not only by the Esau’s hatred of us but by his fear of Ishmael.
But there is something else, something closer to home, something that is evidently helping us, which we have to use, but which at the same time is undermining us and in the long run may not be on our side.
Technology. Our heritage from the Greek “enlightenment,” right?
I get emails from an organization called Middle East Forum, which tracks developments in Ishmael’s ongoing war against us (and the West). A recent one noted the phenomenon of “de-platforming,” whereby high-tech institutions such as Facebook, Amazon, Visa/Mastercard, YouTube, and now Airbnb increasingly deny access to those who expose the crimes of Ishmael and represent Israel’s cause. To say nothing of the long-noted bias of the big news networks.
Technology is supposed to be neutral, right? But it isn’t really.
Mass media and manipulation
Why isn’t it neutral? Well, some wise man once said that freedom of the press is confined to those that own one. And recently technology has placed ownership of the means of communication increasingly in the hands of those who have a lot of money. The oil-rich Arab countries, for instance. But not just them. The increasing complexity of technology has led to the formation of large corporations for purposes of mass production and mass marketing. And corporations… well, as I wrote a few years ago:
A corporation hasn’t got a soul,
Whatever be the case with you and me.
Although it claims a “legal person”‘s role,
A corporation hasn’t got a soul.
Unlimited expansion is its goal,
Pursued per automatic strategy.
A corporation hasn’t got a soul,
Whatever be the case with you and me.
Machines made out of people
By their very nature, corporations are without conscience. They’re machines made of out of people. They constitute a Darwinistic world, in which corporations run by people who care where their money is coming from or what it is doing are at a disadvantage.
Moreover, the process of mass production, for which corporations were formed, is also not neutral. Mass production deprives the worker of the dignity of labor, of pride in the work of one’s hands. And it also deprives the thing of individual identity. Things of course don’t have consciousness.
But according to Kabbala there are Divine sparks hidden even in inanimate matter, and I am certain that from those sparks a cry of pain goes up, unheard, unceasingly. Moreover, things and substances had familiar names. Not often as individuals, but at least as categories. Table, chair, knife, fork, spoon; water, silver, wood. Through these names things and substances acquired associations, were woven into human speech, they had handles on them.
Today things are constantly invented and names are fashioned for them, but the names are strange to us and change too swiftly to take root in our consciousness. Thus to an increasing degree we are surrounded by things that are man-made but in a deeper sense do not belong to us, and even seem no longer to belong to the original Creator.
The desire for unnecessary things
And mass production begets mass marketing, which entails the invention of desire for unnecessary things and a constant appeal to the yetser hara. In order to create customer who will buy and discard unnecessary things in rapid succession, it is necessary to cause people to hate wisdom and humility and altruism, to make them distractible, to discourage them from perceiving that there are enduring let alone eternal values. This is a mechanical necessity, it is what media and advertising are all about. And the electronic devices are first and foremost the instruments of this purpose.
My point is that no less than the ideologies of the spin-off religions, this process is inherently against us. It is a process that enforces increasingly constant attention to external things, to the detriment of our ability to hear the inner voice through which HaShem speaks to us. It undermines any sense of uniqueness. It is nothing if not universalistic: the Chosen People and the Holy Land are concepts you cannot explain to a computer.
The result of our scientific enlightenment, then, is to make people blind.
Where are the stars?
I think of the stars which, in my childhood, could still be seen from the edge of the city. The fact that we can no longer see the stars is perhaps the clearest metaphor of our spiritual condition. Light pollution. Who ever dreamed that light itself could become a source of pollution.
Like Israel, where I live, poetry, my vocation, is threatened by this process. Poetry appeals to precisely those qualities which the process tends to undermine – attention, empathy, sense for what is important. The process makes people increasingly unable and unwilling to give poetry the attention which it requires. And in the atmosphere the process creates, it is difficult for poetry to speak of the important things in the tone which they require.
It used to be that poetry was allowed, even expected, to use a language that was somewhat elevated above the conversational tone. Listen to this, please:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken…
Where is the poesy of poetry?
Shakespeare, sonnet 116. No one, of course, ever spoke like this in conversation. This is a language that says, “I’m telling you something important.” But in contemporary poetics there is an absolute ban on such language. Language must be “colloquial.” And, of course, it’s not worth taking the trouble to write in rhyme and meter. This, I think, simply reflects the influence on poetry of the media’s inherent message that nothing is that important, nothing is worth getting on your high horse about.
You see this sometimes in the Torah world too, unfortunately – writers or lecturers who feel that to get close to their audience they need to adopt a colloquial tone, use buzz-words, talk out of the corner of the mouth.
This casual tone about everything is something that Israel cannot afford. We are in a life and death struggle, a struggle inextricably bound up with the struggle for the survival of the tselem elokim, for the medaber – the human as a speaking being not a mechanical puppet, as a being capable of seeing the true light of the universe and not just the false light that pollutes the sky.
Appreciating the need for poetry
The secular Zionists, whatever their other merits and demerits, appreciated the need for a poetry worthy of the name. They knew that they were in a struggle that they had to win, and they spoke of these things in the tone which they require. Natan Alterman was the chief big-name poet in this respect, but there were lots of others, who wrote the words of the songs that kept people going in hard times. Like Aharon Zeev, the author of “We Carry Torches” – I hadn’t heard of him till the other night.
In Lights of Renascence, HaRav Kook says something like this (I’m paraphrasing for the sake of simplicity): The secular pioneers had a stronger nefesh (the aspect of the soul most connected to physical existence) than the faithfully Torah-observant Jews of their generation. But the Torah-observant had a far more powerful ruach (a higher level of soul) than the pioneers.
One day, however, the light of nefesh and ruach will combine, and then “both groups will receive great light.”
Some of my friends believe that in the younger generations today this is occurring. Whereas religious singers used to sing mainly verses of Tanakh set to music, now there are many writing original words. Maybe be’ezrat HaShem this trend will continue, maybe they will get back to the craftsmanship of Alterman and his contemporaries. And this will contribute significantly to strengthening Israel’s resolve.
No less than the Maccabees, we are in a struggle today. And the front is not only on our borders; it is between the inner self, the tselem elokim, and the electronic media that invade our homes, that insert themselves into our relationships, that use us when we try to use them–even for holy purposes. Poetry is needed in this struggle as a way of shoring up our sense of an inner self. If that center is strengthened, we have a better chance of turning the devices we now can’t help using to our own purposes, rather than vice versa.
And my prayer is that poets will realize ever more deeply that we too are soldiers in the army of HaShem, that we have a common cause and must fight shoulder to shoulder.
I’ll close on a note of poetry and, I hope, hope, with a sonnet written some years ago.
Let us keep one another from despairing
though desperate matters in the world abound,
build bright the thought of one another’s caring
to keep at bay the fierce eyes all around.
Let’s each be witness to the other’s world:
before the other’s eyes let each unroll
those maps of truth that lie in darkness furled
when unperused by any kindred soul.
Granted, we lack the power to turn the course
of history, which tomorrow as today
declines from bad to worse and worse and worse;
yet, while we can, let’s mock it in our play.
Each moment of shared truth and shared delight
sets a bright star against the faithless night.
(Let him lift up his eyes and his heart to us,
To the light,