“If I should say I have hope”

amos211Most of the time I do not know the full meaning of what I and others do and say. These actions and words have many rungs; even at my strongest, I climb only a few. The Book of Ruth has something to do with these levels.

Shavuot involved many preparations. People brought food, flowers, and more; they helped with setup, cleanup, and details of the service. I prepared to lead a study session and two services (Kabbalat Shabbat and Shavuot). The Shavuot service included a Hallel (with many melodies, including Shlomo Carlebach’s “Ma Ashiv“), the Aseret haDibrot (Ten Commandments), and the first chapter of Ruth. So I was studying and practicing up to the last minute.

When preparing to chant Ruth, I came to understand Naomi’s words in new ways. She pours out grief and despair but also, without knowing it, keeps hinting toward hope.

She loses first her husband, then, about a decade later, her two sons; on the way back from the fields of Moab (where they had been living) to Bethlehem, her home, she urges her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to go back to their mothers’ homes, since there is nothing for them here.

ח  וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי, לִשְׁתֵּי כַלֹּתֶיהָ, לֵכְנָה שֹּׁבְנָה, אִשָּׁה לְבֵית אִמָּהּ; יעשה (יַעַשׂ) יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם חֶסֶד, כַּאֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם עִם-הַמֵּתִים וְעִמָּדִי. 8 And Naomi said unto her two daughters-in-law: ‘Go, return each of you to her mother’s house; the LORD deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me.
ט  יִתֵּן יְהוָה, לָכֶם, וּמְצֶאןָ מְנוּחָה, אִשָּׁה בֵּית אִישָׁהּ; וַתִּשַּׁק לָהֶן, וַתִּשֶּׂאנָה קוֹלָן וַתִּבְכֶּינָה. 9 The LORD grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband.’ Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept.

She probably does not understand, as she speaks, that her words can be heard in more than one way. Orpah hears the literal meaning of “mother’s house” and eventually obeys Naomi’s command. Ruth perhaps hears the words differently; perhaps she sees Naomi as her mother–not the mother who gave her birth, but her mother in adulthood. She insists on staying. So, both Orpah and Ruth obey Naomi, but at different levels of her words.

Before Orpah and Ruth part ways, Naomi continues to make her case (in verses 11-13). “Turn back, my daughters, go your way,” she says, “for I am too old to have a husband.” And then: “If I should say: I have hope, should I even have an husband to-night, and also bear sons; would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye shut yourselves off for them and have no husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes, for the hand of the LORD is gone forth against me.”

“I am too old to have a husband” (“ki zakanti mihyot le’ish”)–those words immediately bring to mind Sarah’s words–and especially God’s paraphrase of them (“Ha’af umnam eled, va’ani zakanti”)–in Genesis 18:12-13. Through this echo, Naomi suggests unwittingly that she might have a second husband (and a child) yet; in the second part of the verse, her hint grows even stronger, “If I should say: I have hope….” We know from the last chapter that she will have another child–not her own, but Ruth’s, whom she will nurse.

Naomi’s words may also carry a trace of Psalm 37, verse 25, (“I have been young, and now am old [na’ar hayiti–gam zakanti]; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread”). This allusion seems likely especially given the importance of Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” in the first chapter, and given Naomi’s very gesture (mentioned in Ruth 1:6) of returning to Bethlehem because she had heard “that the LORD had remembered His people in giving them bread.”

Her words of despair in verse 13–“ki yatz’a vi yad [Hashem]” (“for the hand of the Lord has gone out [to/for/against] me”)–suggest a direct relation with God, not a state of abandonment. In her grief she feels God physically touching her. It is these relations between two–between Naomi and God, between Naomi and Ruth, between Ruth and Boaz–that bring forth unexpected joy.

In this sense, Ruth’s words bring out hidden meanings of Naomi’s own:

טו  וַתֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה שָׁבָה יְבִמְתֵּךְ, אֶל-עַמָּהּ, וְאֶל-אֱלֹהֶיהָ; שׁוּבִי, אַחֲרֵי יְבִמְתֵּךְ. 15 And she said: ‘Behold, thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto her god; return thou after thy sister-in-law.’
טז  וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת אַל-תִּפְגְּעִי-בִי, לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ:  כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין–עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי. 16 And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God;
יז  בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת, וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר; כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה יְהוָה לִי, וְכֹה יוֹסִיף–כִּי הַמָּוֶת, יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵךְ. 17 where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.’

Naomi says, essentially: “Do what your sister-in-law is doing: return to your people and your god.” Ruth replies with both a “no” and a “yes”; she asks Naomi to stop entreating her to leave, but then explains that Naomi’s home will be her home; Naomi’s people, her people; and Naomi’s god, her god. In other words, she is returning home, just as Naomi begged her to do; she is joining with Naomi so that the two will  be one.

Now the two proceed to Bethlehem, where all the city take notice of them, and the women ask, “Is this Naomi?”

Here Naomi invokes a Biblical motif of renaming; she asks them to call her not Naomi, but Marah, since the Lord has dealt bitterly with her. This request carries hubris–who is she to rename herself?–but also a recognition. To my knowledge, renamings happen only four times in the Torah: in Genesis 17, when God tells Abram that he will henceforth be Abraham and that Sarai will be Sarah; in Genesis 32, after Jacob wrestles with God all night long, and God tells him that his name from now on will be Israel; and in Numbers 13, when Moses renames Hosea, son of Nun, Joshua (this is mentioned only in passing). In asking for a renaming, Naomi senses not only the presence of God but the catastrophe of the moment (“catastrophe” not only in the sense of “terrible occurrence” but also in the sense of “overturning”). The renaming does not occur, but the overturning does. A new life begins to form, but not as she imagined it.

Thus Naomi does not hear the full meaning of her own words; they hold more than she can know in the moment. Some might dismiss her as a complainer, as a bitter old woman, but in Hebrew her words break  the heart: “Al b’notai,” “no, my daughters.” She carries not only grief, not only hidden hope, but tenderness. I imagine her magnificence and courage. Ruth recognizes something in her; so do the people who have not seen her in years.

In the Shavuot service, as I have done before, I brought into the liturgy the melody of “Szól a kakas már” (“The Rooster is Already Calling”)–following the example of Rabbi Ariel Pollak, who leads services at Szim Salom about once a month.

This is no ordinary song. The lyrics are in Hungarian and Hebrew. According to legend, the first Kaliver Rebbe, Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1751-1821), learned and purchased it from a shepherd, who, after teaching it to him, forgot it completely. The Rebbe (once a shepherd himself) would often walk among the shepherds and learn songs from them. Because of its Messianic longing and grief, the song later came to be associated with the Holocaust. Still it goes beyond time and place. Once you have heard it, it goes where you go.

Here’s a beautiful rendition by Zalán Lehner (listen also to Márta Sebestyén and read some history and commentary).

I sang the melody only briefly; after I stopped, I could hear people still humming it. The humming lingered, turning thinner and thinner. Then it disappeared into the quiet.

I have known this for some time, but now I understood it more fully: to lead a service, you listen to it. You hear and carry what it already holds: the day and its meaning, the cadences of the text, the dimensions of the words, the people in the room, the person in front of, behind, or beside you, the hope in Naomi’s cries, the thing you awkwardly call faith (when you call it anything), and histories, melodies, losses, yearnings that go so far beyond you, on all sides, that all you can do is walk along and learn.


Art credit: Hajnalvárás (Waiting for Dawn) by Imre Ámos (1907-1945). Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The quotations from Ruth are courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website. The interpretations are my own, but I imagine that many others have made similar points.

I have recorded Ruth 1:11-13 so that anyone interested can listen to these verses.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

“But I have promises to keep”

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Today the first December snow fell on Szolnok—this is a view of my street—so it’s fitting that I will be teaching my ninth-grade students “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” this week. But it’s fitting in other ways, too; I think of the poem’s gentle contemplation and humor, its tension between digression and direction, its humor and questions, and its final dreamy turn toward duty.

The teaching is going beautifully; I am grateful for the school and hope to stay there a long time. I am in no way ready compare schools here with schools in the U.S.; one school is not the same as schools in general, and I am still learning how things work. But besides that, I have something else to tell right now.

On November 22, the rabbi called me with a question. The shul was badly in need of a chazzan (cantor); would I be willing to serve in this role every other Shabbat (when I already come to shul)? I said yes, not because I felt ready, but because I would take on the learning. It isn’t just a matter of singing well, or knowing Hebrew, or even knowing the nusach and melodies.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the cantor’s responsibilities in his essay “The Vocation of the Cantor,” which must be read slowly and carefully. The cantor does more than sing; he or she communicates with the congregation and the people of Israel, goes deep into prayer, senses the right melodies for the right times, responds to the text and the moment, and brings out internal truth.  But there’s a heimish side to it too; often the chazzan is someone in the shul who has taken on the role. That’s the case here.

The role sounds daunting, but no, it’s just immense. If we don’t confront immensity at some point, what are our lives for? Life is dreary and delusive if we’re always looking down at tasks we’ve finished and packaged up, things we can check off a list or click on a phone. So I said yes and started preparing, and realized, early on, that I could not check anything off a list. I learned melodies; I started learning a new nusach. I went over familiar and unfamiliar text again and again. I remembered chazzanim and melodies and chants. It still seemed too big for me, and then I  realized that was how it should feel.

It went well, and so the beginning has begun. The rabbi introduced me warmly as the new chazzanit (female chazzan), and everyone gave me a “Shehecheyanu.” As soon as I started and  heard people joining in, I knew things would be fine. I also had a chance to leyn Torah (the first three aliyot of Vayishlach: that is, Genesis 32:4-13) and to speak about these verses.

Verses 10 through 13 of Genesis 32 are sometimes my favorite in all of Torah. Jacob has just started heading home from the house of Laban, with his two wives, servants, and animals. He has crossed the Jordan. But after hearing from his messengers that Esau is coming to see him with four hundred men, he becomes afraid and divides his company into two camps. But then he has a crisis of doubt:

י  וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב, אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם, וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק:  יְהוָה הָאֹמֵר אֵלַי, שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתְּךָ–וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ. 10 And Jacob said: ‘O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who saidst unto me: Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will do thee good;
יא  קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:  כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי, לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. 11 I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps.
יב  הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי, מִיַּד עֵשָׂו:  כִּי-יָרֵא אָנֹכִי, אֹתוֹ–פֶּן-יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי, אֵם עַל-בָּנִים. 12 Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.
יג  וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ, הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ; וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב. 13 And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’

 

Part of what I love is that Jacob can stop himself in a big mistake. The trope brings this out; in verse 11, the first word is “katonti,” which means “I am not worthy,” “I am insignificant,” or “I have fallen short.” The first half of the verse has to do with the goodness that God has shown him; the trope etnachta sets this off from the second part, which has to do with Jacob himself. The second part divides again into two parts, the first having to do with Jacob’s crossing of the Jordan (which God commanded him to do, in commanding him to return home) and the second with his becoming two camps (which he did out of fear). So this “katonti” can be felt in the very division of the verse; he himself has been divided in two. The trope indicates these halves through the zakef katon melodic phrase. This Jacob sees his division and puts it into words, not only his own, but words of God; through quoting God twice (in verses 10 and 13), he enters into dialogue.

If he had not stopped to think about what he was doing, to remember the promises and his shortcomings, then he might not have wrestled with God that night or reconciled with Esau the next day. Who knows? I can’t say this for sure. But to me these verses suggest, among other things, the power of seeing one’s own errors, of pausing, thinking, and remembering. They have extraordinary beauty in Hebrew and have been made into a song. I have returned to them many times over the past few years; when I first read them, I understood the thirteenth verse as God’s response to Jacob in the moment. Now I read it differently but still sense Jacob hearing the holy words in their full  life, through remembering them and speaking them aloud. In that sense he does what a chazzan does.

Now I turn my thoughts to the week: to teaching, the move to a new apartment, and much more. I have not even mentioned the wonderful Budapest Festival Orchestra concert I attended last night! But I still lack internet access at home, the cafe time has flown by, and I have much to prepare for tomorrow.

The Hebrew text and JPS translation are courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website.