“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 three times in the Torah: in Genesis 17, when God tells Abram that he will henceforth be Abraham and that Sarai will be Sarah; and in Genesis 32, after Jacob wrestles with God all night long, and God tells him that his name from now on will be Israel. 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.

Phases and Counterpoints

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Popular psychology often describes human life in terms of stages: the five stages of grief, the four stages of culture shock, and so on. Such formulations are simplistic and untrue, except as general templates. Our lives cannot be chunked; we may go through phases, but they blend and combine and sometimes appear out of order.

Still there are reasons to mark points in time, to honor life events, whether of the past, present, or future, whether our own or someone else’s. The point is not to dictate joy and sorrow but rather to create a counterpoint. My own thoughts and feelings do not disappear during a ritual, but I hear them alongside something else; in this way they turn into something new. Ritualized mourning will not match my own mourning, nor ritualized celebration my own joy; so the ritual lifts me both out of and into myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one can think of Jewish ritual as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” He notes that the first time that the word qadosh, “holy,” is used in the Bible, it is applied to the seventh day–that is, to time. Shabbat is art and architecture of time in that we ourselves shape it. It is artifice in the best sense of the word; it comes out of intention and imagination.

Jews vary widely in our observance of Shabbat. Many do not observe it at all, many observe it strictly, and many do something in between (or change over time). Differences aside, even an awareness of this day can affect how we go about our lives. It contrasts with our everyday timing, urges, and impulses. Moreover, it is we who have to build it; it has been observed and described for centuries, but we contribute to its structure, not just once, but again and again. We lay down a block or beam; we set a window.

Something similar can be said for other holidays (inside and outside of Judaism). They are ways of honoring and structuring time: not our personal time, but the time of a larger entity.

This Friday and Saturday, as Szim Salom, we celebrated Shabbat Shira, the special Shabbat that includes the Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea) in the Torah reading. Shabbat Shira takes place once a year. Traditions vary from place to place, but it is common for the entire congregation to rise for the Song of the Sea and to sing certain verses responsively.

In the cantillation course I took at JTS last year–taught by the wonderful Cantor Perry Fine–we devoted much time to the Song of the Sea because of its importance and complexity. The leader must know how to alternate between regular Torah trope and the responsive melody; moreover, he or she must be steeped in the text, capable of giving it cadence and tone.

800px-Song_of_the_seaFor this responsive reading at Szim Salom yesterday, we made many preparations; on Friday night, after service, we went over the melody and verses; the rabbi spoke about the significance of the responsive verses and their difference from the rest of the text. On Saturday morning, we invited everyone to come up to the scroll to see the Shirat Hayam, which has a different layout from the rest of the text. Before beginning the Torah reading, we reviewed the melody and verses again. From there, things swelled; the reading was truly responsive and joyous. It is not for description here; it happened there and is now wrapped up in memory.

Shirat Hayam (in Chapter 15 of Exodus) tells how Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, which parted left and right for them, and how Pharaoh’s horses, riders, chariots, and captains perished in the waves. While most of the text relates a succession of events, the responsive verses have a sound of eternity. They are part of Jewish (and sometimes Christian) regular liturgy, hymns, and piyutim; people readily recognize verse 15:11, “Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” and 15:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”

In this way, right there in the Shirat Hayam, you feel the counterpoint of timelessness and time: a song rising up out of a tale, or a ritual out of history.

As I thought about this, before and afterward, I remembered Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young…”) I started thinking about some lines that I had not given as much attention before. When I think of the poem, I usually remember the second stanza first of all:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

All of this I thought I understood. But just a little later, at the end of the third stanza, a phrase takes me by surprise: “the artifice of eternity.”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

This is supposed to be strange, I think; it goes against notions that eternity just happens. Eternity is created, magnificently created; it opposes nature, which “is begotten, born, and dies.” The speaker yearns to become artistic form and creation; the fourth stanza begins,

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

“Once out of nature”–this phrase is peculiar too. What does it mean? Perhaps “released from the phases of life,” released from the body and its decay. Once out of nature, I will take a new kind of form, the speaker suggests, and it will not be “from any natural thing.” But there are still more surprises to come:

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

There is a lot to say about the repetition of “gold” (“goldsmiths,” “hammered gold,” “gold enamelling” and “golden”) and the sardonic “keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” But it is the ending that catches my thoughts: “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” How is it that the golden form, “out of nature,” sings of time and passing, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come”? It is the singing that sets it apart; to sing of time is to gather it up.

This singing is not only external; it involves studying “monuments of its [tjat is, the soul’s] own magnificence.” Here, to study is to sing; through study you rise up into form. This poem invites its own study; it seems easy to understand but keeps startling you (as though you were a drowsy emperor). It draws you into a continuous puzzle that, with each solution, brings new meanings to the whole. Its iambic pentameter (with aberrations) both lulls and wakes the ear; the stresses and counter-stresses make the song.

That’s only the beginning, though; if you read the poem along with its companion, “Byzantium,” you understand it in still more lights and tones.

So it is with the phases of life; they exist not on their own, or even in combination with each other, but in counterpoint with the things we read and sing, the time we honor, the words we slowly come to understand.

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Dave Pearson, Sailing to Byzantium (gouache and ink)

Dave Pearson’s Sailing to Byzantium is part of his Byzantium series.

The image of the Shirat Hayam in a Torah scroll is borrowed from Wikipedia. As for the photo at the top, I took it last week on my way to school. The gold behind the trees looks like a sea or a lake, but it isn’t. That morning, there was a straight cloud line that hung low over the horizon; where the cloud line ended, the sun’s rays spread. A few minutes later, this sea of gold vanished, as the sun rose up past the line, into the clouds.

There was a problem with the formatting of this post; it is now fixed.

Three Hanukkah Photos

szim salom hanukkah

These photos are from Szim Salom’s December 15 Shabbat Hanukkah service and celebration. They (and others) can be found on the Szim Salom Facebook page. I look at them and remember that extraordinary evening.

preparing the hanukkiah

hanukkiah lighting