Skip to content

Coming Down From the Mountain: Poetry and Prose

October 7, 2015

We’re back!

We all have our own way of dealing with and joking about the seemingly insane number of days that we find ourselves in shul over this month.  And we’re only halfway through!

With this in mind I want to share a very sweet teaching I saw from the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendle of Kotzk brought by Rabbi David Wolpe.

The Kotzker once put this question to his students:  what was the hardest part of the Akedah for Abraham?  Was it the initial call, the long walk to Moriah, or the binding?  His answer:  the hardest part was coming down the mountain.

In peak moments of our lives, the immediacy, the rush of adrenaline, often carries us through.  What happens afterward is the true test of sincerity, for afterwards we must live with the consequences of our actions.  Are we faithful to those peak moments?  Do we forget them, or disregard them?

The hardest part of Yom Kippur is not the fasting.  The hardest part is two months later, when we are supposed to live by the promises we made.  There is great drama in falling in love.  But the test of a love is not in the falling; it is in the staying.

It is interesting that this morning we read Parshat Ha’azinu which is a poem, a Shirah.  There is much buildup to this poem, as we discussed last Shabbos Moshe introduces the Song of Ha’azinu in Parshat Vayelech.

Deuteronomy 31:20-21

כִּֽי־אֲבִיאֶ֜נּוּ אֶֽל־הָאֲדָמָ֣ה ׀ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֣עְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָ֗יו זָבַ֤ת חָלָב֙ וּדְבַ֔שׁ וְאָכַ֥ל וְשָׂבַ֖ע וְדָשֵׁ֑ן וּפָנָ֞ה אֶל־אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֲחֵרִים֙ וַעֲבָד֔וּם וְנִ֣אֲצ֔וּנִי וְהֵפֵ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃כִּֽי־אֲבִיאֶ֜נּוּ אֶֽל־הָאֲדָמָ֣ה ׀ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֣עְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָ֗יו זָבַ֤ת חָלָב֙ וּדְבַ֔שׁ וְאָכַ֥ל וְשָׂבַ֖ע וְדָשֵׁ֑ן וּפָנָ֞ה אֶל־אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֲחֵרִים֙ וַעֲבָד֔וּם וְנִ֣אֲצ֔וּנִי וְהֵפֵ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃ וְ֠הָיָה כִּֽי־תִמְצֶ֨אןָ אֹת֜וֹ רָע֣וֹת רַבּוֹת֮ וְצָרוֹת֒ וְ֠עָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָ֨ה הַזֹּ֤את לְפָנָיו֙ לְעֵ֔ד כִּ֛י לֹ֥א תִשָּׁכַ֖ח מִפִּ֣י זַרְע֑וֹ כִּ֧י יָדַ֣עְתִּי אֶת־יִצְר֗וֹ אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה֤וּא עֹשֶׂה֙ הַיּ֔וֹם בְּטֶ֣רֶם אֲבִיאֶ֔נּוּ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבָּֽעְתִּי׃

For when I shall have brought them into the land which I swore unto their fathers, flowing with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten their fill, and waxen fat; and turned unto other gods, and served them, and despised Me, and broken My covenant; For when I shall have brought them into the land which I swore unto their fathers, flowing with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten their fill, and waxen fat; and turned unto other gods, and served them, and despised Me, and broken My covenant; then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed; for I know their imagination how they do even now, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.’

As we discussed last week at Seudah Shlishit there is something very beautiful and powerful in thinking of Torah as שירה.  Yet, despite the power of Shirah – song and poetry, the majority of the Torah is not written as poetry.  Though the Torah is much more than a book of laws, at its core it is  a legal book with an emphasis on the 613 mitzvot.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, brother of Nechama Leibowitz, who was an a accomplished scientist at Hebrew University and an outspoken Jewish thinker writes that this is intentional and carries a deep message:

Had Shakespeare chosen the form of the novel or the essay, the eros conveyed would not have been the same.  His eros could be expressed authentically in no other medium than that of the marvelous form chosen by him.  Similarly, the content of Jewish faith – the stance of man before God as Judaism conceived it – can be externalized in one form only, the halakhic system… (Yeshayahu Leibowitz.  Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, ed. Eliezer Goldman. p. 8)

Writing more directly about our Parsha and the phenomenon of poetry he continues:

Resting religion on Halakhah assigns it to the prosaic aspects of life, and therein lies its great strength.  Only a religion addressed to life’s prose, a religion of the dull routine of daily activity, is worthy of the name….The fundamental and enduring elements of human existence are in life’s prose, not in its poetry. (Yeshayahu Leibowitz.  Judaism, Human Values… p. 13)

It is hard to come down from the mountain, from the peak experience and from the high that we all experienced on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just a few days ago in this very room, and that we will continue to experience, Please God, on Sukkot and Simchat Torah.  But we must come down.  The value of the poetic moments in life – those peaks and emotional highs that we sometimes experience is that they inspire us.  We carry the excitement with us as we return to our everyday routine.

Despite the many days of coming to shul and eating until we feel we can’t eat any more (at least until the next Yom Tov meal), there is great wisdom in the way that our calendar was arranged.  We are set up for an easy landing.  There is a fascinating Midrash Tanchuma quoted by the Tur (OH 581:2)

ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון. וכי ראשון הוא, והלא יום חמשה עשר הוא, ואת אמרת ביום הראשון. אלא ראשון הוא לחשבון עונות.

You shall take [the lulav etc.] on the first day – Is it the first day?  Is it not the 15th, yet the Torah says “the first day?!”  Rather it is the first day of accounting for sins.

The Midrash assumes that immediately after Yom Kippur we immediately immerse ourselves in preparations for Sukkot that there is no opportunity to sin until the holiday begins.

We can add to this that once it does begin, we are faced with the opportunity to sin, but we are also given an abundant opportunity to perform mitzvoth – Sitting in the Sukkuah, Lulav and Etrog, Welcoming guests, etc.

We know that this holiday season will eventually end and we will return to the norm.  But we don’t have to go straight from the high of Yom Kippur to the mundane routine of a random Tuesday.

On Yom Kippur I shared the story of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ hunger strike in solidarity with Natan Sharansky.  Let me end with a powerful story from Sharansky about what it means to live in the prose of life as opposed to the poetry.  This comes from the epilogue of his book. ( Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man’s Triumph Over a Police State.  Epilogue.  p. 418)

In freedom I am lost in a myriad of choices.  When I walk on the street, dozens of cheeses, fruits, and juices stare at me from store windows.  There are vegetables here I’ never seen or heard of, and an endless series of decisions that must be made: What to drink in the morning, coffee or tea?  What newspaper to read?  What to do in the evening?  Where to go for the Sabbath?  Which friends to visit?

In the punishment cell, life was much simpler.  Every day brought only one choice: good or evil, white or black, saying yes or no to the KGB.  Moreover, I had all the time I needed to think about these choices, to concentrate on the most fundamental problems of existence, to test myself in fear, in hope, in belief, in love.  And now, lost in thousands of mundane choices, I suddenly realize that there’s no time to reflect on the bigger questions.  How to enjoy the vivid colors of freedom without losing the existential depth I felt in prison?  How to absorb the many sounds of freedom without allowing them to jam the stirring call of the shofar that I heard so clearly in the punishment cell?  And, most important, how in all these thousands of meetings, handshakes, interviews, and speeches, to retain that unique feeling of the interconnection of human souls which I discovered in the Gulag?  These are the questions I must answer in my new life, which is only beginning.

Advertisements
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: