THE HOUR’S DIRECTION: A LETTER TO COMRADES
[Note: This essay was written for the members of the Jerusalem 'Olam Katan (Small World), a group that some friends and I started in Jerusalem in the 1980's. The core of this group consisted of eight or nine people, the majority Orthodox, but also including some secular poets. One aim of the group was to open a channel of communication between Orthodox and secular culture. It met on week nights, once every few weeks. Founded with hopes of being a pilot group for a larger organization, the group broke up after a couple of years, and in 1990 I moved back to the United States. But on a return visit in 2000, a reunion meeting of the group was held, and the first version of this letter/essay was written shortly afterward.]
On my visit to Jerusalem in November 2000, at the reunion meeting of the "‘Olam Katan," I formed the intention of summarizing in writing my views about "‘Olam Katan" and the Sabbath, and of justifying them, insofar as possible, from the sources which are the foundation of your existence in the land of Israel, that existence which is now so severely called into question. This letter will entail my discussing matters on which one who is neither a current resident in Israel nor a Torah scholar can only speak with fear and trembling. If I am to seek a precedent for this address to you, I can find it only in the episode of Yitro, a guest who comes for a while and offers his advice to Moshe our teacher in a conditional manner: "If you do this and if your G-d commands you" (Ex. 18:23) – that is, Yitro expects that Moshe, the humblest of men, who is willing to learn from everyone, will consult the Almighty (as Rashi says) as to whether he should accept the advice or not.
My words are addressed to you as persons concerned with the future of the land and people of Israel, and of humanity. I know that you place the accent in different places. Some of you hold allegiance first of all to the Torah, and some of you hold allegiance first of all to a universal human concept of justice. There are differences of opinion among you as to the rights of the two populations that are presently contending with arms and with words for the territory that our tradition calls the Land of Israel. As to me, I came to Israel out of concern both for Israel and for the future of humanity, as a citizen of Earth; and I have continued to see the situation in the land of Israel in that light.
I start from the assumption that all of us want peace. A peace that will allow people to live without fear, to pursue justice, to preserve the earth and to build a society of responsible, free, happy human beings. The question is always: how can we strive for peace in a world that is dominated by the struggle for survival?
To this question the Torah gives an answer: the Sabbath. Shabbat, whose name is inseparable in the mouth of the people from the word: Shalom. I have gathered that many of those who seek "peace" have so far not taken that answer into account, and if these words can recommend the Sabbath to them, I shall be exceedingly glad. But for those who keep the Sabbath my proposal would also entail an innovation. I believe that if the two sides could accept this proposal, they would find a way to approach each other and mend the rifts between them, to resolve many apparent and real contradictions.
In Scripture itself, as far as I remember, the concept of "peace" is not connected explicitly with the Sabbath. The concept associated with the Sabbath is rather kedushah, or holiness. According to Genesis , Ch. 1, the world was made in seven days, and on the seventh day G-d "rested." He then "blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it." For the first time the root K-D-SH appears in the text. And on the second mention of the Sabbath, when Israel are commanded concerning it for the first time, it is said, "Tomorrow shall be a Sabbath of rest, a holy thing to the Lord." (Ex. 17:23). From Sinai Israel is commanded: "Remember the Sabbath to hallow it."
Kedushah, "holiness," is a central concept in Judaism. The meaning of the root is: separate, set apart. G-d himself is "kadosh," i.e. He is not part of the creation but separate from it, and cannot be grasped by human senses or human reason. Israel too are commanded, "Be holy, for I your G-d am holy." (Lev. 19).
In Exodus it is said twice that Shabbat is a "sign" "between" Israel and G-d. (Exodus 31:13, 31:17). And indeed, in the Ten Commandments the Sabbath appears between the commandments about one’s relation to G-d, and those about one’s relations with other humans. In Exodus the Sabbath seems to belong to the commandments between man and G-d, for the reason given is that "in six days G-d made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is therein, and rested on the seventh day" (Exodus 19:10). In Deuteronomy, the reason given is "in order that your slave and your handmaiden may rest as well as you: and you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and G-d brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm." (Deut. 5:14-15). Here the Shabbat rest is ordained in order to secure human rights, to preserve the dignity of the Divine image.
In the world of work, inequality and competition are natural. Through the value of their labor, individuals go up and down on the economic scale. One becomes a master, another a slave. The word "milchamah" (war) is formed on the same root as the word "lechem" (bread). One who knows no interruption from work is also unlikely to know the meaning of "Love your neighbor as yourself." The Sabbath is a cease-fire in the struggle for survival, a cease-fire that makes it possible for human beings to ascend from the world to which the "laws of nature" apply, the deterministic world symbolized, according to our sages, by the kingdom of "Egypt" with its animal-headed gods. Thus the Sabbath is also called "a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt."
We may assume that this possibility of ascending from the animal kingdom is the essence of the "blessing" with which the Creator, in the first chapter of Genesis, blesses both humankind and the Sabbath. G-d created heaven and earth and saw that his work was "good," but only humankind and the Sabbath are "blessed." If there is any difference between human and animal, that difference is connected with the Sabbath.
This blessing, as is well known, has to do with fertility – but not only physical fertility. In his commentary on Genesis 2:3, Ibn Ezra says: "A ‘blessing’ means an increase of good, and on this day both fertility and the power of consciousness/reason (hakkarah) and reason (sekhel) are renewed in bodies made in the Divine image."
It may seem surprising that on Shabbat the power of consciousness-or-recognition and of reason is supposed to increase. After all, so much thinking is done on the weekday, in connection with work. But from several commentators it appears that this power of consciousness and reason is not identical to the ingenuity which we employ in our work in order to gain wealth and to make a name for ourselves. Rashi says of the light that was created before the sun and the moon: "(G-d) saw that this light should not be used by the wicked, and set it aside for the righteous in the world to come." Our sages call the Sabbath is "a foretaste of the world to come." These two sayings are apparently the foundation for a wonderful midrash which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Sabbath, ascribes to Rabbi Aharon Shmuel ben Moshe Shalom of Kremnitz. According to this midrash, the light of the first day enabled man to see the world at a glance from one end to the other. Since man was unworthy of this light, G-d concealed it; but it will be seen again by the righteous in the world to come. Something of its radiance can already be seen on the seventh day, and this glimpse is called the "additional soul." (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, New York, 1951, p. 88.)
In the domain of competition it is hard for human beings to see all the truth. We see the world as a field for our own action and are likely to forget, or not to recognize, the Creator in the bustle of the marketplace. Each of us sees only that fragment of the truth which is useful to him or her as a competitor. Others see those parts that can be useful to them; and when these partial truths meet, the result is clashes and misunderstandings. Only to the extent that it is possible to go out of the domain of competition into a domain in which human beings are less connected to their egos and more connected to the Creator, might it be possible to see the world with the eye of the Creator, as a single creation, whole, and to contemplate ways of "repairing" the world according to the will of the Creator. On Shabbat the human being recognizes the Creator, and in the light of that recognition we can also use our reason in order to see what that encompassing Will requires of us in specific situations.
In other words, Shabbat is the appropriate time for prophecy, if we understand prophecy as speech which flows from the recognition of the Creator and from the use of reason in the light of that recognition.
True, in the Scriptures the connection between Shabbat and prophecy is not expressed in so many words. But we can discern the inner connection between these two things by following the theme of the exodus from nature, which expresses itself in different ways in the stories of the patriarchs and the story of the children of Israel. First, Abraham is called to "go out of your country and your homeland and your father’s house." In promising Abraham that he will have descendants, it is said that G-d "brought Abraham out and said to him, Look at the heavens and count the stars." (Gen. 15:5). And Rashi explains that G-d said to Abraham, "Go out of your astrology," i.e. from your deterministic world-view, according to which it was impossible for Abraham to have children. For Abraham’s destiny flows not from the stars, nor from the laws of nature, but from the connection between Abraham and the Creator. By virtue of his recognition of his Creator, Abraham belongs to another level of creation, higher than that to which the laws of nature apply. And the exodus from Egypt is a repetition of the same parable.
Recognition of the Creator, then, is bound up with "kedushah," holiness, with the ability of Israel to go out of the deterministic, "Darwinistic" world. The purpose of this exodus is not the elevation of the individual alone. The exodus occurs for the sake of some message to the world, some change in the world: for the sake of those "deeds of the fathers" which are a "sign to the children", for the sake of the giving of Torah, for the sake of the message of prophecy.
But it is well known that according to the view of the Torah world today, the voice of prophecy fell silent after the return of Israel from the Babylonian captivity, and has not been heard since. The reasons are bound up with the conditions of exile, with that lack of independence from which Israel has suffered ever since the first exile. Our sages held that a prophet one must be "wise, strong, and rich" in order to merit prophetic illumination – doubtless because the possession of wisdom, strength and riches frees a person from that dependency on others which checks the ascent to G-d. While Israel is dependent on other nations, "since the destruction of the Temple G-d has nothing left in the world but the four cubits of halakha." (Brakhot 8a). The halakha, including the laws of the Sabbath, developed in a time when Israel had little control over its environment.
Two hundred years ago, a great change occurred in the lives of all peoples, namely the still-continuing acceleration in the development of science and technology. Some view this development as enlightenment and liberation, while others view it as the exact opposite. It freed humans from much physical labor – and subordinated them to machines and to large organizations formed for the purpose of competition. It supplied us with much information on our origins and the origins of the world, gave us new possibilities of self-understanding – and veiled the face of the Creator behind a thick curtain of data. The natural sciences described the world as a complex of causes and effects in which it was difficult to see the traces of Providence. This development encouraged a skeptical attitude toward religion: many came to view religion as one more expression of "human nature," a natural phenomenon like any other. Faith and tradition seemed like delusions, dreams of the night of ignorance, destined to disappear at the rising of the sun of enlightenment, of truth. But to an increasing extent the guiding light of secular society has been supplied to it by actors that seek not pure truth, and certainly not the good of the whole community and Creation, but merely their own advantage. These actors have discovered only those truths that can be of use to them. Moreover, among the various truths which they propagated, contradictions appeared, and little thought was given to reconciling them. In secular society the keeping of the Sabbath was no longer backed by Divine law, and the reasons for this commandment did not, for some reason, occur to the lawgivers of modern society. As a result society drifted toward a life of uninterrupted weekdays, and its culture developed accordingly. To anyone who has not fallen into "Newton’s sleep" (as William Blake put it), it is clear that between technical sophistication on the one hand, and human consciousness on the other, there is an abyss of difference. The first generations after the Enlightenment may have hoped for a wiser, more humane culture; they would hardly have foreseen the brutality and disrespect for human dignity that characterizes much of contemporary secular culture. For this reason many have "returned" to traditional culture. Yet as the contemporary situation in Israel suggests, it may not be enough to return; it may be necessary to fashion, out of the tradition, an innovative response to new and pressing conditions.
I have heard -- and hope I may be pardoned for referring to it, since my knowledge of the texts is very limited and I am reporting mainly from hearsay -- that the first Chief Rabbi of the Zionist settlement, Abraham Yitzchak Kook, perceived that the renewal of the state demands a renewal of prophecy. He saw that prophecy is not essentially different from poetry and hoped that poets, even secular poets, might play a prophetic role in the life of a Jewish state. To date, this line of thinking does not seem to have been extensively developed. But still the seed is there.
It might seem that the absence of prophecy is not a problem for human reason to solve. Prophecy is in the hands of heaven. No one can make himself or herself into a prophet. Today we are skeptical, and probably with good reason, of those who claim to hear the voice of G-d directly.
But Scriptures show us one other way in which the spirit of prophecy can manifest itself in this world. In the book of Esther there is no direct prophecy, but we feel the hand of Providence, and it is possible for humans to cooperate with Providence. This way demands that we be attentive to new possibilities, for we cannot expect that the Creator will always work in the same way.
I come, then, to the proposal which I wish to make. This proposal stems from an encounter with a poet who was entirely "secular" in practice, who lived apart from his people and did not keep Shabbat and came to a bitter end. But his life has to be seen in the light of the Holocaust, to which he was struggling to find a response; and apparently he saw this terrible disconnection as a condition of inspiration. Some of his statements on his poetic process sound to me very much like the passages on prophecy that I have quoted: "It is to step out of the human..." ("The Meridian") "With all my thoughts I went out/ of the world..." (The No-One’s Rose).
The poems of Paul Celan appealed to me first of all as a human being concerned about the human future. But they aroused my curiosity about the poet’s Jewish background, started me reading Jewish books. When in Heschel’s book on Shabbat I came to the midrash about the Sabbath light by which you could see from one end of the world to the other, it seemed to me that I recognized that illumination, that I had encountered it in Celan’s poems. This is, of course, a subjective impression; but it seems certain that the last word he wrote as a poet was: Sabbath.
Like most of Celan’s poems, this one is not easy to interpret. But to my ear the tone is one of reassurance, addressed to whoever is reading the poem, and perhaps especially to a reader in the land of Israel (the "vineyardmen" seem to place us in that landscape). The part about the wind reminds me of a story by S.Y. Agnon, "From Foe to Friend," a Zionist classic which Celan may well have known, in which the wind tries to destroy the house which the narrator is building, but desists and becomes a "friend" when the narrator builds a foundation that the wind cannot overturn. The poem is a prayer for the safety of Israel, a prayer in which the Sabbath appears as a locus of openness and mutual recognition. Here Celan’s second-to-last poem may also be cited:
I did not know these two poems when in 1975 I wrote a poem called "Invitation," for Celan’s last poems were not published until 1976. But "Invitation" grew out of my study of his poems and summarizes the ideas they suggested to me.
For many years – odd as this now seems to me – I did not connect this poem specifically with Shabbat. The "Invitation" came to me as I was attempting to write an organizational statement for the predecessor of the "‘Olam Katan," the "Small World" group that met for a couple of years in Madison in the 1970's.
Over the years, the design of the "‘Olam Katan" has gradually become more specific. From the first I envisioned people meeting in groups of ten or so, with the leaders of these groups forming a second tier, and so on, in the manner of Yitro’s proposal to Moshe in Exodus 18. After the first experiment I realized the importance of having people sit in a circle and speak in turn, without interruptions, for five minutes each, measured by a timer that was passed from hand to hand. This rule avoids arguments and tensions as to who will speak next – those pressures from the competitive world which the exercise is designed to keep at a distance.
This exercise turned out to be difficult, but fruitful. It is not at all easy to hear the voice of the other without trying to convince or change them, and then to let our own inner reflections be heard. These are real "peace talks." I found that when participants kept to these rules, voices from the depths were heard, there were moments of surprising communication, and we felt that something important was happening. Where people speak together in this manner, there is hope for something like the renewal of prophecy. But in order for them to achieve significant results, such meetings would have to be a regular occurrence.
One of the main difficulties was finding time. It was always hard to agree on a time when all participants could be present. At times I would think wistfully of the Rotary Club, which I understand requires its members to attend luncheon every Wednesday, wherever they might be in the world, or pay a heavy fine. The Rotary Club is a club for business people who meet together as a way of making business connections. Why could an organization dedicated to the "repair of the world" adopt a similar stringency? But the lament over how much easier it is to recruit people for self-interested is an ancient one. And even when meetings took place, much time was wasted in discussions as to the value of the exercise, in attempts to disrupt the procedure with various excuses. These material and spiritual obstacles prevented the ‘Olam Katan from growing and bearing fruit.
I often thought how much easier it would be if the groups could meet on the Sabbath. The Sabbath, at least, no one has to schedule. And perhaps only on the Sabbath, with its "foretaste of the coming world," with the "extra soul," might we find the power to overcome the spiritual obstacles. But during the my years in Israel I did not dare to suggest this, knowing the difficulties it would raise. In order to make room for these meetings it would be necessary to alter time-honored customs, at least. And it would also be necessary to speak of "weekday" things. It is hoped that we could speak of these things in a different spirit, see them in a different light, "for the sake of the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shekhinah." And it should be emphasized that these meetings are not intended to produce practical decisions, only to achieve insight, from which practical consequences, it is hoped, could be drawn on weekdays. Still, the departure from tradition would be significant.
Could this proposal indeed be justified as a horaat sha’ah, an "emergency measure"? Granted that it does not address directly any of the problems that threaten the state of Israel. But if this method were adopted, if a movement to use it could gain momentum, it might help Israel find the wisdom it needs to walk a "narrow bridge" between terrible alternatives.
I would like to buttress this proposal with one further argument from the tradition. Our sages established the daily and Sabbath prayers as a substitute for the sacrifices which were offered in the Temple before its destruction. "‘Olam Katan" was one of the names for the Temple – something I did not know in 1975, when I chose the English Name "Small World" for the movement I hoped to start. Perhaps participation in these gatherings could be regarded as a kind of sacrifice, suited to our present conditions. For today most people are not involved in agriculture; sacrifices of animals and grain would have no relation to their daily life. Most of our people are involved in intellectual work. It seems reasonable, then, to ask that they think once a week about the "repair of the world" – with the same sharpness and consequentiality with which they think about their professional work. When Malachi, the last of the prophets, criticized the one who brings for sacrifice the lame animal in his herd (Mal. 1:14), one may translate: the service of G-d demands our best effort of thought. For the next "version" of the ‘Olam Katan I would suggest an alternative form of the meetings, in which the group would give one member permission to speak for a half an hour on his or her area of expertise, after which discussion would follow in the usual form. I would like, too, to hope that the synagogue and beit midrash could receive the writings of participants in these discussions.
It is true that one cannot make oneself into a prophet. But one can train oneself to be open to the voices from the depth of one’s own soul and to the voice of the other. One can learn to strengthen others in this effort and to receive strength from them. Perhaps in the framework of Shabbat, the holy time, we could find the sense of independence and security which we need in order to open ourselves to inspiration, to the unexpected, to what calls for our attention.
As to the question when, on Shabbat, these meetings could take place, I have struggled with this question quite a lot. At present it seems to me that the time just after the welcoming of the Sabbath might be the best. This would fit in with one secular "custom" I heard of in the 1980's, when an Israeli woman excused herself for some pessimistic pronouncement with the words, "But these are kitturei leyl Shabbat [Friday night gloom-and-doom]." To my astonished question she answered yes, people often met on Friday night and ended up talking in this way about the future of the country. As I then replied, if it is possible to meet on Friday night and talk gloom and doom it is also possible to meet and think about ways of repair!
Again, the plan of these meetings is bound up with the hope that between such groups regular connections would be formed, as in the plan suggested by Yitro to Moshe. Recently I was pleased to see that the potential contemporary applicability of this plan has occurred to others. In the magazine Erets Acheret, which devotes a considerable part of its space to the search for new ways within the tradition, Dov Elbaum wrote ("Agadah ‘al neviei ohel ve-neviei mayim," in issue #1, p. 54):
The present version of this suggestion starts from the premise that in this time there is no leader like Moshe who would be able to choose all of the leaders at all of the levels. Yet if the rule here is followed, each group of ten might achieve the objectivity that would enable them to choose the person best able to represent the group to the next level. "Truth will grow from the earth" (Psalm 85:12). Moreover, as is clear from the "Invitation," we are not talking about "rulers" with the authority to command others. Rather (as in the "hierarchy" of neurons in the brain) the function of the higher levels would be to gather and summarize information.
Such meetings on Shabbat might, for instance, stimulate the formation during the week of a "party" that could identify good political leaders and map out good policies. However, the ceremony I have described here is also something to be done for its own sake – as a spiritual exercise, as a prayer for wisdom.
I shall end with the song "Shir Shalom," which I wrote in 1998 after reading the special issue of Nequda for the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. In this issue fifty writers – mainly religious – each took one poem and commented on it, as a way of talking about the situation in the country at the time. The majority of the poems were by secular poets. "Shir Shalom" is built on echoes – echoes of that last poem by Paul Celan and of the thoughts of living Israeli writers, secular and religions, expressing their perceptions of the country's needs.
SHIR SHALOM/SONG OF PEACE/ SONG OF PEACE
Shir shalom nashir lakh,
hamoledet, /A song of peace we will sing to you, our country,
Shir shabbat nashirah lakh,
moledet,/A song of Sabbath we will sing to you, our country
Shir shabbat nashirah lakh,
moledet,/ A song of Sabbath we will sing to you, our country
Shir shabbat nashirah lakh,
moledet,/A song of Sabbath we will sing to you, our country
Shir shalom nashir lakh,
hamoledet, /A song of peace we will sing to you, our country,
Comrades, in this essay I have explained as best I could the conclusions I have drawn from my own unique experience – an experience in which I seemed to feel the hand of the hidden Creator – and from the studies to which this experience led me. The writing of this essay was for me a prayer that the people Israel will find the wisdom both to make their existence in the land secure and to show a way to other nations. Perhaps in this time these two imperatives cannot be separated. "And then [G-d] will turn to the peoples a clear language to call on the name of G-d and to serve Him with one shoulder." (Zephaniah 3:9). As one of you said at the reunion meeting in 2000: perhaps from the abyss that now yawns before us a new hope will be born.
May Ha-Shem bless and keep you...