Commentary

Human Words: Rav Elhanan Nir’s “Intentions for Rosh Hashanah”

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Levi Morrow

 

Introduction

Rav Elhanan Nir is a prolific writer and thinker and the author of numerous articles, including two theological works, a novel, and four collections of poetry. He is not a man of clean genre distinctions, however. While his theological works cite poetry and speak evocatively, his poetry is often highly theological, as befitting a poet deeply engaged with his God and his religious tradition. A particularly striking example of theologically engaged poetry is a series of four poems entitled “Intentions (Kavvanot) for Rosh Hashanah” from his second collection, The Regular Fire.[1] Below, I offer short analyses of each poem, exploring their various elements as well as the traditional intertextual references Nir has woven into them.[2] Finally, I highlight Nir’s use of the genre of kavvanot in a contemporary context.

Any translation is fraught with difficulties and unavoidable interpretations, but with poetic translation, the problems are even more severe. The process necessarily involves making interpretive determinations across both individual lines and the poem as whole. A word or phrase in the original might be intended to pull the reader in more than one direction, while the translation can only capture certain elements of the whole. Faithfulness to one element of the text might require betraying another. For example, in the poems below, I switched the primary speaking voice from third person (“he”) to second person (“you”). This is because when I maintained the third person form, the resulting English poem was entirely too wordy, in a manner unfaithful to the original. The translations found below are thus a bold attempt but cannot truly do justice to the original Hebrew. Similarly, my brief analyses below cannot explore every aspect of the poems. I hope merely to give the reader some broad outlines and trajectories as a way into further exploration. For that reason, it may also be valuable to first read the poems before reading my analysis of them.

Feeling the Words

I. Introduction to the Intentions

א. הקדמה לכוונות

Take hold of the word with both hands

And even if it delays,[3]

Hold it patiently, and say it.

But how will you say it[4]—it is cast into the depths

How will you draw the voice out of it

Shout and be broken by it

As it breaks a person’s whole body

While it is held captive in philologists’ chains.

Who will fall from the word and be crushed into wretchedness

Who will be struck with a hundred blows and devise all his dreams

From which he flees every day.

And say: what is it to you that you are afire after me[5]

Indeed, ana mi-zar’a de-Yosef ka atina[6]

See then the word full of disease

After legions have struck it and profaned it[7]

It wails internally, struggling to breathe

And it has already lost the strength to cry

How will you express the word when all its sinews have withered

When it is worn weak with all the words of the world

And passes before him with all the daughters of maron[8] and how

Will you say the word

יֹאחַז הַמִּלָּה בִּשְׁתֵּי יָדָיו

וְגַם אִם תִּתְמַהְמֵהַּ

יֹאחַז בָּהּ בִּמְתִינוּת וְיֹאמַר

אֲבָל אֵיךְ יֹאמַר וְהִיא זְרוּקָה אֶל תְּהוֹמוֹת

וְאֵיךְ יוֹצִיא מִמֶּנָה הַקּוֹל

וְיִצְעַק וְיִשָּׁבֵר מִמֶּנָה

שֶׁשּׁוֹבֶרֶת כָּל גּוּפוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם

וְהִיא שְׁבוּיָה בַּאֲזִקֵּי הַמְחַקְּרִים,

וּמִי יִפֹּל מִן הַמִּלָּה וְיִתְרַסֵּק אֶל הָעֲלִיבוּת

וּמִי יֻכֶּה מֶנָּה מַכּוֹת וִיתַחְבֵּל בְּכָל חֲלוֹמוֹתָיו

מֵהֶם יִבְרַח בְּכָל יוֹם.

וְיֹאמַר מַה לָּכֶם כִּי דְּלַקְתֶּם אַחֲרַי

הֵן אָנָא מִזַּרְעָא דְּיוֹסֵף קָא אָתִינָא

וְיִרְאֶה אָז הַמִּלָּה מְלֵאַת חֹלִי

אַחַר שֶׁהִכּוּהָ וְחִלְּלוּהָ לִגְיוֹנוֹת

וְהִיא מְיַבֶּבֶת אֶל תּוֹכָהּ וּבְקֹשִׁי רַב נוֹשֶׁמֶת

וּכְבָר אָפַס כֹּחָהּ מִלִּבְכּוֹת

וְאֵיךְ יְבַטֵּא הַמִּלָּה כְּשֶׁכָּל מֵיתָרֶיהָ יָבְשׁוּ

וְהִיא צְרוּדָה חֲלוּשָׁה בְּכָל מִלֵּי דְּעָלְמָא

וְעוֹבֶרֶת לְפָנָיו עִם כָּל בְּנוֹת מָרוֹן וְאֵיךְ

יֹאמַר אֶת הַמִּלָּה

 

The first poem sets up a framework for the “intentions,” which themselves only appear in the second and third poems. It focuses on the person praying adopting a proper orientation toward the words of the mahzor. The reader is instructed to consciously speak the words of the mahzor, to wield them intently when entering the fraught world of prayer. The poem highlights the mutualistic relationship between the words and the person who speaks them, but it ultimately places the person praying in a position of control over the words which are “full of disease,” “withered,” and have “already lost the strength to cry out.” The traditional words of prayer have sufficed for Jews for generations. This could be said to give them their power, but from another perspective it might also challenge their relevance. Perhaps the words, like so many of us, are worn out and exhausted. Thus, it is not enough for a person to simply let the words wash over them; they must take charge. However, as much as the words are vulnerable, the person praying must be vulnerable as well. The words of prayer are described as locked in “philologists’ chains.”[9] Strict historicism can often tie words to a specific contextual meaning. The goal is thus for the person praying to approach the mahzor anew, prepared not simply to dominate the words but to free them from their historical chains.[10] It is, in a sense, a call to poetry.

Nir makes a clear intertextual reference when he suddenly shifts from Hebrew to Aramaic in the middle of a line: “Indeed, ana mi-zar’a de-Yosef ka atina.” This phrase references a Talmudic narrative from Berakhot 20a, where it is used to express confidence when stepping into risky territory. The speaker has been asked why he is not worried about “the evil eye,” and he responds that he is descended from the biblical Joseph, whose descendants are said to be “above”—which is to say, safe from—the evil eye. This self-confident posture slides easily into the texture of the first poem, which, as explored above, encourages the reader to pray from a position of power and judgment. The reader can call on God to draw near and take account of them in the second poem, as we shall see, without fear of danger.

Day of Judgment, Day of Rest

The second and third poems (“Intentions for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah” and “Intentions for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah”) form the main sections of the “intentions,” giving the reader more specific instructions about what to say and what intentions to have. Though similar in form, the two poems could not be more different in content. The first begins with a dramatic instruction to the reader to “speak in harsh judgment,” while the second begins by flatly reminding the reader to “remember that the pathos is already lost.” From there, the two poems continue to diverge, painting very different pictures of the prayers for each day.

II. Intentions for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah

ב. כוונות ליום א׳ דראש השנה

Speak in harsh judgment

Gaze into the mirror and throw yourself on the water

Shout with all your strength:[11]

Yes, You are the king and You are the Infinite One, blessed

Are you

Come down to me to here, where I am

And answer me.

If you feel you aren’t being answered

Mark yourself before him with a fish, with vegetables, and with pomegranates,

Billow the red cloth and wave your whole life before him and say:

Yes, I am going to die,

And say aloud: Going to die,

Why do I need this whole world

Why do I need this[12]

If you don’t come to take account of me[13]

To bring me

Life

יְדַבֵּר בְּדִינָא קָשְׁיָא

וְיִסְתַּכֵּל בָּרְאִי וְיַשְׁלִיךְ עַצְמוֹ עַל הַמַּיִם

וְיִצְעַק בְּכָל כֹּחוֹ

הֵן אַתָּה הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאַתָּה הָאֵין־סוֹף בָּרוּךְ

אַתָּה

רֵד אֵלַי לְכָאן, לְהֵיכָן שֶׁאֲנִי

וַעֲנֵנִי.

וְאִם חָשׁ שֶׁלֹּא נַעֲנֶה

יְסַמֵּן עַצְמוֹ לְפָנָיו בְּדָג, בִּירָקוֹת וּבְרִמּוֹנִים,

וְיִרְקַע בַּאֲדֹם הַסּוּדָרִים וְיָנִיף אֶת כָּל חַיָּיו לְפָנָיו וְיֹאמַר:

הֵן אֲנִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת,

וְיֹאמַר בְּקוֹל: הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת,

וְלָמָּה לִי כָּל הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה

וְלָמָּה לִי זֶה

אִם אֵינְךָ בָּא לְפָקְדֵנִי

לְהָבִיאֵנִי

חַיִּים

 

The poem for the first day calls for—or even creates—a relationship of mutual judgment between God and the person praying. It opens by telling the person praying to speak with judgment, and it ends with them calling on God “to take account of” them. Perhaps more importantly, this mutual judgment involves a sort of closeness, referenced later in the fourth poem’s “the closeness bewilders.” God is asked twice to draw close to the person praying, first to descend to where they are and then to come to take account of them. God is asked both to recognize them as they are and to grace them with the mixture of judgment and blessing (alluded to in the verb “to take account of”). The mutual relationship leads to what is almost a relationship between equals. While God is referred to both as “King” and “Infinite One,” the person praying is instructed to speak almost authoritatively, calling upon God to act in specific ways and utilizing specific actions (such as the simanim customarily eaten at Rosh Hashanah dinner) to ensure a response. This is made most dramatic via the image of the billowing red cloth, likely a reference to a bullfighter’s cape.[14] The bullfighter waves his cape in order to incite the bull to charge toward him; in the poem, the person praying waves their “whole life before [God]” in order to incite God to draw near and bring life. The poem thus sets up the first day of Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment, though one that does not quite match the classical depiction of God judging the Jewish people.

While the first poem intertextually referenced protection from danger, the element of danger itself comes through more strongly in one radical intertextual reference in the second poem: “Yes, I am going to die, / And say aloud: Going to die, / Why do I need this whole world / Why do I need this” echoes a quote from Genesis 25:32: “Indeed, I am going to die; why do I need this birthright?”[15] What makes this intertext so radical is that the original speaker of those words was Esav, the traditional enemy of Jacob and his descendants, who was, in context, uttering a dismissive outburst while agreeing to sell his birthright for a quick meal. To the degree that liturgy and poetry—or any language, for that matter—ask the speaker to step outside themselves and take on a new role,[16] Nir is asking his readers to step into the role of Esav. In the same way that Esav was ready to give up on his birthright, Nir’s speaker is willing to give up on the life of this world, asking only that God come and judge them.

Another critical intertextual reference in this poem is the “taking account” mentioned near the end. The Hebrew verb I have rendered as “to take account of me,” “le-fokdeni,” may refer to the rabbinic idea that the barren matriarchs and heroines of the Hebrew Bible were “taken account of” by God specifically on Rosh Hashanah, thus enabling them to become pregnant.[17] This is particularly resonant with the theme of the second poem because of the way that one of these women, Hannah, is depicted by the rabbis as having almost forced God to give her a child.[18] This sort of powerful, judgmental prayer is a prayer that leads to new life. As the poem says, the request is that God “come to take account of me / To bring me / Life.” In the poem, the new life registered may be the speaker’s very survival, or it may refer to a general sense of religious and existential meaning; but, given the shift toward maturity and family life we shall in the third poem, it may indeed connote childbearing as well.

III. Intentions for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah

ג. כוונות ליום ב׳ דראש השנה

Remember that the pathos is already lost

The prophets have run out, and no longer shall

A man rise[19] and feel his nation, rather ask for pleasantness

And a gentle Sabbath, enveloped and without judgments,

And say, Yes, you are close

To all the torn and the pierced and the broken[20]

For how long, this infinite repetition

For how long, these insults and apologies

And why shouldn’t it make sense to me[21]

(And mention your name: Ploni ben Plonit)

Then we will come to the room[22] and there will be the song

The water will still and we will rest our heads

The fire will die down that once threatened us[23]

That lifted the blaze and taught our voice the shouts of the forest,

But now we are already quiet in the heated home

Drinking tea with marjoram

Enjoying vessels that grow wide[24]

Until empty

וְיִזְכֹּר שֶׁכְּבָר אָבַד הַפָּאתוֹס

וְתַמּוּ הַנְּבִיאִים וּכְבָר לֹא קָם

אָדָם וּמַרְגִּישׁ עַם, אֶלָּא יְבַקֵּשׁ נְעִימוּת

וְשַׁבָּת רַכָּה, עֲטוּפָה וּבְלִי דִּינִים,

וְיֹאמַר הֵן אַתָּה קָרוֹב

לְכָל הַנִּקְרָעִים וְהַנִּדְקָרִים וְהַנִּשְׁבָּרִים

עַד מָתַי לַחִזּוּר הָאֵינְסוֹפִי הַזֶּה

עַד מָתַי לְכָל הַפְּגִיעוֹת וְהַהִתְנַצְּלֻיּוֹת

וְלָמָּה שֶׁלֹּא תִּהְיֶה מוּבָן לִי

(וְיַזְכִּיר שְׁמוֹ: פְּלוֹנִי בֶּן פְּלוֹנִית),

וְנָבוֹא אֶל הַחֶדֶר וְיִהְיֶה הַנִּגּוּן

וְיַעַמְדוּ הַמַּיִם וְנַנִּיחַ הָרֹאשׁ

וְתִשְׁקַע הָאֵשׁ, שֶׁפַּעַם לִחֲכָה בָּנוּ

וְהֵנִיפָה הַבּוֹעֵר וְלִמְּדָה קוֹלֵנוּ לְצַעֲקוֹת הַיַּעַר,

אֲבָל עַכְשָׁו אֲנַחְנוּ כְּבָר שׁוֹקְטִים בַּבַּיִת הַמֻּסָּק

שׁוֹתִים הַתֵּה עִם הַמַּרְוָה

נֶהֱנִים מֵהַכֵּלִים הַמַּרְחִיבִים

עַד שֶׁנִּתְרוֹקֵן

 

If, on the first day, Nir’s reader is drawn into a dramatic encounter between the person praying and God, the poem for the second day brings the reader into the speaker’s calm, quiet home. Not only is “the pathos” gone, but so are the prophets who speak directly to, and even argue with, God. Instead, the third poem seeks a day of rest, “a gentle Sabbath… without judgments.” A group of people—indicated by the sudden appearance of the first-person plural “we”—seem to be singing Sabbath songs. The fire of judging and being judged by God is replaced by the warmth of the home and a nice cup of herb-infused tea. The demand that God draw near is replaced by the recognition that “yes, You are close.” The person praying has moved from a religiosity that attempts to reach outside of life to a religiosity that resides within life and embraces its almost banal comforts. Rather than calling it a “day of judgment,” perhaps we might call Nir’s second day of Rosh Hashanah a “day of acceptance.”

This shift is enacted in the third poem’s intertextual references. All of two words in the Hebrew, “The fire will die down,” seems to be a reference to Numbers 11:2. The poem’s fire “that once threatened us” is Numbers 11’s “fire of the Lord” that broke out against the people complaining before God. The harsh speech encouraged by the second poem suddenly seems to have been much more dangerous than we might otherwise have thought. However, in the biblical narrative, the prophet—Moses—interceded, and the fire died down. Similarly, the earlier phrase “no longer shall / a man rise” references Deuteronomy 34:10, which declares that no prophet after Moses’s death will ever be as intimately familiar with God. Moses brought the nation through its dramatic youth in the desert, and now it can begin its more settled life in the land. It may not be possible to arrive at the comforts of mature life without first passing through the danger and drama of youthful religious fervor. The prophets may already “have run out,” God may already be “close / To all the torn and the pierced and the broken,” but the bold speech of the second poem helped us to arrive at this point.

The tension between religious and theological drama on the one hand and comfortable, bourgeois life on the other is a key tension unifying Nir’s corpus. It is a constant presence throughout his poems and part of the fundamental plot of his novel,[25] but it is also the driving force behind his first theological work, Spirituality in Everyday Life.[26] The two elements are often separated chronologically, with the fire of youth inspiring dramatic, all-consuming religiosity, while age and maturity shift the focus toward family life and all it brings with it. In these poems, a shift of many years is condensed into just two days. Nir’s “Intentions for Rosh Hashanah” series thus guides the reader through a process of maturation, moving from the prophetic to the mundane, from passion to everyday life. Or perhaps the distinction in these poems is not chronological at all; Nir is asking his readers to maintain both of these elements despite the contradiction. Both days of Rosh Hashanah irrupt into our lives each year as we traverse the calendar, unable to leave either one of them behind.

No Escaping Our Bodies

IV. To Say After the Intentions

ד. דיבור שאחר הכוונות

Going to you hesitating

Like after all the speeches

Behold we meet, and the closeness bewilders

To tell you how the love looks from here

And how much danger lies in wait for it

Cutting the air toward it.

How will I know that you can really hold the pain

That you will know what it is to worry for the beloved who just now left home

That even with a wink, you know the pains of a body

Of the inability to move about in it securely

Of a man’s fear of the future

When he has no blood[27]

To be held in them

לָלֶכֶת אֵלֶיךָ בְּהִסּוּס

כְּמוֹ אַחֲרֵי כָּל הַדִּבּוּרִים

וְהִנֵּה נִפְגָּשִׁים וּמְבוּכַת הַקִּרְבָה

וּלְסַפֵּר לְךָ אֵיךְ הָאַהֲבָה נִרְאֵית מִכָּאן

וְעַד כַּמָּה הַסַּכָּנָה אוֹרֶבֶת לָהּ

חוֹתֶכֶת אֵלֶיהָ הָאֲוִירִים.

וְאֵיךְ אֵדַע שֶׁבֶּאֱמֶת תּוּכַל לְהַחְזִיק הַצַּעַר

שֶׁתֵּדַע אֶת הַדְּאָגָה לָאֲהוּבָה שֶׁאַךְ יָצְאָה מִן הַבַּיִת

שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ בִּקְרִיצָה תֵּדַע מִצַּעֲרֵי הַגּוּף

מֵחֹסֶר הַיְכֹלֶת לְהַלֵּךְ בּוֹ בְּבִטְחָה

מִפַּחַד גֶּבֶר אֶת הֶעָתִיד

כְּשֶׁאֵין לוֹ דָּמִים

לְהֵאָחֵז בָּהֶם

 

The fourth and final poem—literally titled “Speech after the Intentions”[28]—essentially challenges the speech constructed in the middle two poems. It denies the possibility that God could understand the person praying—in their very personhood—and it questions the applicability of terms like “love” and “closeness” to the Divine-human relationship. It thus both reiterates the critique of language mentioned above and denies the reader the possibility of resting easy in their relationship with the Divine (which, as we have seen, is the direction indicated by the third poem). The relationship of the person praying—and thus also of the reader—with God remains one of both loving nearness and yearning from a distance, characterized both by bewildering closeness and by seemingly unresolvable alienation.

This critique expressed here also builds off of the demands expressed in the second poem. The person who survives or gives birth is a person with a body, and how could they make these experiences sensible to the transcendent Divine? The speaker buttresses their relationship with God through recourse to the words of the Jewish tradition, but still, “Danger lies in wait for it.” The battered and broken words of the first poem have been put to good use in the interim, but now, as “Intentions” draws to a close, they have perhaps truly run out of strength. We have moved from the exhaustion of the introduction to the bodily life of the poet praying before God. All that is left is to hope that the words are enough.

“Intentions”

The poems take as their starting point the genre of kavvanot ha-tefillah, guides for proper intention during prayer, most often written from a Kabbalistic perspective. Nir’s “Intentions” series, however, focuses on the human dilemmas of poetry and theology. It speaks to anyone who experiences pain and exhaustion, suffering and indignation, warmth and respite. It explores the meaning of words that have been said by “legions” in an “infinite repetition,” but which have also been critically analyzed and placed “in philologists’ chains.”

Most of all, the poems depict different aspects of the relationships between people, words, and God. People use words, even to the point of breaking them, but they are also broken by them. Words mediate between God and people—the High Holiday prayers are an “infinite repetition” directed to “the Infinite One”—but words also take on a very human life of their own, suffering as we do. The individual speaks to God, calling God to come and “take account of” her, but she also speaks “in harsh judgment” when addressing God. The individual speaks from a place of “strength” and power—“Take hold of the word with both hands… Hold it patiently”—but also from a place of “wretchedness,” speaking as one of “the torn and the pierced and the broken.” The poems end “like after all speeches” in the inability not only of the individual to understand a God who is beyond words but also of the individual to make themselves understood by this God. After all the beautiful, painful words, we are left with open questions: Can the pains and uncertainties of human existence—bodily existence—really be conveyed to a disembodied and omnipotent being? Can words really build a bridge between the human and the Divine?

Conclusion

We have thus seen how Rav Elhanan Nir’s “Intentions for Rosh Hashanah” represents a particularly good example of theologically engaged poetry. The format of poetry allows Nir to engage with theology and the Jewish tradition outside the constraints of more rigid genres. Nir is not alone in doing so—new generations of Orthodox Jewish poets have sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic. Nir himself is one of a number of Religious Zionist poets writing for both religious and secular audiences in Israeli society today.[29] In translating and analyzing Nir’s poems, I hope I have helped make the world of Religious Zionist poetry—and its theologically-engaged poetry most specifically—a little more accessible to the English-speaking world.

We are approaching a rather unique Rosh Hashanah, one where many Jews will miss out on their regular High Holiday prayer experience. I can think of no text more appropriate than “Intentions for Rosh Hashanah,” which calls for the individual to consciously take up the traditional liturgy with a radical poetic freedom. Perhaps more importantly, in discussing both the dramatic and the conventional within religious life, it foregrounds human weakness and vulnerability. It is not just the word which can be “full of disease… struggling to breath… already lost the strength to cry.” It is in full awareness of our bodily weakness and vulnerability that Jews will stand before God this year, as individuals and as communities.


 [1] Elhanan Nir, The Regular Fire: Poems and a Fairy Tale [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2011), 38–41. © All rights reserved by Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House.

My thanks to Prof. Alan Brill, R. Zach Truboff, and R. Ari Ze’ev Schwartz for reading and commenting on an early draft of this essay.

[2] A fuller analysis would require also exploring Nir’s references to modern Hebrew poetry and literature, but such a task escapes both the limits of this essay and, to be quite frank, my interpretive wheelhouse.

Poetry tends to draw on the rich history of the language in which it is written, and Nir’s work does not disappoint. Intertexts can be appropriated in any number of ways and to varying degrees, so they represent a particularly challenging realm of interpretation. The perennial hazard of seeing references where none were intended is also impossible to avoid and demands a constant conservatism. With that caveat, I will point out and interpret several of Nir’s references to traditional Jewish texts (with a few more referenced in annotations to the translations).

[3] Cf. the traditional “Ani Ma’amin” affirmation of belief in the messiah found in most Orthodox prayer books.

[4] The Hebrew here could also be rendered as “how can you say it,” to a very different effect. I have translated it as “how will you say it” in line with the more instructional tone of the poem.

[5] Cf. Genesis 31:36.

[6] Aramaic for “From the seed of Joseph I have come.” See Berakhot 20a, where the speaker is asserting that he is protected from harm due to being descended from the biblical Joseph. Nir’s speaker is thus asserting their own safety in a dangerous situation.

[7] Potentially a reference to the Nahem prayer recited on the 9th of Av.

[8] Adapted from m. Rosh ha-Shanah 1:2 & Rosh ha-Shanah 18a, where the male “bnei” is used instead of the female “banot.” The exact meaning of “maron” is debated in the Talmud as well as in modern scholarship. It is therefore likely that Nir is primarily using the word as a reference rather than for its semantic content, and I have left it untranslated accordingly.

[9] “Philologists” renders the various connotations of the Hebrew “הַמְחַקְּרִים,” both based on context in the poem and on the presumption that Nir is drawing on Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav’s usage of the term. Cf. Rebbe Nahman, Likkutei Moharan I 25:1, 55:7, 63:1 & 7, 64:2, 176:1; II 19:2–3, 44:1.

[10] Cf. Nir’s discussion of literality, orality, and historicism in his second theological work, A Jew in the Night [Hebrew] (Rishon LeZion: Miskal — Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Hemed Books, 2017), 189–190. His discussion clearly has the Pauline critique of dead letters in mind, a connection more clearly made by Nir’s contemporary Yishai Mevorach in his The Jew of the Edge: Towards Inextricable Theology [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Resling Publishing, 2018), 83–143. Both Mevorach and Nir were students of Rav Shagar and editors of his writings.

[11] The call for “shouting” is likely a reference to Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, who instructs his readers and followers to do so in a variety of contexts. See for example Likkutei Moharan I 21; Sihot ha-Ran 16. My thanks to R. Zach Truboff for pointing this out.

[12] Cf. Genesis 25:32.

[13] “To take account of me,” “le-fokdeni,” recalls the discussion of פק״ד and זכ״ר in connection with God’s judgment on Rosh ha-Shanah 11a, and it particularly echoes the theme of conception discussed there. This linguistic element may also be connected to the appearance of זכ״ר in the first word of the next poem.

[14] My thanks to Elli Fischer for his help with this image.

[15] I have translated the verse myself here in order to demonstrate the degree to which Nir is simply quoting it. The JPS 1985 translation, by contrast, reads: “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”

[16] This performative function is even clearer in the original Hebrew, where Nir’s words address the subject of the intentions in the third person (“He should take hold of the word with both hands,” etc.), rather than the second. The reader is thus asked to displace their own subjectivity and step into that of the subject of the intentions. I have sacrificed this effect in my translation by shifting into the second person because I think it better reflects the overall mood of the original, as noted above.

[17] Rosh ha-Shanah 11a.

[18] Berakhot 31b.

[19] Cf. Deuteronomy 34:10. Notably, this verse specifically refers to Moses as having uniquely “known God face to face.”

[20] Cf. Psalms 34:19.

[21] It is possible that the third person “it” should actually be a second person “you,” rendering the line, “And why shouldn’t you make sense to me.” The original Hebrew is ambiguous. My thanks to my editor from the Lehrhaus for this suggestion.

[22] Potentially a reference to Song of Songs 1:4, though if so it is an appropriative reference. The original refers to the king bringing his lover to his chamber, whereas Nir refers to “we”—God and the person praying—coming to the room together. Similarly, the context in Song of Songs is obviously one of passionate engagement, while the context of this poem suggests a shift away from such emotional intensity.

[23] Cf. Numbers 11:2.

[24] Cf. Berakhot 57b.

[25] Elhanan Nir, Just the Two of Us [Hebrew] (Bnei Brak: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2017).

[26] This is laid out most clearly in the introduction. See R. Elhanan Nir, Spirituality in Everyday Life [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Miskal — Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Hemed Books, 2011), 9–17.

[27] In rabbinic Hebrew, damim can also refer to money. I translated it here as “blood” in line with the contextual emphasis on the body, but the emphasis on anxiety about the future may indicate that “money” is a better translation. Certainly both should be kept in mind.

[28] The title is problematized by the poem’s first lines, “Going to you hesitating / Like after all the speeches” (the Hebrew in both cases is “dibbur”).

[29] For more on this group, see David C. Jacobson, Beyond Political Messianism: The Poetry of Second-Generation Religious Zionist Settlers (Massachusetts: Academic Studies Press, 2011). My thanks to R. Zach Truboff for directing me to this text.

 

Levi Morrow
Born and raised in Southern California, Levi Morrow moved to Israel when he was eighteen. After studying at Yeshivat Orayta and Har Etzion, Levi received semikhah from the Shehebar Sephardic Center in the Old City of Jerusalem. He has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Tel Aviv University, where he wrote his thesis on Rav Shagar's use of Franz Rosenzweig's theology, and he plans to pursue a PhD. Levi has also translated a forthcoming volume of Rav Shagar's derashot for the holidays and co-translated a volume of Rav Menachem Froman’s aphorisms. He teaches Jewish Philosophy in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and their two daughters.