Poems for a World Built, Destroyed, and Rebuilt

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Elhanan Nir

Since the horrors of October 7th, Jewish artists and writers have been trying to find ways to capture, grapple with, and express both what happened and where we are now. Both in Israel and around the world, Jews of all stripes have sought out creative ways to respond to the end of the world we knew and the birth of a new world marked by violence, loss, and insecurity. For many, all of the old words and images seem worn out or somehow broken, and so we need to make something new.

R. Elhanan Nir is a noteworthy Israeli poet, writer, and editor who also teaches in Yeshivat Siach-Yitzhak in Efrat (founded by Rav Shagar and R. Yair Dreifuss). His work often grapples with themes of being passionately religious in modern society where everyday life can seem so banal, as well as with the tensions between his more right-wing background and the more open Religious Zionist community in which he finds himself, and he is a sought-after speaker. (His poems have appeared on this website here; a review of one of his books, here; and a discussion of some of his theology, here.)

Nir wrote the six poems below in the months since October 7th. Most were published on December 26th in the mainstream Israeli newspaper Haaretz (“When to Get Up” is being published here for the first time, and “No Savior” was published in the sixth volume of Hineni, a collaboration between the IDF Education Corps and the religious poetry journal Mashiv Ha-Ruah). Readers responded strongly (particularly to the last poem, “Now We Need a New Torah”; see the posts here), and teachers of both Torah and poetry have included them in their classes. Nir reacted to this powerful response with a shi’ur exploring more deeply the idea that “Now We Need a New Torah.”

At times quite raw, the poems capture the very human phenomena of loss and violence from a specifically religious perspective and using traditional Jewish language, but they also trouble that distinction, putting poets and poetry alongside traditional Jewish texts and authors. When he says we need “a new Mishnah and a new Gemara” but also “new literature and new cinema,” I am reminded of Rav Kook’s essay, “The Four-fold Song” (“Shir Ha-Meruba”; notably, “shir” in Modern Hebrew can also mean “poem”). Working off the Tikkunei Zohar (Tikkun 21), Rav Kook describes 4 songs: a song of the self, a song of the nation, a song of humanity, a song of the universe. Each person, he says, sings all these songs to different degrees, and the ideal is to harmonize them all. Perhaps something like this is what R. Elhanan Nir has in mind.

Preface by Levi Morrow. Poems translated by Heather Silverman, Michael Bohnen, Rachel Korazim, and Emunah Eilon.

[1] The title is a reference to the midrashic image of God creating and destroying worlds. This image underlies as well the title of a book about the thought of R. Yehuda Amital, who grappled with the destruction wrought by both the Holocaust and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, to which October 7th has in some ways been compared. The Holocaust and the Yom Kippur War were also key influences on the thought of Nir’s teacher, R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar). Shagar once remarked to Nir that when he, Shagar, had been recovering in a burn ward in Haifa during the war, he realized that the Torah, like him, was hospitalized and covered in bandages, and that it needed to be brought out into life, a call that finds echoes in Nir’s poem, “Now We Need a New Torah.”

Elhanan Nir is an Israeli poet, writer, and editor who teaches in Yeshivat Siach-Yitzhak in Efrat.