…The past is not a piece of
jewelry sealed in a crystal box
nor is it a snake preserved
in a bottle of formaldehyde—
The past trembles within the present
when the present falls
into a pit the past goes
with it —
when the past looks
toward heaven all of life
is upraised, even the distant past.
–Zelda, from “That Strange Night” (full text, notes)
In a famous midrash, Joseph and his brothers return to Canaan to bury their father, and Joseph notices, by the side of the road, the pit where his brothers threw him decades before. Watching Joseph look into the pit, the brothers worry. They do not believe Joseph has forgiven their past deeds and continue to fear recriminations.
While the brothers in the midrash are fretting, however, Joseph recognizes the pit, despite its painful associations, as the source of all that happened to him later: his incarceration in Egypt, eventual rise to power, marriage and children; and, most importantly to the Genesis story, his ability to help his family when famine strikes their homeland.
Avivah Zornberg writes:
[Joseph] has gone to the trouble of returning to that place of his terror in order to bring closure to the old narrative. He makes the blessing for a personal miracle, claiming the site of his trauma as the site of redemption. By this act, he rereads the pit as a space of rebirth, transforming pain into hope. The grave has become a womb.
—The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p.319;
more on this midrash below
Is this kind of “re-reading,” on the part of the injured, what is really required to make reconciliation possible? Do we have to “re-read” stories in which we failed in order to create a narrative with a future?
“When the present falls into a pit, the past goes with it.” Is it in our power to direct the past upward? Is this something we can effect, or even begin, single-handedly? or must this be a cooperative look upward, a joint re-reading?
…Some of the questions I’ve been pondering this Elul. Meanwhile, I’ve been considering a change of perspective — over the course of some decades — in the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, z”l (1924-2000).
While I have no knowledge about the personal life of the poet, the poems themselves — over time — seem to encompass the kind of “re-reading” Zornberg discusses above. This set me to wondering whether this kind of “re-reading” in our own lives might contribute to reconciliation and a new view of the future. Would such a “re-reading” work on a national level?
From Bitter to Bittersweet
Amichai’s earlier poetry frequently reflects bitter views of intimate relationships (and of women). “On Rabbi Kook’s Street,” to take just one example, he carries a woman’s mattress “on [his] back like a cross,” helping her find a place to live “after me…setting up the place of my pain with the sweat of my brow.” He tells us that a “great love once cut [his] life in two,” and images of gaping wounds appear in his relationship poetry as frequently as in poems of war or terrorist attack.
At one point in his career, bittersweet is about as positive as he gets about love:
“Quick and Bitter”
…Slow and sweet were the nights.
Now is bitter and grinding as sand —
‘We shall be sensible’ and similar curses…
“On Some Other Planet You May Be Right”
…But we will remember this evening
the way swimmers remember the strokes
from one summer to the next. “On some other planet
you may be right, but not here.”
“At the Seashore”
…The waves bring back even things we haven’t lost.
I choose a smooth pebble and say over it,
“I’ll never see that one again.”
Eternity makes more sense
in the negative:
“I’ll never see. I’ll never come back.”
So what good will it do you to get a tan? You’ll be
a sadness, roasted and beautiful, an enticing scent.
When we came up from the seashore, we didn’t see the water
but near the new road we saw a deep pit
and beside it a huge wooden spool wound with heavy cable:
all the conversations of the future, all the silences.
“A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention”
…A pity. We were such a good
and loving invention.
An airplane made from a man and wife.
Wings and everything.
We hovered a little above the earth.
We even flew a little.
— citation information below
Amichai’s perspective had shifted substantially, however, in his last collection of poetry, Open Closed Open, published in Hebrew in 1998 and in English in 2000. Poems in this later volume revisit many of the same images — sand, swimmers’ strokes, a pit — but employ them far differently:
“Summer and the Far End of Prophecy”
Summer by the Sea…
…They lie together embracing in the sand
on the seashore, and the sand penetrates* the watches
on their wrists and it turned* them into hour-glasses,
that were block up, and they would not know* the time. She said:
“Sand got in my watch,” and he said: “We must remove
the watches. We must.” Two by the sea, two sand-people….
[*yes, the tenses jump all over the place]
…Swimmers’ strokes preserve the memory of swimming
and of last summer too, of all the summers that were,
swimmers’ strokes proceed from love
and unto love they shall return….
The memorial forest where we made love
burned down in a great conflagration
but the two of us stayed alive and in love
in memory of the burnt forest
and in memory of the burnt ones the forest remembers.
“Houses (plural); Love (singular)”
Sheltered by good news,
sheltered even by the bad, now we are at home….
…When we lived there, we were a man and a woman
earnest in our loving,
we were not abandoned. And if we have not died, we are loving still.
The house where we first loved was destroyed
…In its place now is a deep pit
as in the prayer “out of the depths” and from us
will arise a big house, from the preceding.
The architects didn’t know that they sketched the house
according to the lines of our bodies, fitted to love….
Sand, once “bitter and grinding,” contributes to timeless love. Swimmers’ strokes, once rehearsing words of bickering, now “proceed from love and unto love they shall return.” Love, once a doomed invention, is now the blueprint for a future home. These selections from Open Closed Open seem to demonstrate change of poetic heart.
Re-Reading the Past
While I’ve not read Amichai’s entire opus, I have read quite a bit and found precious little — over several decades of his writing — reflecting positively on relationships (or on women). For this reason, his later shift of perspective is quite striking. I don’t suggest that Amichai, as an individual, somehow represents a great example of reconciliation in “real life”: I have no evidence, either way, and little interest in his personal life. But I do think the transformation in his poetry can inspire us, as readers and as seekers after reconciliation.
In “At the Seashore,” an earlier poem (above), the couple do not see the water but notice — like Joseph in the midrash — a pit by the side of the road. There is no future in the pit, for them.
On the other hand, the pit in “Houses (plural): Love (singular)” — identified with “prayer ‘out of the depths’” — is the source of new birth. Despite what he writes elsewhere, here love survives and hope persists.
In a 1992 interview, Amichai discusses what he calls “a Jewish sense of time” as a key element in his writing:
The most important dimension in writing for me is time….It’s actually a very Jewish sense of time, out of the Talmud. There’s a Talmudic saying that there’s nothing early or late in the Bible, which means that everything—all events—are ever present, that the past and future converge on the present, especially in language….In Hebrew and in Arabic most tenses revolve around the present—you can change easily from present tense to past tense or from present tense to future tense. There seems at times almost to be no difference and, as often happens in the Biblical texts, the future tense is used to describe something that happened in the past. This sense of bringing the past and future into the present defines my sense of time—it is very strong within me and my poetry.
— from an interview by Lawrence Joseph in The Paris Review
The Art of Poetry No. 44 (spring 1992)
By “bringing the past and future into the present” in his poetry, Amichai appears able to “re-read” the past, as Zornberg says Joseph does, to create a different future from the same antecedents.
I remember reading somewhere that F. Scott Fitzgerald kept re-writing the story of his life with Zelda (Sayre — no relation, of course), hoping for a happy ending. Would it have made a difference — to them or to anyone else — if he had succeeded? Is the “re-writing” endeavor different from Zornberg’s “re-reading”? What if F. Scott and/or Zelda had re-read their lives to come to the kind of understanding that Joseph found in the midrash, making peace with the past to create a new future?
If the past is really “trembling inside the present,” as the poet Zelda describes, what does that mean for our personal processes of teshuvah? What does it mean for our relationships? For Israel and Palestine? For the U.S. at this difficult juncture?
What would it mean, instead, to imitate Abraham, as the “lonely man” closing her poem describes him: Attached to nothing from the past, taking not even a thread from those who came before?
Shana tova/a good year
This midrash is from Tanhuma Vayechi 17. The brothers worry: “Now that our father is dead, what if Joseph hates us and pays us back for all the evil we did him!” (Genesis 50:15) Here is Zornberg’s translation and some of her commentary:
So they sent a message to Joseph, saying: “Your father left this instruction…’So shall you say to Joseph.'” We have searched but we have not found that Jacob left any such instruction! But see the power of peace, that God wrote such things in His Torah about the power of peace.
…In a word, the supposed testament is a fabrication. The brothers have invented it, putting into their dying father’s mouth words that they hope will protect them from Joseph’s vengeance….
Strikingly, however, the midrash adopts a naive pose: as though only thorough scanning could have provided such a finding, as though a lie in the divine narrative would constitute a theological problem. The midrash seems to affirm a dramatic judgment — the superiority of peace over truth — which justifies the brothers’ lie….
For a clear, brief discussion of the midrash, including a portion of Zornberg’s commentary on it, see this “Two Minute Torah.” back
mimaamakim [out of the depths] is the opening word of Psalm 130, a penitential psalm (called “De Profundis” in Catholic tradition). back
Apologies: My poetry books are packed away due to impending construction, and my information on these poems is sketchy. Some of the early poems used above — including “Quick and Bitter” and “A Pity” — were translated (by Assia Gutman) into English as early as 1971; others may be a few years later, and I do not know the translator in each case. back
The English edition of Open Closed Open does not include all the material published in the Hebrew Patuach Sagur Patuach. The first quoted stanza of “Summer at the Far End of Prophecy” and the final quoted stanza of “Houses (plural); Love (singular)” are amateur translations from Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group. The rest are professional translations by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, (NY: Harcourt, 2000.) The Hebrew is published by Schocken (Tel Aviv, 1998). back
“In That Strange Night.”
Zelda (Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky, June 20, 1914-April 30, 1984)
Found in the Selichot [forgiveness] prayers of Machzor Lev Shalem (NY: Rabbinical Assembly, 2010, 2011).
But the lonely man murmurs:
And was not Abraham once in the world,
He, who did not take even a thread
from the soul who sires (or begets) him.
[again the juxtaposition of past tense “take”
and present tense “sires”]