Rosh Hashanah – A Stirring of Wonder


Spiritual Sunday – Rosh Hashanah

In observance of the Jewish New Year, which begins this evening, I share poems by Denise Levertov and Muriel Ruykeyser. Rabbi Ellen Lippman alerted me to them in a Rosh Hashanah sermon where she reflects on what it means to be Jewish.

Lippman concludes that being a Jew means

to leave and to go, to act and learn, and act on what we have learned. For Jews throughout the ages, learning was done in order to act, to live. Halakhah [Jewish law and tradition], the path. For us, the learning, the prayer, the holiday celebrations serve as reinforcement: They remind us we are Jews, they teach us the foundational values, they give us time to rest and renew, they urge us to reflect and change — and keep going. 

Levertov’s “The Thread” captures the sense of connection with these foundational values:

Something is very gently, 
invisibly, silently, 
pulling at me-a thread 
or net of threads 
finer than cobweb and as 
elastic. I haven’t tried 
the strength of it. No barbed hook 
pierced and tore me. Was it 
not long ago this thread 
began to draw me? Or 
way back? Was I 
born with its knot about my 
neck, a bridle? Not fear 
but a stirring 
of wonder makes me 
catch my breath when I feel 
the tug of it when I thought 
it had loosened itself and gone. 

I like how Levertov says that the thread that pulls her is not a hooked fishing line, a noose or a bridle, which are all coercive. At its core, Judaism is not guilt-inducing burden or a suffocating tradition. The thread is more a “stirring of wonder,” a connecting that sometimes escapes notice but is there when we need it.

Rukeyser’s poem “To the Front,” written in 1944 when America was learning about the concentration camps, pushes against the horrors by describing Judiasm as a gift. In the excerpt cited by Rabbi Lippman, the poet says that ejecting one’s Jewish identity means “death of the spirit, the stone insanity,” whereas accepting it means to take a full life, even though that life may include “full agonies” and an “evening deep in labyrinthine blood/Of those who resist, fail, and resist.” God at such moment, may seem “reduced to a hostage among hostages.”

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift.    If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life.    Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment.     Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also.     But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.

With the gift comes both exclusion (“the still/Torture, isolation”) and also “torture of the flesh.” But by accepting one’s Judiasm, one also accepts “the whole and fertile spirit” that is the “guarantee for every human freedom.” Although this freedom involves suffering, it also includes a vision of “daring to live for the impossible.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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