Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Bein Kodesh l'Chol - Between Sacred and Secular (Derashah, Rosh HaShanah 5780)

My current draft for Rosh HaShanah, inspired by Amir Daddon and Shuli Rand's new song, בין קודש לחול (video and translation available here). Comments welcome, on this page or in email!

Bein kodesh l’chol
Amir Daddon is a very successful Israeli musician and singer in his 40s; he’s been a part of various bands; in recent years he has released three solo albums. He identifies as secular.

Shuli Rand is a popular, 57-year old Israeli singer who grew up Religious Zionist, left observant Judaism, then became a Breslover chasid. You may know him as author of, and an actor in, the movie Ushpizin.

Last week, Daddon and Rand released a song together; it’s called Bein Kodesh l’Chol, “Between sacred and secular.”[1] The video shows the two of them standing in an alley in what may be the Old City. They take turns singing, and as they sing they pace and turn, but constantly face each other. Their actions, facial expressions, and most of their words mirror each other’s, and they are only about a meter apart for most of the song. They nod at each other’s words, sighing, conveying a deep, empathetic comprehension. Both are clearly distraught, exhausted, frustrated, their expressions intense, their arms flung out and gesturing. To me, it’s the rare case of a video that makes a song better.

Daddon, looking strung-out in a black t-shirt, with defeated eyes and a deep 5 o’clock shadow, sings first about his feelings of unrest in his secular life, and his frustration with the sense that he doesn’t belong in that life:
Between sacred and secular I live, with the truth that wreaks havoc inside of me, with a thousand habits, with every scar on my face, I go forth to scatter these words.
Between reality and insanity, it all comes back to me. There, in the place from which I come there is no peace, and this burden is heavy, and a little too big for me.
I need to grow out of this and be done with it, to grow out of this and be done with it.

And Rand, the chasid, in white shirt, black pants and a long beard and the same expression of pain and defeat, sings almost identically in response, questioning his comfort in his religious life:
Between sacred and secular I live, between the truth that wreaks havoc inside of me, with a thousand habits, with all of the fear on my shoulders, I go forth to scatter these words.
Between reality and insanity, it all comes back to me. There, in the place from which I come there is no peace, and this burden is heavy, and a little too big for me.
I need to grow out of this and be done with it, to grow out of this and be done with it.

My impressions from the song
The two musicians express a struggle between kodesh and chol, between sacred religion and secular attractions, between the scars of the secular and the fear of the religious, between what they each consider the poles of reality and insanity, as perceived from their opposite points of view. The two use nearly identical words to describe their own unsettled feelings where they are, their attraction to where the other is, and their wish they could “grow out of” this attraction and be done with it. The struggle of living bein kodesh l’chol exhausts them. It’s a dramatically, gorgeously honest song.

I’m not sure how many of us regularly feel the religious exhaustion that Daddon and Rand express. Many of us are at a stage where we have our peer groups, our work and our histories; we made the big religion and lifestyle decisions years ago. But some of us do, even within a mainstream, observant community like ours. We have people who are still making those decisions, and whose family members are still making those decisions:
·         Whether to go clubbing or to shul on Friday night;
·         Whether to invest in sending their children to Jewish day school and high school;
·         Whether to go kosher, or to stay kosher;
·         What sort of romantic lifestyle to pursue;
·         Whether to seek meaning in religion at all.
And even for those who aren’t wrestling with major religious decisions, we face personal decisions which test our ethical strength – exhausting decisions of relationships, of work, of chinuch. We search for clarity between right and wrong, but even if we find it, we strain to develop the strength to follow through. My point is not the specifics of religious struggle; my focus is the exhaustion of having that struggle. Like Daddon and Rand, we shake our heads, we fling out our arms, we cry and we turn this way and that, in search not so much for an answer as for a way out of searching.

How can a Jew navigate this exhaustion? Burned out and frustrated, wanting just to stop thinking about these choices, how does a religiously drained Jew move forward from chol? And while the song doesn’t take sides and doesn’t favour religion, I do; I want to choose kodesh. How does the religiously drained Jew move forward from chol, and find firm footing in the world of kodesh?

An answer may lie in Rosh HaShanah, and its emphasis on recognizing Hashem as Melech. A deep understanding of Melech can energize all of us, whether facing the Daddon/Rand exhaustion or our own.

What is a Melech?
The act of recognizing Hashem as Melech sometimes reminds me of the scene in the movie, My Fellow Americans, in which a former American president talks about how every time they played Hail to the Chief for him, he would sing to himself, “Hail to the Chief, he’s the Chief and he needs hailing.”[2] But Hashem doesn’t need hailing, and that’s not what we are doing when we recite malchiyot. Far from it – on Rosh HaShanah, when we say the malchiyot berachah coronating Gd, we are actually empowering the human being.

The Zohar coined a phrase,  לית ליה מגרמיה כלום. It means: “He possesses nothing of his own.”
·         The Zohar uses it to refer to the Moon,[3] which offers no illumination of its own.[4]
·         It also applies to Shabbat, a day when nothing is created; we prepare for it beforehand, and then, as the Zohar says, it communicates the reward for those preparations in the form of berachah to the ensuing six days.[5]
·         And in the Zohar and many other works of Jewish mysticism, לית ליה מגרמיה כלום also describes a king. Far from being “the owner of all”, the monarch is an owner of nothing.

The Zohar’s point is logical. The monarch receives whatever the nation provides via taxes, and whatever a predecessor bequeathed from a previous generation’s taxes, and the monarch’s job is to distribute that wealth for the benefit of the nation. The monarch is a conduit.

Kohelet[6] said it: “The benefit of a land, anywhere, is in a king who is enslaved to the field.” He isn’t out there plowing, but his role is to be a conduit, making sure that the benefits of the economy reach the nation.[7]

And the Rambam said it, in his Laws of Kings:[8]Just as the Torah assigned great honour to the king, and all are obligated to honour him, so the Torah instructed him to keep his heart humble… He must be generous and merciful for small and great, he must exit and enter at their desire and for their good, and he must care for the honour of the smallest of the small.” The king’s role is to look after the nation.

In sum: In Judaism, a king is an enabler, a facilitator.

Hashem as Melech
The same is true for Hashem, whom we declare King on Rosh HaShanah. Of course, the phrase לית ליה מגרמיה כלום, that a king owns nothing, can’t apply directly to Gd; Hashem created everything, and possesses everything. But in terms of what Hashem’s monarchy means for us, in that sense, yes, לית ליה מגרמיה כלום, He has nothing. Because Hashem’s goal in this world is to enable us to achieve, to grow, to choose קודש over חול.

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus,[9] who served as Rosh Yeshiva in Yerucham and the Rabbi of Ofakim, spelled out this concept beautifully. He explained that a king, elevated above the narrow concerns of normal life, is positioned to act on his best impulses to benefit the entire population. And then he wrote, “This is the meaning of Malchut for Hashem. When we yearn and daven for Hashem’s monarchy to be revealed before the world” – like in ובכן תן פחדך – “we are davening for Hashem, in all His exalted glory, to become involved in a practical way in our world,” acting as a facilitator for us, enabling us להביא לגילוי יחודו של הקב"ה בעולם בכל הדרו, to live a life which demonstrates the Unity of Gd, in all its glory, for all the world to see.

In other words – on Rosh HaShanah, the day of Creation of humanity, we mark the ultimate, ongoing empowerment of humanity.[10] We call Hashem our מלך, but we aren’t only talking about Hashem as King and Owner; we are talking about Hashem as Empowerer, whose monarchy has the ultimate goal of facilitating our spiritual work.[11]

This is the ultimate realization of the romantic reciprocality envisioned by the Torah and elaborated upon by our sages – את ד' האמרת היום להיות לך לאלקים וללכת בדרכיו, “You have embraced Hashem on this day, to be Your Gd, to walk in His ways,” promoting His agenda, וד' האמירך היום להיות לו לעם סגולה, “Hashem has embraced you on this day, to be a special nation for Him.”[12]

What a gripping, resonating vision – the Jew not as an anonymous, struggling citizen of the Divine empire, but the focus of that empire, and the Divine Emperor personally focussed, entirely, on our spiritual success! What a vision! What a responsibility!

Back to Daddon and Rand: Empowerment
In their bein kodesh l’chol existence, caught between the sacred and the secular, Amir Daddon and Shuli Rand have two problems.
·         First, they are spiritually torn; one lives in the reverence of the sacred and is drawn toward aspects of the secular, the other bears the scars of the secular world and is drawn toward aspects of the sacred. It’s hard to live in both worlds; Hashem is mavdil bein kodesh l’chol, Hashem has divided the two dimensions, and their souls are straddling that division.
·         But second, they are exhausted, burned out, from the intensity of this struggle. They feel too weak to pursue this intense struggle to its end and to make the hard choices that come with it.

No one can answer the first problem for us; in a world of Free Will, no one will force a person from the camp of chol to the camp of kodesh. But for the second problem, the sense of helplessness, Rosh HaShanah asserts that help is on the way! Hashem is Melech!
·         Like the melech that is the Moon, reflecting the light of the Sun.
·         Like the melech that is Shabbat, channeling berachah to the week ahead.
·         Like the melech that is a human king, distributing the wealth of a nation to benefit the land, and caring for “the honour of the smallest of the small.”
Hashem is here to enable and empower us!
·         If Shuli Rand feels burnt out, the Melech will give him the strength to keep going!
·         If Amir Daddon feels exhausted, the Melech will grant him the energy to keep seeking!
·         And if you or I feel like our personal struggles bein kodesh l’chol – whether Kashrut and Shabbat or Minyan and Tzedakah – are too hard and not worth the strain and struggle, Rosh HaShanah’s Melech declares, “This is the top of My agenda, this is why I created the universe, all those Rosh HaShanah’s ago!” You are not small; you are the reason I am Melech.

שמור נא עלי
In a moment, we will blow shofar. As the shofar blasts ring in our ears, we should have in mind that we are fulfilling a mitzvah – and we should also have in mind the closing words of the song: “שמור נא עלי, רק שלא יכשלו רגלי. Please, watch over me; just don’t let my feet stumble.”

The ambiguity of the song and video allows us to think that the singers could be addressing each other or Gd, but on Rosh HaShanah, during shofar, we voice this plea directly to Hashem, our Melech.
·         שמור נא עלי! Tekiah, a straight sound, erupting from the shofar with pride and strength – Hashem, You are our Melech!
·         שמור נא עלי! Shevarim, a groan, three tired breaths pushed through the shofar – Hashem, please invest energy in me!
·         שמור נא עלי! Teruah, a staccato series of gasps frenetically jolted from the shofar anxiously - Hashem, let me see and feel how You are here for me, enabling me!

This year, may we merit to see and feel Hashem’s שמירה, Hashem’s help for all of us, how our Melech is working and manipulating our world to enable us to find our spiritual path. שלא יכשלו רגלי, may our legs never falter, but instead may we march into the future with a כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

[3] See Zohar Vayeshev pg. 181a
[4] For more examples, see Zohar Chayei Sarah pg. 124b-125a, Zohar Vayishlach pg. 168b,  Zohar Vayechi pg. 238a
[5] Zohar Yitro pg. 88a. And it is called a melech or מלכה, as per Shabbat 119a, which will fit our point here.
[6] Kohelet 5:8
[7] The Jews demanded a King, and the prophet Shemuel criticized them. According to the classic commentator Rabbeinu Nisim (Derashot haRan 11), the Jews wanted someone who would hold all of the power within himself. But the Divine vision is for a king who is just a conduit to communicate and implement the Divine message to the nation.
[8] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 2:6
[9] שבת מלכתא, חלק א' פרק א'. I am grateful to Rabbi Ezriel Sitzer for pointing me to this source.
[10] Humanity as a whole, as צלם אלקים. The Jewish nation, the collective Knesset Yisrael which is a member of the ברית. And the individual.
[11] Worth noting - אבינו מלכנו is not an oxymoron – the parent is the ultimate Melech, empowering the child.
[12] Berachot 6a, building on Devarim 26:17-18

1 comment:

  1. I think the song is very much a product of its time. It wasn't all that long ago when it would be more usual to think of this kind of struggle as a weakness.

    It's only with Post-Modernism that we're willing to confront the idea that there are two ideals:

    The abstract ideal I am trying for, to be the perfect eved Hashem, to be a subject who cooperates with, rather than resists, the King's plan.

    The reality, that the ideal human isn't capable of the first paragraph. That the real ideal is to be striving for the ideal ideal, and not actually there.

    This song is a celebration of the latter, of admitting one is struggling with getting there, with even knowing where "there" is.

    As I said, I don't think anyone would have thought of writing a song like this just 2 decades ago.

    On a different note, when I dealt with Coronating G-d, I focused on pesuqim like "ki Lashem haMlukhah umosheil bagoyim". A melekh rules by public acclamation; a moshel rules despite the people. Even if the moshel has their best interests at heart. And that the choice is ours whether we experience Hashem's rule as that of a Melekh, or that of a Mosheil.