Yom Ha’atzmaut and the Poetic Man

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poetryby R. Reuven Tradburks

In discussing the tefillot that are said or not said on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Rabbi Gil Student distinguishes between Messianic Zionists and Hopeful Zionists. While that distinction is accurate and valuable as a description of attitudes to Zionism, I think it is “shtayim sh’hem arba”, 2 that are really 4.

In addition to Messianic Zionists and Hopeful Zionists, I would like to offer a distinction between those who view life as “Commanded Man” and “Poetic Man”.

The establishment of the state of Israel and its continued flourishing is historic, a moment of grand meaning in Jewish history. Besides this historic meaning, its religious meaning must also be addressed. Is this a moment of Divine favour, is it a moment of His Yad haChazaka, His outstretched Arm, and if it is, how do we express that in religious language? Do we establish a new holiday to mark this moment, accompanied by Hallel?

It is to this religious question, this halachic question that we find “Ish Ham’tzuveh”, “Commanded Man” and “Ish Hashira”, “Poetic Man”.

Commanded Man is unsure of how to view the establishment of the state. Poetic Man sings and dances, overcome with gratitude, humbled by being a part of a Divine wink, a part of the Jewish state. Commanded Man searches for the address in halacha to respond to this historic moment. Poetic man is proud of his state, proud of its fighting men and women, cries at its fallen, wells with pride at its great moments, sings thanks to the Source of all of this.

Commanded Man views life through the prism of his analysis – categories, mitzvoth, constructs – seeking to determine how the events of this world fit into those categories. This is the pursuit of halacha. How does this new invention fit into categories of melachos of shabbos? How does this new form of farming, hothouses, fit into the categories of shmitta?

Commanded Man needs to respond to history as well. In this, the categories and the events become more challenging. In which halachic categories do we place the Iranian nuclear threat? Are we, as a state in the category of pikuach nefesh? Or war?

And where do we place the establishment of the state of Israel? Does it conform to categories of the miraculous, ala Purim and Chanuka? And how do we, bereft of the power of prophecy arrive at such conclusions?

I am not so interested in engaging in the answers to these questions as much as identifying that this is the response of Commanded Man. His response is not with song, with dance. His response is measured, calculated, beginning in the mind and proceeding to action.

Poetic Man, “Ish Hashira”, sings and dances. His heart bursts with emotion, with elation, ecstatic at the power, the enormity of what our eyes have seen. The Ish Hashira responds to the miraculous moment, incredulous, swept up in a torrent of joy, tears of millennia bursting forth, feeling as the poor man plucked from the heap of trash, placed amongst the noble. Overcome with appreciation, that this impoverished one has been accorded the honor of the Divine embrace, “Ish Hashira” sings Hallel. For what else? How else does a poor soul respond to the One who has wrought all this but in song. We are not ingrates. We could not have done this with our hands of flesh and blood. There is nothing else to do but sing in thanks, dance in appreciation. This miraculous state defies all odds because it has One that no other has. He stretched to us, we respond to Him in deep religious appreciation, from the depths of our hearts.

Ish Ham’tsuveh thinks of his obligation. Ish Hashira bursts forth naturally. Ish Ham’tsuveh is careful. Ish Hashira sings what he feels in his heart. Ish Ham’tsuveh makes calculations. Ish Hashira expresses seamlessly from deep in his soul.

But hold on, ought we not to be guided by Shulchan Aruch, by careful consideration and not by the wiles of our heart? Is not the Ish Ham’tsuveh correct? Perhaps our heart is wrong. Even if there are those whose response is as Ish Hashira, breaking out in song as a natural, visceral reaction to this wondrous moment in history, perhaps they, we, for I consider myself one are misguided. Should rather the Ish Hashira slow down and filter his response through the Ish Ham’tsuveh?

I would like to argue that there are two legitimate and desirable parts of man, the Ish Ham’tsuveh and the Ish Hashira. They are both legitimate. However, these two parts of man function in two parts of experience – there are “tzvei dinim,” two different arenas.

Man at times ought to be restrained and guided only by the mitzvah, the demands of halacha. And at other times man ought to have refined his character to the point that he does the mitzvah from a welling up in his being, in which His Will has become mine, and in which the purest fulfillment is not because I have been instructed but because I have become one with the Torah. I would like to argue that this occurs in ethics and it occurs in shira.

The Rambam in the 6th Chapter of Shmona Prakim establishes a crucial principle in ethical behavior. There are times in which we ought to spontaneously act out of the goodness of our heart and there are times when we ought to be shaped and molded by the mitzvah and the halacha. When it comes to universal ethical behavior, like not stealing, not murdering, not hurting another, we ought to act in those areas not because we have been commanded but because we are good, decent people. In other words, we ought to cultivate in ourselves our ethical sense so that we act towards others out of the goodness of our heart because that is just who we are.

The Rambam says that there exist other actions which we clearly would never do except because we are commanded – eating kosher, not wearing shaatnez, eating matza on Pesach.

There are two realms of activity. In some areas we wait, we think, we ponder what the halacha demands and then we act because we are so commanded. But then in other areas we act from inner motivation, from the goodness we have cultivated in ourselves, quickly with no need to ponder, for the good is obvious and we have succeeded in creating ourselves to be naturally good people.

I would argue that this is reflected in the absence of brachos before mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro. We don’t make a bracha “asher kidshanu … l’vaker cholim,” before visiting the sick. Making a bracha before doing an act is effectively saying that what we are about to do is because we have been commanded. Making a bracha before visiting the sick is as if to say, “had we not been commanded to visit this person who is ill, we couldn’t care less about them – we are only doing this because we are conquering our nature which is to be ingrates and hence acting kindly.” There is no bracha before doing some kindness, or before giving tzedaka, or visiting the ill, comforting the bereaved, relieving one of a burden, returning a lost object – because we are not motivated by the mitzvah, we are motivated by our innate goodness. Certainly in doing these actions there is a kiyum hamitzvah, we do fulfill the mitzvah. However, that is not our motivation in doing the mitzvah.

There is a part of our being that conforms to halacha and that restraint and bending of will is a great religious moment of recoil. But there is also a part of our being which we want to cultivate, to be sensitive, to be kind, fine and moral, to act in accord with His Will because we have made our will as His. We have created our nature to be good and fine.

(I am aware of Rav Lichtenstein zt”l’s article concerning the ethical and the halachic. Nonetheless I feel the following is consistent with his discussion. He sought to determine what is ethical – only that defined as such by halacha or is there an ethic beyond. I am arguing that once we define what is ethical, what is our motivation in wanting to do that action.)

But it could well be that this cultivation of our inner being is not limited to the ethical, the activity bein adam l’chavero. There is the Adam Ham’tsuveh in the realm of mitzvoth bein adam l’makom, in the realm of religious actions. And there is the Adam Hatov, the good man, the one cultivated to be fine and decent.

But within the realm of mitzvoth bein adam l’makom, I think we can further subdivide into mitzvoth which we would not have arrived at on our own and ones which flow naturally. That is in fact the distinction the Rambam makes in Shmona Prakim. There are mitzvoth which mankind has arrived at out of decency – not to kill, steal and hurt others – and there are mitzvoth which we would never have come up with on our own – shaatnez, kosher, matza.

I would argue that we can use that within mitzvoth bein adam lmakom as well. There are moments in which we act out of submission to His will – shaatnez and kosher. And then there are moments in which we have developed a sensitive soul, an inner attitude that sees the Divine, that thinks of the Divine and that sings to the Divine. Not because we are commanded, but because His Will has become ours. We act not because commanded but because we are poetic souls, singing souls.

At the peak of the mountain our feelings spill out naturally, of grandeur of His world, of appreciation for His world. We see the world as His world. At the moment of the birth of a child, we cry tears of gratitude, pronouncing a bracha of appreciation, not because commanded but because we see the Divine in our joy. In the valley of the shadow of death, faced with our mortality, illness or tragedy, we see Him crying with us as we call out in submission to His will. Our tefillot at those moments are not due to command but due to His presence, with us in gladness and in sadness.

The Poetic Man, the Ish Hashira, sings because that is who he is. That is how he sees the world. He has become one who sees the world and the Divine behind it. He is loyal to halacha while a singing soul.

And that is how I see this day, Yom Ha’atzmaut. Sure there are Messianic Zionists and Hopeful Zionists. But there are also those who see the world as Ish Ham’tsuveh, in the categories of the mind and of analysis. I was one of those, proudly, for all my years in the rabbinate in the US and Canada. I wondered each year whether Hallel is warranted. How, I thought, do we understand the halachic status of the State of Israel? I thought as Ish Ham’tsuveh.

Until five years ago. Then we made aliya. Now I find myself surrounded by people who I see as Ish(ei) Hashira, poets, singers. Whether to say Hallel is not a thought – how could you not? How else is there to respond to this world of ours, this state with all its wondrous achievements, unachievable without the outstretched Arm. The question is not “whether to” but “how can you not?” I find myself now not pausing and deliberating but singing naturally. Not because we are supposed to but because the soul needs to sing. It would be dry without. It would feel discomfort were it not to smile back to the One Who has smiled upon us. It sees the world as a walk with the Divine, this place His stage, this state His smile, and all that we see around us, His Kindness. And for that we sing, welling up, naturally. How could it be other?

Oh, these feelings could be dissected in the Beis Medrash – are they legitimate or wishful thinking? And that occurs to me when my Ish Ham’tsuveh, my Commanded Man slips back. But for me, Ish Hashira, the sensitive soul, the part that sees His Hand behind what lies in front of us – for me, for now, Ish Hashira sings Hallel. How could it not?

About Reuven Tradburks

Rabbi Reuven Tradburks is the representative of the Rabbinical Council of America in Israel. Before his aliyah in 2009, he served as a congregational rabbi for 23 years, the last 15 of which he was rabbi of Kehillat Shaarei Torah of Toronto.

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