by Olivia Wiznitzer (Washington Heights., NY)
He is among the most bloodied of your generation. He has the most to forget, and can forget nothing.
Gershon spoke up and said to the darkness, He has a friend.
~from Chaim Potok’s The Book of Lights (p. 324)
She had always wished that she could pray with the fervency that she ought. Her every nerve ought to sing; her body ought to hum with desire. She believed in God, so why couldn’t she find him in the words? Beautiful Hebrew words, archaic words that had been sung by so many, that had touched the lips of the pure and the holy. Sacred words. And yet she could not bring herself to voice them. She had tried to explain it to herself many times. She did not like to lie, and would not offer prayers she did not mean. She was frustrated by the words, in a language she did not speak and did not understand. She hated the entire way in which one must stand within a rectangular cube and dedicate her soul to God. It seemed to her to be utterly impossible to do truthfully, and she had long ago determined that she would do nothing that was not truthful. She had learned from her share of lies. Whatever the reason, it was why she resented the fact that she was made to attend shul on Shabbat. She did not pray there. She did not tell anyone that was the case, but the only prayers she voiced were those that touched her lips in her mother tongue, in blessed English. And that was when her soul took flight, and euphorically, pearls of rapture escaped her mouth. And she prayed with her whole soul, which was broken, and her name was that of the one who came before her, Chana.
She longed to be outside. Out of the confines of this box, with its ceremonies of which she had no part, placed behind the curtain. Mei’akhorei ha’pargod. She remembered when she was little, younger, sitting on her Daddy’s lap, excitedly waiting for the Torah, longing to kiss it, in love with everything it represented. There it was, bedecked in velvets and jewels, the living embodiment of the Shekhina, crowned in silver, God’s partner and lover. She ran up to it and raised her hand to it, pressing her kiss onto the soft velvet. She beamed with pride as she went back to her seat, looked through the words of the parsha and followed as her father read them, anxious to catch him in at least one mistake to show him that she had been attentive. She remembered skipping happily, dancing outside of shul, telling Daddy that she had gotten all the way up to V’ahavta this time (she could never keep up with the congregation.) She remembered how happy she had been to go to shul. She wondered when she had lost that interest and that desire to be part of everything.
But she had not lost it. It was just that she could not find it there, within the concrete walls, even the ones that were painted gold. She could only find it outside, outdoors, preferably when she was alone. She loved the bikepath. She loved the glittering gold of the sun reflecting off the green leaves, the statues, with their pinks and purples, a world which was vivid and full of color. This caused her to feel, and with feeling she could pray. Without feeling she could not. She was aware of everything Heschel had written on the subject. Prayer cannot be spontaneous; it must be an act to which one commits, no matter the feeling that provokes it. She had a friend who told her that though he could not always pray with the intensity that he desired, he found it easy to set aside the time for God. For her the concept was strange. How was she to set aside time for God? God was always there, always beside her. She felt Him. It was precisely because of that closeness that she felt difficulty conceiving of Him as a presence whom she must obey, or one to whom she must bow. He was too close to her to be anything but understanding. And yet, even she knew that she had her responsibilities, and her obligation to fulfill them.
Why was it that she felt as though she were part of some vast power-play? God tugged her in one direction and the other; He showed her images and pieces of his world, and all of them left her disconcerted, if not in tears. At first He had only shown her his glory, and dazzled, she stood bewildered before Him, her hair lit by the golden light of his aura. But then he had unveiled his terrible darkness, and she was still caught within it, walking this path that seemed endless, and desiring to leave. And the most terrible thing of all was that the door stood open before her, had she not the courage, or the strength, to devote herself to attempting to go forward in her desire to understand.
God knew that the most difficult thing for her to do was to bow to his command. He had granted her a heart to feel, but then he told her, not that she must revoke that feeling, but that she must act despite it. How was she to act despite it? Such feelings crippled her, left her feeling helpless, retching in the gutter, doubled over with disgust or pain. Those who were cold could doubtless act. Why should it trouble them to kill an Amalekite child, if God declares it is necessary? They would obey God, in whom they believed wholeheartedly. But for Chana, images flashed before her eyes of the children she loved at the Kohl Children’s Museum. That beautiful blonde boy who gurgled with laughter as he splashed water on his head- and what if he were an Amalekite child? And she was mandated to kill him? But he had done nothing!
There were ways of making oneself understand. One could claim that there were metaphysical realms beyond the one which one could see. Perhaps, in primordial fashion, there was a cosmic tear in the universe should even one Amalekite be left alive, in the same way that there were rips in the cosmic fabric of the world each time she, or anyone else, sinned. When Chana closed her eyes she could see this. She would close her eyes and see an image of a universe bathed in light and swimming with angels and demons, each of them formed or deformed according to the actions of its owner. She saw the rips in the fabric of the world and the ugly seeping darkness that leaked into our world. All this was easy for her to visualize. But even with that, because there was no direct correlation between the child and the rip in the world; because it was something she had to close her eyes to see, she struggled and found herself lacking.
And suppose, not today, but at a different point in time, a non-Jew or pagan were to appear on her front lawn on the Sabbath, and they were dying? It is forbidden to be mechalel Shabbos for a non-Jew. And suppose it were her friend Kate? How could she look into her friend’s eyes and watch her die? And this was what God asked of her, to forego anything which could be called mercy in favor of cruelty; this was the price she was to pay? The Rav spoke so often and so frequently of surrendering to God. He was very clear on that point. There was a reason why. If one lives by the mercy of one’s heart, there is much that is permitted. There is much one does not understand, and which causes one to struggle. And one broods and broods and begins to twist the halakha and the laws in order to fashion them in accord with the desires of one’s heart. And this is a perversion, but a tempting one, because one would do it in an attempt to do good.
In her mind’s eye, she watched what she could do, and what she could be. She had watched it many times. She would walk away from her Judaism, or at least from her Orthodoxy, and would fashion it as she would like to. She would fashion it in the manner that she saw fit, in accordance with what her heart told her. And in that way she would be publicly lauded and accepted, the Nobel Peace Prize candidate of the Jews. But she knew, in a place that went deeper than the horror that filled her at fulfillment of the law, that she could not do that. Because somewhere else within herself there was an awe and fear that she did not admit to, because as yet she could not. She did love God, for all that she hated Him. And it was within that dichotomy that she struggled, and wished that there were a way out. She wished she could walk out of her darkness and into the light, but not the blinding destructive light, only the one that was pure, and healing.
Her imagination was fascinated by the image of the Rabbis, agilely defending, refuting and disputing each other with brilliant repartee and back-and-forth. She imagined these Rabbis and walked with them in her mind, astounded by their knowledge, by their power of recall and of comprehension, to delve through matters logically and assign solutions, no matter how preposterous or strange, through the derivation that no other solution was possible. She saw in them a power that was worthy and strange to her, and deliberately kept aloof from it. She did not want to master it, or to be their equal. So long as she kept apart from them, she could hide herself in the darkness of her ignorance and tell herself they knew far more than her. So long as she did that, she could state she did not understand, and because she did not have the knowledge, she had no right to doubt.
While she still existed without the knowledge that she might have desired, she no longer hid from it. She believed, now, that even had she all that knowledge, she would still have respect for the Rabbis formed by the power of her feeling, and her acknowledgment of their brilliance. She thought of this each time she was tempted to think of them as nothing but mortal men, men like those she encountered within her world. It would be easier to think of them as these fallen men, prey to lusts and desires, for indeed, did not their very words tell her so? This one had lusted after a prostitute while that one had delved too deeply into mystical texts. Could she not ascribe to them the desires of every man of her generation, and determine they had their weaknesses as well, that their very humanity made them frail, and made them a product of their times? And if so, could she not put aside their laws as she saw fit, or at least argue them, in an attempt to find what would gladden her heart and please her?
She could. For a time, perhaps, she even had, in her desire to advance and move beyond, move forward. She knew how seductive such an option was. The Rav had written about it. Korach and his Common-Sense Rebellion, he had called it. Korach argued that everything he desired was simply a product of common-sense. He was the mitzvot as relying upon emotional factors. If one blue string on the tzitzit causes one to remember the sky and therefore one’s Creator, how much more so if the entire garment were true! Chana found herself thinking of the laws within the same terms. What did it matter, truly, if one kept to the letter of the law or the spirit of the law? Was not the spirit of the law much more important? Did she not prefer the spiritual people to the lawkeepers who often went too far? They banned everything! They forbade everything! This aside from the fact that they seemed to believe that covering up scandals and hiding people was the way to advance Jewish society. She was not proud of them, and did not wish to associate herself with them. Besides, they had hurt her, or at least their representatives had. Foolish representatives, certainly. What do seminary graduates actually know, and yet they are entrusted with the young minds of our people? But it is our very society that declares that they do know, and enables them to teach us the Law.
I hate them! she thought, and it was true. It resonated in her heart, thrummed there in the blood that flowed through her veins. She hated them and everything that characterized them. They were petty; they were foolish; they confused the Law with their own interpretation of it. They forbade things that were perfectly legitimate; they saw darkness where there was only purity. Chana knew, having been one of their suspected miscreants. An angel who was suspected of being a devil could be no more affronted than she had been. And there was a corner of her brain that urged her to take the challenge, and the bait. If they think of you as a devil, why not be one? this corner of her mind urged her, whispered to her. Indeed, why not? There is no incentive to be better than what other people think you to be. People rise to expectations. And yet, what if there are none? What reason to go on, or to go forward?
The darkness comes creeping in through the good. Chana’s yetzer hara knew that she took no pleasure in the blood that streamed down a person’s face after she had hurt him, or the bruise that such an exercise in passion would leave behind. For this reason, her desire garbed itself in the form of an angel. She would improve Judaism. She would make it better, make it stronger, allow more of its holiness to shine through. The only thing she had to do was listen to her heart, and trust herself. Had she not always done that? Was she not, nearly always, right? Hadn’t most everyone told her not to listen to her heart when she knew that she was being truthful? Well then, wasn’t this the same- was this not truth? Why now ought she to defy her heart and bow to the will of inscrutable, irascible men, those same men who kept her behind the curtain, and wrote her off entirely and completely? There was no honor in this. Honor came in stating the truth, and in keeping to it. Why not follow her heart, which urged her to find a way to reinterpret, to look at the law and somehow reform, to do what would allow her to be at peace with herself? And then every law which hurt her could somehow be done away with, and yet she could be content with her presence before God.
Except that she could not be. For she knew, somewhere within herself, at a darker level, that this angel, which gleamed with so holy and pure a light, and seduced her with words that appealed to everything she desired to do, and would do in a moment had she only not been born Jewish, was really her own darkness transformed and given shape. Light is misleading, as it appears in different forms. There is the blinding light of the atomic bomb, which destroys and destructs the world, and the lush, appealing pagan beauty of Kyoto, where Chana’s soul feels so at home. And then there is an ugly light, the light of a kerosene lamp, which smells and drips, and yet that might be truth. Would she really be so easily lured, to follow light where she knew she could not go?
And yet it was so tempting. She knew that if she began, it would only get easier with time. Whenever one breaks a law, they justify it to themselves. There are good reasons, pure reasons, for breaking that law. Reasons that even God could not dispute! Everything is somehow pure; everything is somehow sheathed in light. Everything is beautiful. And yet the law is the law, and in the end, you have broken it, no matter the reason, no matter the intention, no matter the desire which forces you to do so. Do we not all lust after different things? Does it matter if I lust to be inclusive of people who are excluded? To each his own lust, and such lusts may be forbidden nevertheless.
But God, she could not be at peace with it! Sometimes the words of Stephen Dedalus flared up and seduced her.
“What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God’s power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing.”
Sometimes she wanted that so much that it hurt her. What did it matter if she ruined her soul, if in the process one more person opened their eyes with joy, having been included within the community? This was her battle because it had been her battle. She had been unfairly excluded from the community; she had been cast out; she had been suspected of darkness which she did not harbor. And hence it was part of her to protect the defenseless, to struggle to defend those whom other people damned. No matter who they were, so long as they did not harm others, she desired their inclusion if only there were a way to allow for it. What did it matter to her? Gentiles, homosexuals, idolaters, sinners of all kinds; was there not a gateway for all of them, some way in which they could be brought near? Chana existed to bring people near, not to push them away. It went against her entire nature and everything she loved to push anyone away, even within the context of the law.
This is why anything which required that of her, which made that her mandate, hurt her. Why must she be the one to do this? Why was there this law that bound her? What a foolish law! What a cruel and possesive law, to take her desire to include and twist it so that she must exclude or cast out! How could she cast out, who herself had been an outcast? It was so ironic a twist of fate, so impossible, so cruel. She was not at ease with herself. She did not like herself. She did not like that she could live an existence that was entirely at odds with what she desired to do. As a human being, she felt that all human beings were sacred. Can there be anything unforgivable? Can there be anything for which we truly exclude someone else?
She laughed sometimes to think what she would have made of being a Jew of the desert. What would she have done then, in a society built on boundaries and rules? In a society where the leper was cast out and had to announce his impurity to all, how would she have felt? It is possible she would have seen that as being the norm, not having been raised upon Western rules and morals which would tell her that being inclusive was a positive trait, and she would have accepted it more easily. But her heart did not tell her so. Having known how painful the experience of rejection was and is, she would not have been able to cause anyone else such pain, unless supported by the hands of others. Moshe had been supported by Yehoshua and Chur when he prayed to God by that first Amalekite battle.
Moshe fascinated her. How did this man feel, having been raised within an Egyptian palace, having had his every need and whim taken care of by Bitya and Pharoah? He pursued justice, no matter what it cost him. He killed the man who beat the Hebrew slave, despite the fact that he had to flee because of it. He intervened between two Jewish men who were fighting, one with the other. He helped the pagan daughters of a Midianite priest to draw water from a well, and fend off the unwanted advances of the other shepherds. He cared for the sheep, tending to their needs as well. And then this caring and compassionate man who pursued justice had to return to Egypt, to demand from the man who had as good as been his grandfather to let his people go. He begs God not to send him, to send someone else, anyone else. How difficult must it have been for him, to have two separate loves in his heart, one for the man who had cared for him, and the other for his people? What must it have been like to have been so hated by this man, who slapped him and ordered him banned from his presence? The amount of pain that Moshe feels throughout his leadership of the Jews compels me. He loses everything because of them, and because of his identification with them- he loses his position of power, privilege and leadership. He becomes a mere shepherd, after having been imprisoned in a pit in Jethro’s backyard. His people are unruly and ungrateful. He himself does not always understand the God whom he must serve, and cries out to him in pain. At the end of his life, his last wish is not granted. And yet, he is our model of the most special and beautiful of people, a leader like none other. His life is an exemplar of what it means to sacrifice. He sacrifices his wife to be pure so that he can approach God, he sacrifices his time so that he can sit in judgement on the people, he sacrifices his authority by the episode of Eldad and Meidad, and later by Joshua, he sacrifices his dream to enter the Land of Israel. His life is an everlasting struggle between his God and his own personal fulfillment. And he chooses- although one can argue there is no choice, because Moshe is a truthful man, and the truth is staring him in the face- God.
Is this her destiny? Is she also, in her struggle to emulate this man, to suffer pain as he did? He was slandered by his own brother and sister, albeit only due to their intent to do good for him, the people he cared so much for often struggled with him and hated him, his life was subsumed by the cares of others and he was weary unto the death. But one thing no one can argue: his life had meaning. Is this the cost one must pay for a life of meaning? Is this the cost she must pay? She is frightened; she freely admits she is frightened. There is so much pain along that path. Why not choose compassion? And yet, she knows that compassion outside the law is forbidden. Saul chooses such compassion, and he is not rewarded; indeed, the kingdom is taken from him. But what is worse, he turns against those he truly loves- against David, against Jonathan- because he is blinded by what he believes is his. In the same way that he believed it was in his hands to listen to his heart and to abide by compassion, so too does he believe that he may award the kingdom to he to whom it ought rightfully to pass- to Jonathan, his beloved son. Saul too is a man of justice; he would have seen his son dead had not his men ransomed him. There is in Saul that might, but it is perverted; it is confused. He falls to darkness, though he means only to do what is right- to give the kingdom to the one who deserves it, via direct descent, to do what is just.
David realizes this, and David lives out the same pattern that Moshe had. He, too, has a man in a position of power, not a Pharoah, not a man who enslaves the Jews, but a King nonetheless, who desires his death. What pain it must have caused David to be pitted against his King, whom he loved, as is depicted by his endless elusive moves in efforts to evade Saul, to plead reason with Saul, to show Saul that this is God’s will and His commandment, not David’s own personal wish. David, too, lives a life that is full of pain. He is our greatest King, and yet he has no peace. He has his women and his kingdom, but his sons revolt against him, he loses a child before it has had a chance to live; his time is consumed by fighting his enemies or evading capture by those whom he ought to have no need to fear, and his life, too, is consumed and subsumed by affairs much larger than him. Why does God reward His most beloved in his fashion? From His most beloved he expects everything; he wants their very souls.
Why does God give us pain? He gives us pain to teach us. Could Moshe have been a compassionate leader had he not known what it was to fight against injustice and to lose everything because of it? Could David had he not fled from Saul, loving him and still fearing him, and the spirit that possessed him? We learn how to act because of what we ourselves undergo. We are strengthened by it; we are created through it. But that does not make it an easy path to walk. That does not make it the path that anyone would desire. David cries out to God in his psalms, and Moses speaks to Him face to face. What have I? I have only this; I have my words. Hear me, God, and give me strength to obey you, when you have made it so difficult for me.
Is my anguish impossible because I have been blessed? I am not starving; I am not dying. I am well-fed and I am blessed. I have been granted all I need. Physically, I am fine. I am not running from someone who desires my death. Perhaps this means that I am wrong to pray before you. Perhaps I have no right to do so, when you have given me so much good. This anguish I feel is a selfish anguish, one that only a generation which basks in the light of the sun of Aesop’s fable can feel. I am blessed that I have the time to worry over the ethics of my actions! And God, I appreciate that blessing, with every fiber of my being. But that does not make what I feel any less real. There is a conflict, and it is difficult for me. I speak, and the words of comfort I wish to utter cannot come to my lips, because your law has forbidden it. I keep your law, but I do it with tears. I wish your law was not the way it is. I wish I had the power to change it. I wish, perhaps, that you would change your own law. This too is selfish. But I cannot sleep, God, because of how much it pains me. I stay awake and think over what I can say, what I can say to those who want to be close to you and who suffer because of things they cannot do, things that are impossible for them. You will tell me nothing is impossible. I know, and I bow my head before you. And yet. And yet I cannot sleep.
Does this please you? Will my prayer make it a little easier for them? Consider them as you would consider me, God, an honest sinner. I sin, but I make honest confession before you. I am what I am. So are they. They live honestly with what they are and with their sins, and all of them offer themselves up to your judgement. And yet they are judged by their fellow people, and cast away and pushed out. This I cannot bear. I lived this; I felt this. You know how I felt it. There is a difference between the right of man and God to judge, is there not? Man must act with compassion wherever it is permitted. It is God who will determine which of our actions was correct and which was incorrect. It is upon me to love, as much as I am able, and to be kind. Within your law, God. Although I would I were without it. I wish I could do away with your law, God. But that is not my path, now is it? A path would have no meaning if it were easy for me to walk.
I too am among the most bloodied of my generation. I carry the blood of tears. What shall I do with those earnestly trying to come close to you, God? What shall I do with their tears? I shall keep them all, to show you. And perhaps you will be merciful for the sake of their pain, and their tears. Perhaps they will have atoned with their pain. Perhaps I shall atone in the same manner. Beloved God, why must you make me angry with you? But perhaps You too are bound. You looked into the Torah and created the world. Perhaps you too are bound, and sit in shackles, the shackles of the law which must continue in order for our world to exist. The world was created based on the blueprint of the Torah, and if the law is broken, it creates a tear in the fabric of our universe. You cannot reverse the foundation upon which the world was created. This is the Law; it must be kept. But then, is it your beloved bride to whom I should address myself? Shall I beg the Torah to recreate herself? No, no, I cannot. That same Torah is in my blood; it is in the fabric of my existence. Should she recreate herself, I would become so many particles of golden dust.
We are caught; are we not? You and I. We are both caught, trapped, but in such beautiful bonds! And for such a holy and exalted purpose! You would think I would not struggle, would you not? And yet I struggle. I struggle…
I do love you, God. Only sometimes, I love your people more.
Olivia Wiznitzer is a 21-year-old author and creative soul who currently resides in Washington Heights, New York, alongside her husband, Heshy. She is in the process of obtaining her Masters in Bible from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and works for the Orthodox Union in the capacity of Associate Program Director at OU Alumni Connections.
“The Bloodied of Our Generation” is reprinted with the kind permission of the author. It first appeared on her blog, The Curious Jew http://curiousjew.blogspot.com/