Hallevai: Declaring war on despair
Words: Ehud Manor
Music: Boaz Sharabi
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It’s the seventh of Heshvan 2022, we have just voted in Israel’s fifth election in as many years, and we’re driving out of Jerusalem in a rented car.
There is something festive in the air – election day is the closest we get to an American Sunday here in Israel. We’re all excited to be traveling together, free to learn something new about the world.
But the joy goes deeper. For weeks now, I’ve been wrecked by indecision. I read party platforms and discarded them. I googled the names of different candidates only to toss my phone aside, disgusted. Is there anyone to trust, I asked myself, rereading the same lists of parties and candidates over and over again. Is there anyone I want to vote for?
I didn’t quite consider letting my five-year-old son pick for me, but it came close.
Now that I made my decision and voted, my heart is lighter. I can distract my son from his laments over not getting to choose which “pretty note with letters on it” should go into my envelope. I can point out different partisan signs by the roadside to my older children and speculate with my husband about why this or that party is over-represented at this or that particular junction. I can watch the spiky terrain of Jerusalem’s environs stretch out into the softer hills of Shfelat Yehuda, and think that there truly is something beautiful about this day – about our ability to shape reality.
A few generations back, who would have thought that I – that we – would have the opportunity to shape a Jewish state?
We may wish we could exercise this privilege less frequently, I tell my husband, smiling. But it is a privilege, nonetheless.
Green fields open up around us. The land is soft and fertile. I feel free and powerful under the wide blue sky.
And then we drive under a bridge, and there’s this sign with Ben Gvir’s picture on it, and all my thoughts of freedom and softness go sour, for the sign asks “Mi Po Ba’alei Habayit?” (‘Who’s the home-owner here?’ An idiom that conveys something like ‘who’s in charge?‘ Or ‘who’s the boss?’)
The implication, of course, is that it’s us, the Jews, and that we should rule more forcefully, as per Ben Gvir’s platform, as befits this country’s lawful ‘be’alim’ (owners).
Now, don’t get me wrong: I understand the need to enforce the law – to keep the order. Like many of my countrymen, I was appalled by the riots of May 2021 and how hard it was to restore order. I strongly disagree with the ways in which Ben Gvir presumes to achieve this goal, but it’s not this disagreement that makes me flinch as we go on driving, it’s the question.
The question, and the answer that’s implied.
Everything I ever learned through all my years of Torah study taught me that there is only ever one correct answer to the question ‘who’s the owner here.’ And this answer is never ‘us.’ It’s always God.
Remember this fact, Moshe warned us over and over again in Deuteronomy, on the eve of his death and our entrance into Israel. Remember, for if you forget – if you grow fat and complacent and think you own this land outright and need not bother to keep your end of the covenant with its true owner – He will abandon you. He will watch you as you mistreat the widow and the orphan, the poor and the sojourner – yes, even the sojourner, who isn’t one of “us.” He will watch you as you worship false gods and false ideals.
And He will kick you out.
Much of the Hebrew Bible is a long recitation of the ways in which God delivered on this threat – this promise. Yet here we are again, claiming this land as our own, in this boastful manner, as though it is ours to do with as we please.
I look through the window, and the very softness that delighted me seems to spell out a rebuke. How can we look at this land – this gentle land, this beautiful land, this land so rich in past and promise – and claim to own it, in the name of the very faith we inherited from the very man who warned us against this sort of boast?
My joy is gone, my relief at having voted fades. The land is still beautiful, but I can’t give myself over to its magic. All my worries of the past few weeks – months – years – roar back into existence. I recall our political disagreements, the paucity of trustworthy politicians, the depressing gaps, and even enmity, within our ranks. What are we doing to this beloved land, in the name of our so-called ownership over it? What are we doing to one another, and can a better way be found?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook once wrote that with the Zionist endeavor, our people are giving a speech to the world. It’s a beautiful speech, an important speech, a speech that reveals the truths of God’s involvement in reality, of the shining light unto the nation that He entrusted us to build.
Sometimes, wrote Rav Kook, we stutter. We find ourselves overwhelmed by the great and true ideas we wish to convey through our lives, through our shared endeavor. We fail to make them come out right. But we will never drop the speech, unfinished. We’ll go on talking, making, creating, until our ideas shine through, whole.
I look out of the window, unseeing. All I can think of is the present stuttering in our ‘speech’ – our state, our joint endeavor. Rav Kook’s faith in its eventual success all but slips out of my heart.
A musical line snaps me back into reality.
I haven’t paid any attention to the radio on this drive – I was too content at first, too wretched, later.
But this…. I know this melody. I know it well.
I raise the volume.
When Boaz Sharabi’s voice joins the music, something within me gives way, gives out – a dam is broken.
I raise my voice and sing along.
הלוואי ומענן תרד עלינו קשת
הלוואי שלעולם הזה יש תקנה
I wish a rainbow would descend on us from a cloud
I wish this world was reparable
My kids are amazed. I am notoriously bad at remembering lyrics. And in fact, I do fumble some of the next lines, and yet I know them, I know them so well – they are as familiar as the streets my sister and I used to ramble through in the golden light of summer, as known as the hidden spots in our favorite playgrounds, as predictable as the way in which dust moats used to swirl by a particular window in our childhood home. They are as intimately ingrained in me as the certainty that father will take us on an adventure come Friday and mother will sew us new dresses come spring.
הלוואי ויום יצמח מתוך סופה גועשת
הלוואי ולא תאבד לעד המתנה
הלוואי שהמדבר יצמיח עשב דשא
הלוואי ועוד נשב בצל התאנה.
I wish that a (sunny) day would grow from a raging storm
I wish that the gift would never be lost
I wish that the desert would grow grass
I wish that we would sit in the shade of the fig tree.
Each of these words – these words I heard over and over again in my childhood, back when I could believe them with complete honesty, and imagine their fulfillment as imminent – comes out of me, out of somewhere deep inside me, with the cutting quality of utter truth, of keenest prayer.
Yes, I wish for all these things. Yes, I wish that “we won’t ache and one would love another.” Yes, I wish that “the gates of Gan Eden would reopen.” Yes, I wish that we will “renew our days as of old.”
But as I raise the volume even higher, as I practically scream along, as I look at the open land around me through a sudden film of tears, I know that this song is more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane to a time of greater certainty. It’s rather a renewal of this certainty, a reaffirmation of faith.
When Ehud Manor wrote this song in the 1980s, he somehow encapsulated my faith in the promise of Israel, in its potential. And in this complicated moment in our history, this faith is an act of defiance.
It’s a declaration of war on despair.
I sing: “I wish that nation will not lift up sword against nation.”
I think: yes, I believe that one day it will be possible. I don’t know how or when. But I believe.
I sing: “I wish we will not abandon the road of hope.”
I think: as long as we sing this song, as long as we mean it, we are walking the very road of hope it speaks of in this line.
Sharabi’s voice rises impossibly higher for a repetition of the final lines. My certainty soars with it.
I look at the hills, then close my eyes and sing, and the moment is solemn. Because hope is not merely something we feel – it’s something we create by holding onto the feeling. As long as we go on wishing and hoping, we will work to shape the future in the image of our wishes. By holding on to hope right now, I’m pledging myself to this work.
Yes, the speech – as Rav Kook called our endeavor here – is in a phase of stuttering. But it will continue. We – I – will make it so.
The last triumphant chords fade out, the radio moves on to some other songs. I open my eyes to look at the beautiful land around us, the land we don’t own – but hope to be worthy of throughout our lives.
It had been a day when I voted, shaping the future of the state of Israel.
I look at the hills and I am calm, collected. I know that I will go on shaping it in all my days to come.
This essay is part of ‘That Song,’ a collection of writings about that one Israeli song that rocked someone’s world. Click here to find more ‘That Song’ essays.
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