Sorrow Song

sorrow 2

Will you hear my voice, my distant one,
will you hear my voice, wherever you are –
A voice calling strong, a voice crying silently
And above time, commanding blessing?

This world is wide with many paths.
They meet narrowly, part forever.
A man seeks, but his feet fail,
He cannot find what he has lost.

Maybe my last day is already near, already near,
the day of tearful parting,
I shall wait for you until my life dims,
As Rachel awaited her lover.

The Hebrew poet, Rachel Bluwstein (1890 – 1931), known simply as “Rachel,” created many poems that have entered the canon of modern Israeli poetry. This one (above), called “Sorrow Song – Zemer Nugeh” in Hebrew, begins with the words “Ha-tishma qoli – will you hear my voice,” and is a beloved example of her work, one that has been set to music and is often sung by performers and anyone who loves the Israeli songbook (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nkCDDaMEh0).  In the song the poet yearns for her far-off lover, whom she calls “r’hoqi sheli – my very own, my distant one.” She wonders whether her beloved can yet hear her voice in all the ways she calls out, even though her beloved is so very far away.

The blessing to which we have arrived in our monthly discussions starts in much the same way as this poem. “Sh’ma qolenu – hear our voices,” it begins:

Hear our voices
Eternal, our Almighty Source of strength;
Bestow Your pity and mercy upon us.
And receive with compassion and with acceptance
Our prayers.
For You are the Power
Who hears prayers and pleas,
And You will not send us away
From You empty-handed,
Since You hear the prayer
Of Your people Israel [- or – of every mouth]
With mercy.
You abound in blessings, Eternal One,
Who hears prayer.

 This blessing is the last of the Amidah’s middle section of 13 blessings, specifically recited on weekdays. As we have seen, the other 12 are petitionary prayers, asking for wisdom, forgiveness, healing, justice, and so forth. This last blessing of the section asks that all these other prayers be heard and accepted graciously.

But does God really hear our prayers? Many reject the very notion as infantile or irrational. Others reject the notion because there is too much evidence in our experience that shows that God simply does not answer our requests and calls. And others, with anger or with disgust, point to the scandal that, if God does, indeed, hear prayers, it seems that it is only the prayers of the rich and powerful that are accepted. But the unfortunate and the oppressed are ignored and handed over to the crushing designs of God’s seeming favorites.

With so much going wrong in our country and around the world, it is practically impossible to argue against these objections. But if modern sensibilities reject the words and sentiments of this prayer, it is not because we have come upon new evidence to buttress our stand. The ancients also suffered despite their fervent prayers for an end to their pain. The ancients also buried their loved ones after endless hours of praying that they be spared. The experience of not having one’s prayers heard is as old as the experience of praying itself.

Nevertheless we have prayed for generations. And we have insisted that God is the very Power that hears prayer. The Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) tradition specifies that God always hears the prayers of the people of Israel. But they knew very well that history proves this wrong. The Sephardim (- Jews of the Mediterranean on Middle Eastern countries) make a more universal claim. They proclaim that God “hears the prayer of every mouth!” It is humbling and awesome to contemplate the proposition that God hears the prayer of every single mouth in the entire world and not just mine or my community’s.

Yet, while I feel more inclined to the inclusiveness of this formulation, I must admit that the counterfactual nature of this statement is actually magnified by this version. How can God hear the prayers of everyone if we are praying for contradictory things? Both sides of an armed conflict pray for God’s assistance. Does God here them both?

But rather than exacerbating the problem, perhaps this all-embracing statement that God hears the prayers of every mouth can point to a resolution of sorts. If it is impossible to satisfy the demands of every prayer, since they may contradict each other, perhaps God’s “hearing” of the prayers does not mean that God answers and grants the requests of every prayer.

What, then, does “hearing prayer” mean? Perhaps the poet Rachel’s song can help us to a different perspective regarding this blessing. Rachel clearly does not expect a direct answer from her far-away lover. In fact she lovingly, if sorrowfully, names her beloved “my distant one.” (Not a bad name for God.) She recognizes that she may be dying (- the poet Rachel – just like the Biblical Rachel to whom she refers in the last line – died young) and will never see her beloved again. But her love and her yearning are not refuted by those hard facts. Nor can her love and yearning be defeated by rational proofs and argumentation. When she asks, “can you hear my voice?” she does not expect an answer. But, like all the generations who have uttered this blessing, she cannot help asking . Her love song is a prayer. Perhaps it can teach us how to pray.

 

Image: “Begging…” by Thomas Leuthard is licensed, altered and used with permission under CC BY 2.0

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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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One thought on “Sorrow Song

  1. I have always struggled whether God is an individual God or God of the people. It is especially hard when I see good people (and spiritual) suffering as individuals. Good people who are homeless or hungry or need jobs. I always wonder, what prayers does God actually answer?

What do you think?