by Talia Goldberg, Community Schlicha
Untitled Poem by Yehuda Amichai translated by Rabbi Steven Sager
My father was God and did not know it.
He gave me the ten commandments neither in thunder nor in fury, neither in fire nor in cloud but in gentleness and in love.
He added caresses and added kind words adding, “I beg you,” and “please.”
He sang keep and remember in a single melody and he pleaded and cried quietly between one commandment and the next: Don’t take your God’s name in vain; don’t take it, not in vain.
I beg you, don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.
He hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder.
And he put the palms of his open hands on my head with the Yom Kippur blessing. Honor, love, in order that your days might be long on the earth.
And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later, he turned his face to me one last time like on the day he died in my arms and said, “I want to add two to the ten commandments:
The eleventh commandment: Don’t change.
The twelfth commandment: You must surely change.
So said my father and then he turned from me and went off disappearing into his strange distances.
Yehuda Amichai is one of Israel's most known poets, and if you ask me, he is one of the most relatable poets I have ever read. He's got this beautiful ability to connect every day life to our Jewish roots, and to our Jewish and Israeli history. He uses the simplest words to almost give you the feeling of something ancient and new at the same time, ancient new.
Ancient new is a beautiful term I just learned in one of my university classes where my professor was trying to explain to us who wrote the book of the Zohar. She was talking about the tradition that believes that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote the Zohar, vs historians, who believe it was written in the 1300s by other mekubalim. She said that her favorite explanation is that it may have been written in the 1300s but Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s spirit was there helping to write it. That makes this book ancient new according to my professor.
My point here is not about if I agree or disagree, or what I believe what my professor said. It is about the ancient new that Amichai captures so well, telling us about his father.
Shavuot is the time when Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah is interpreted as the people got to hear the voice of God from the fire. But Amichai says the 10 commandments that he heard from his father in a softer tone in his soul. The poem ends with a new twist of his father adding 2 more commandments. This made me think about the specialness of the 10 commandments. I feel they are the core to our rules and the ancient base to what we do. But Amichai's father understands there's something ancient new. He is living life that does not want to change the rules, but must also “surely change.” To me, he must surely be ancient new.
Maybe that's the beauty of Jewish life for me, that it's so strongly ancient, but so strongly new.