Sermon 6/17/2016: Al HaDvash v’Al Ha’Oketz
“Al hadv’ash v’al haoketz – through the honey and the sting; al hamar v’hamatok – through the bitter and the sweet; al biteinu hatinoket – for the sake of our little daughter; sh’mor Eli hatov – good God keep us safe. Al ha-eish ham’vo-eret – through the burning flame; al hamayim hazakim -through pure water; al ha-ish hashav habay’ta min hamerchakim – for the sake of the man returning home from afar.
Al kol eileh, al kol eileh – on all of this, on all of this; sh’mor na li Eli hatov – please good God keep us safe; Al hadv’ash v’al haoketz – through the honey and the sting; al hamar v’hamatok – through the bitter and the sweet. Al na taakor natua – please don’t uproot what has been planted; al tishkach et hatikvah – do not take away hope. Hashiveini v’ashuva – Return me, and I will be returned; el ha’aretz hatovah – to a land that is good.”
Naomi Shemer’s classic Israeli song, echoes as vibrantly in any place today, as when she wrote it in Israel after the Yom Kippur war for her sister Ruthie, who had lost her husband. She sings-
“My God, keep this house, this garden and this wall from sorrow, from unexpected fear and from war. Keep safe what little I have, the light and the children, and the ripened fruit that has yet to be picked.”
“A tree rustles in the wind. A star cascades in the distance. And now my heart’s desires are recorded in the darkness. Please keep all these safe for me. Keep safe the ones I love, the quiet, the crying, and this very song.”[i]
Naomi Shemer’s classic Israeli song is a prayer. An acknowledgement that life is filled with times of bitterness and times of sweet. It is a heartfelt plea – through all of life – God keep us, nurture us, accompany us.
Similarly, Moses instructs Aaron and his sons to speak a blessing in our portion that asks for God’s protection:
“May God bless you and protect you – May God deal kindly and graciously with you – May God be favorable to you and grant you peace!”[ii]
Such a blessing acknowledges that there are life times that sting, for if life were always safe and good, we would not need a blessing, a plea for protection, a prayer for only kindness, favorability and peace to be uttered over us.
It has been a week where we have felt the bitter sting of life too clearly. Shock, disbelief, anxiety, sadness, anger, have been ours. Orlando. 49 dead. More wounded. The worst terror attack since 9/11. The details of the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub last Sunday revealing minute-by-minute true horror. We heard and watched unfold an act of heinous proportions inspired by radicalized Islam, homophobia, and hate. As a country we are in tremendous pain. And a thousand-fold the pain of our gay brothers and sisters who were targeted. A hundred- thousand-fold the pain of family and friends of those innocents.
Our lives seem that they cannot go on as normal.
Life can be too bitter. Last week, an act of terrorism in Tel Aviv. Four people murdered and others injured at the Sarona Market. Just yesterday the murder by gun and knife, of Jo Cox, a 42 year-old British Labour Member of Parliament, by a man inspired by radical websites and hate.
Weekly, we hear the stories of refugees whose lives have been uprooted by regimes that are more about power and self, than about their country’s good. Each day, folk beaten or gunned down. Our news stories, more often than not, report violence and difficulties and sadness. That‘s why a “good news story” is labelled as such by the media presenters. As if, those of us who are constantly barraged with word of life’s misfortunes, have to have the anomaly pointed out to us.
Even on a smaller personal scale, the possibility of difficulty in life is always imminent: job or financial insecurity, the loss of a home, the hurtfulness of a bully, the unkind word. In Israel the saying: Chaim, Zeh Lo Picnic! – Life it’s not a picnic! rings true. Yes there is oketz/sting and mar/bitterness in existence.
Yet, as our priestly blessing from the Torah portion Naso implies – there can also be good in life. As Naomi Shemer sings: there is also dvash/honey and matok/sweet.
We relish the good times. Meals with our families. Days spent playing with friends. Hikes in nature. Shopping trips to stores laden with food and goods. Times spent playing with our pets. Watching our children achieve. We can only hope and pray that in the sum of our existence, the goodness in life will override and outlast the potential for the bad times.
We live in hope for experiences of comfort and joy.
In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” Leibesh asks the rabbi a question: “Is there a proper blessing… for the Tsar?” The Rabbi responds: “A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!”[iii] In the pale of settlement, amidst the threats of pogroms, the hope was for comfort and joy and safety. That bad tidings would not come their way.
We live in expectation for experiences of comfort and joy.
Have you ever had someone at a funeral say to you “Next time at a simcha?”/next time let’s get together at a joyous Jewish occasion? The intent is: let us meet next not at a funeral, and not at a sad moment. Only at times of joy.
We Jews are the ultimate optimists that amidst difficult lives, good will prevail. Think about the meaning of the Israeli national anthem – HaTikvah, the hope. For over two thousand years we held out that life would get better for us, that we would be a free people, returned to the land of our people’s conception, the land of Israel. We held over two thousand years optimism for a sweeter life.
So it is that our lives are an admixture:. “Al hadv’ash v’al haoketz – through the honey and the sting; al hamar v’hamatok – through the bitter and the sweet. When faced with the sting and bitter – the sad and yes, even the heinous, we must turn to a belief in hope, for a sweeter time.
As Anne Frank put it:
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”[iv]
In addition to our optimism, beyond prayer and hope, it is upon us to do all in our power, to ensure that the sweet outweighs the bitterness of life.
How remarkable and overdue was it to watch Chris Murphy lead a fillabuster on the Senate floor in the hope of creating more peaceful scenarios in the future. “I’ve had enough, he said, “I’ve had enough of the ongoing slaughter of innocents, and I’ve had enough of inaction in this body…”[v] He took a remarkable stand for hope, just short of 15 hours, with the vast majority of this country behind his cause. He tweeted: “I am proud to announce that after 14+ hours on the floor, we will have a vote on closing the terror gap & universal background checks.” Now the creation of hope is in the hands of the Congress… forced to consider the importance of life over the right to carry guns.
Our prayer-book reads: “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.”[vi] Naso, bring us the priestly blessing. We ask God to protect us and surround us with peace… but this is not enough.
Too often the creation of hope is in our own hands. The bitter – abuse, child neglect, global warming, lack of access to medical care, name-calling, violence, the poverty cycle, the refugee crisis and on and on, can be made better, even just a little bit, by us working for good and justice.
We must care and act.
As the people of a two-thousand year hope, let us be advocates for laboring for a better life for all. And yes, maybe achieving a world that is sweetened, like honey sweetens a tea.
Al kol eileh, al kol eileh – sh’mor na li Eli hatov;
Al hadv’ash v’al haoketz, al hamar v’hamatok.
Al na taakor natua
al tishkach et hatikvah
Hashiveini v’ashuva el ha’aretz hatovah
On all of this, On all of this;
Please good God keep us safe–
Through the honey and the sting
Through the bitter and the sweet.
Please don’t uproot what has been planted
Do not take away hope.
Return me, and I will be returned
To a land that is good.”
[i] Transliteration of 1st verse and chorus and translation of final two verses are taken from Mishkan Tefilah
[ii] Numbers 6:24-26
[iii] Fiddler on the Roof
[iv] Ann Frank The Diary of a Young Girl
[vi] Ferdinand Isserman quoted in Mishkan Tefilah