A myrtle in the desert: The Poetry of Rabbi  Yosef Tzvi Rimon

Longing for the rebirth of Jewish life in the Holy Land, longing for closeness to the Almighty and love for the early pioneers in a beautiful book by a poet of the return to Zion, now available in English for the first time.

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Rochel Sylvetsky,

Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky

The period of nine days, beginning on the first day of Av, were days of fierce fighting that culminated in the destruction of the first and second Temples. For over 2000 years, these Nine Days are a period of intense mourning during which the Sages said "one minimizes joy.".  

This mourning for what occurred is accompanied by yearning for what was, both for the rebuilt Zion of yore and for a renewal of the Divine Presence as it was during Temple times.

That painful 2000 year old longing is what led the early Zionist pioneers, secular and religious, to live under indescribable hardship and danger in order to reclaim and till the land in the late 19th and early 20th century – in contrast to those who defined the need for a state as the solution for anti-Semitism. It was seen in the unrestrained joy of Diaspora Jewry from the four corners of the world as they first trod on the land where this rebirth is to take place -  and it is the key to the depth and beauty of Rabbi Kook's writings on the signs of the approaching Redemption, the return to the land to create a continuum of "The Land of Israel for the People of Israel according to the Torah of Israel."

And the sadness of the 9th of Av, intensified by the elegies said for other tragedies in Jewish history, does not forget gratitude to the Almighty for the miracles recent generations have been privileged to witness, and the hope that we merit a complete Redemption in our time.

That is what makes the book of poetry by Rav (Rabbi) Yosef Tzvi Rimon (born in 1889 in Polandת made aliya to the Holy Land as a young man) find its way into one's heart, especially now.  This is the first translation of Rav Rimon's book Ktarim, published in 1944 and now republished by Gefen Publishing House with a flowing English.translation by Daniel Farb. 

Rav Kook wrote Hebrew with a poet's soul, and as I began reading the book, skillfully arranged so that each poem appears in the Hebrew original on the left of the page with the English on the right (the reader who knows both languages can enjoy both) I was sure the poems were found by Rav Rimon from Rav Kook's as yet unknown works. The language was so rich and evocative that I felt as though I was reading a new discovery from the literary treasure house of Israel's iconic first Chief Rabbi, a Torah luminary, philosopher and poet whose works are still being edited and published today.

I soon discovered that Rav Rimon, who actually was a beloved student of Rav Kook, was considered by his mentor to be the poet of the return to Zion, the eloquent harbinger of what Rav Kook hoped would now flourish in the Holy Land: A Torah-nourished culture that included  the most lofty expressions of art, music, literature and poetry.(for more on that, click here).

Rav Kook saw this learned young Torah scholar as the writer of poetry that would come from the wellsprings of holiness, an early pioneer of the renaissance of Hebrew poetry on the level of the poets of the Golden Age of Spain, with the added special resonance of the Holy Land. It is Rav Kook who blessed Rav Rimon with the wish that he would be as "a myrtle in the desert," in the words of the Prophet Isaiah.

The early Zionists could identify with the ideas, some of them almost prayers, that sprung from Rav Rimon's soul, so that he was a part of the literary cultural circle of the Yishuv and the Writer's Association, a prestigious  group that included  Brenner, Bialik, Tchernichovsky, Azar, Agnon and others. Four streets in Israel are named for him and he received national prizes for his works.  I am not at all sure that could happen today.

He was not a modern poet in the sense in which we use the term, but stopped using rhyme after a short while, writing that it was too limiting, and continuing to write in blank verse whose rhythm, color and texture are richly satisfying. A true artist, he is said to have once remarked when asked to organize his works: "I sing like a bird in the forest. I don't watch to see if anyone is listening."

Rav Rimon' poetry has several central themes, and they are often intertwined. There is the palpable longing and love for the land, its innate holiness, its beauty. It is as if he is has just arrived and has bent to kiss the earth of the Promised Land - but in words.

"I long for the fields of my motherland/ For my orchards and vineyards/ For my homes, tents and tapestries/ And all palaces/ For all holiness/  For any precious strength.."

And then

"The sea came to greet me and the song of its waves was in the firmament… dripping gold on my paths.../ I will be happy with the glory of my land, vision from yesterday and the day before…".

Rabbi Rimon's imagery is often taken from that used to describe the love of a man and woman, but it is clear upon reading that this is similar to the Song of Songs' use of imagery and not to be taken literally:

"We have a garden for a little sister, the vineyards loved her, they sprouted seeds, a golden lion walks by her…she will bow to the light of the sun her heart a wave of prayer…she is held in the dream…"

And there is another theme, a palpable desire for closeness to the Creator:

"How will I sing about day and night/ When God created them…/ God lives, the treasures of the earth will tell of this/ What to me are suns/ And what to me is anything but You?…/ For You are in my heart…."

And 

"You are my delight in the intensity of abundant light/ You are the leaping doe of my love/ Surprising me with vision../ I think of You at night and by day I tremble before You...

..My heart is a fiery violin…"

He also combines the two themes with the experience of exile and return to the land:

"Days of oppression came upon it, an enemy tortured it./ My motherland, God brought me to you. /  Live now. Your name is Zion…"

He sings the song of the early settlers, encouraging and appreciating their hardships and accomplishments:

"Rishon Letzion here they are and the trees are intertwined in a wondrous dream/ With Rechovot I I said now will my borders broaden/ And Rosh Pina in my Galilee is studded with the rocks of my hills/ Soon the language of the entire homeland will flourish./ Go build the land, keep bulding, keep bulding/ Behold the dream is coming…."

The poems accompany us on Shabbat Nachamu, where Rabbi Rimon employs prophetic symbolism and quotes the Prophet Hosea: "My sister Ruchama, beautiful with golden hair,…your throat is thirsty, honey and milk will quench it…and I will betroth you forever…behold your Redeemer is coming…" and

"The song I did not sing spread out its gold into the distances…made the chords of my soul tremble… …at the right  time the song will be heard, the song of Redemption.."

They continue with us on to the month of Elul, poems of teshuva and supplication, some almost liturgical, one inspired by the Talmudic story of the Sage/sinner Elazar ben Dordaya in Tractate Chagiga:

The poem of teshuva

"My sins exhausted me./ Earth seek mercy for me/ Like a woman forced into labor absorbed in her pain/ I fear evil and I do not have the strength of spirit for goodness….

"Mountains, beseech…/ For I am weary and my soul is fading/ My head is sunk between my knees…"

Rabbi Rimon reminds us of who we are despite our suffering:

"I am a prince the son of a king am /  I strolled in the garden behind my parent's palace../ Then a pure white dove flew on high…/ My coat of many colors fell apart long ago…(reference to his own name)/ Like a madman in the market, they beat me with sticks (from Shir Hashirim)…"

The poet's heart  seems to be bursting with all he sees, and he writes as if he hears the conversation between the Master of the Universe and those rebuilding the Jewish homeland:

"The land is given to you/ Which My eyes are on all the days/ It flows with milk and honey…/ After I left it I forgot it/ …Now I have returned/ Holiness be my portion/ For too long have I been stripped of humanity/ Pogroms in broad daylight.../ He will make peace for me..."

The above is just a taste of the poems in the book. Caught up as we are in all the verbal and violent attacks on our own Jewish state, or mired in the daily difficulties for those who have made it their home, these beautiful and inspired poems remind us that we are an intrinsic part of the Heavenly plan for his Chosen People. 

May we merit seeing the complete Redemption speedily in our time and turn the 9th of Av into a day of joy.

Note:Rav Rimons' grandson who is named for his illustrious grandfather and a is a known halakhic authority and rav in the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva is the founder of Jobkatif and all proceeds of the book go to that worthy organization.

                                                                                                                                                            








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