Thursday, April 23, 2020

Hatikvah, Heroism, and Hospitals


Hatikvah and True Heroism 2020


Hatikvah is an unlikely national anthem.

Naftali Hertz Imber, who wrote Hatikvah, was born in 1856 in the Ukraine. He was considered to be an Iluy, a young genius. Stories abound about Naftali as a prodigy, and at age 10 besting his rabbi in a discussion.

He was also impulsive and difficult. He would mock his father and fight with him.

As a young man he left town, and remained  a wanderer all of his life.

At age 22 he was living in Jassy, Romania, tutoring the family of Baron Waldberg, when he wrote a draft of a poem with 9 stanzas that he would call “tikvatenu”. The poem was inspired by the founding of the Jewish settlement Petach Tikvah, which was one of the first modern Jewish settlement in the land of Israel - (and by the way, on land bought by a Gibraltar born Jew, Hayyim Amzallak - only citizens of England could buy land in the Ottoman Empire). 

From Jassy he continued to wander. In Constantinople he made acquaintance with Alice and Lawrence Oliphant who would become his sponsors, and he would be their tutor, advisor and personal secretary.T he Oliphants were Scottish Gentry and Christian Zionists, but quite eccentric with a hint of the scandalous. But they took Imber to Palestine; he would later say that without the Oliphants there would be no Hatikvah.

When he was there he went to visit the settlement of Rishon LeTzion. It was there in 1882 that he presented his poem to others, and taught “tikvatenu” to the residents.

Imber would then go to London and finally onto the United States.

He had admirers and detractors. He was able to get sponsorship from major philanthropists like Judge Meyer Sulzbacher in the United States. He had detractors like Eliezer Ben Yehuda the father of modern Hebrew, who accused Imber of being a Christian missionary. And there were those who were both admirers and detractors. Israel Zangwill, the author and playright, translated Hatikvah into English. But at the same time he created a character in his book, Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) based on Imber, called Melchizedek Pincus. This character was a plagiarist, a drinker, a gossip, and a shnorer. And so was Imber.

The beginnings of the tune of Hatikvah are also rather humble. Learned musicologists have tried to find the sources of the tune in Sephardic and Ashkenazic liturgical tunes, in classical music and even Hispano-Arabic folk tunes.

But the history is actually quite clear. Samuel Cohen, one of the settlers in Rishon LeZion, tells how he introduced the tune:

“In my home country [Maramure┼č county, today in northwest Rumania], we used to sing in the choir the Rumanian song ‘ Carul cu Boi’ (The ox driven cart).  When I arrived at Rishon le-Tziyyon fifty years ago [1888] I saw that ‘Hatikvah’ was not sung…. I was the first one to start singing ‘Hatikvah’ with this foreign melody that I knew, the same one that is sung today in all the Jewish communities.”

And if you go on YouTube and look for the song Carul Cu Boi you will immediately recognize the tune!

And even after Hatikvah caught on, it was far from clear that it would be Israel's national anthem.

Theodore Herzl despised Imber. He actually held several contests for a composition of Israel's national anthem. None of them succeeded.

Ironically, it was Herzl who helped Hatikvah become Israel's national anthem.

In 1903 when Herzl advanced the Uganda plan at the Zionist Congress, it was met with sharp opposition. His opponents, in defiance, sang Hatikvah as a way saying they would not go anywhere but the land of Zion and Jerusalem. And that cemented Hatikvah’s status as the Jewish national anthem.

Now this anthem with an unusual author and strange history has become sacred, a song of the Jewish heart.

Menachem Begin described the last moments of his father Zeev's life by saying:

"My father was the secretary of the Brisk [now Brest-Litovsk] Jewish community,..He walked to his death at the head of 500 Jews. They all sang 'Hatikva' and Ani ma'amin... “ 

Side by side with Ani Maamin, Hatikvah became a song of Jewish faith.

It was sung by survivors of the Holocaust when they were liberated.

It was sung by the maapilim, those who ran the British blockade to enter Palestine.

It was sung, accompanied by the Israeli Philharmonic, at Israel's Declaration of Independence.

This unlikely, unusual song has become a sacred anthem.

When Imber died in 1909, he was given a hero’s funeral; the New York Times reported that 10,000 people attended. After the State of Israel was established, Imber was disinterred from The Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens and buried in the Har Hamenuchot Cemetery in Jerusalem.

This unlikely man found his place in Jewish history and into Jewish hearts.

Hatikvah’s story teaches us profound lessons about inspiration and heroism.

First is that inspiration comes in unlikely places.

There are five minor books in the Tanakh that are grouped together as the five Megillot. It is unclear what exactly connects these five books.

I'd like to offer a theory as to what connects these five books: the concept of unlikely inspiration.

You have the book of Kohelet, which is filled with skepticism and cynicism. These emotions seem contrary to religious inspiration. And yet they are turned to a greater appreciation of the importance of a spiritual life.

The Book of Shir Hashirim, which on the surface is filled with love poems, and deeply sensual. And yet this love is seen as a way to have a great appreciation of love one has for God.

The Book of Eichah are Kinot, Lamentations, on the destruction of the Temple. The destruction of the first Jewish Commonwealth should have meant the end of the Jewish people. Yet in the aftermath of this destruction, instead of assimilating once they left the homeland, instead of assuming the covenant had been revoked by God's wrath, the people continued to connect to God, and find faith despite destruction.

The lesson these three books teach is that even in unusual times and places, one finds  new sources of inspiration.

And it's not just unusual places, but also unusual heroes.

The other Megillot of Esther and Ruth have heroes that live at the margins. One is a convert who comes from a traditional enemy of the Jews, Moab, and the other is a Jew who has become disconnected from the community and entered the Persian King's palace. Yet these characters who stand at the margins become heroes.

One can find inspiration in unusual places and unusual personalities. And certainly Hatikvah is an example of that; a Romanian folk song and a talented scoundrel helped create a sacred anthem that has inspired so many.

And each time we sing Hatikvah we feel the miracle of the State of Israel.

Golda Meir tells about her visit to the White House in September 1970. It was a difficult moment in Israel's history, during the War of Attrition at the Suez canal with Egypt. Golda did not have a relationship with President Nixon, and did not know how he would react.

She tells of the moment when the Hatikva was sung:

“I listened to Hatikvah, and although I made an effort to look perfectly calm, my eyes filled with tears. There I was, the prime minister of the Jewish state, which had come into existence and survived against such odds, standing to attention with the President of the United States while my country was accorded full military honors….. Perhaps other nations take the ceremonies for granted, but we don't yet. In fact it was all a little like a dream…”

This is the dream that we will all be celebrating next week, on Yom Haatzmaut. And with it we will be celebrating an unlikely anthem in Hatikva, and an unlikely hero in Imber.

And is the topic of heroism that I want to talk about today. One of the great lessons for tonight is that a hero is a person that makes a difference. In the classical mold the hero is an epic personality, a singularly talented man who sits alone at the top of society; the hero is the great man who can transform history. But as Elliot Rabin points out in his recent book, The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility, this is not the way of the Tanakh, which demonstrates that there are many heroes, who come from all levels of society. These heroes are perfectly imperfect in their own ways, and even if you don’t notice them, they can transform the world.

Like Ruth, there are many heroes that don't make the front page.

We have been reminded in the last few weeks of what a true hero looks like. These heroes wear scrubs and face masks and very heavy protective gear, they work overtime and expose themselves to danger, all in order to help save lives and keep all of us healthy.

We thank them for their service!


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