Friday, February 03, 2023

Happily Ever After?


The Songs of Joy, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902)

Ehud Manor’s "Bashanah Habaah" continues to rank as one of the greatest Israeli songs of all time. It was released in 1970, and at the time, singers around the world, including Andy Williams and Herb Alpert, recorded covers of it. To this day, it evokes memories of Israel’s early days, an anthem of the little country that could.


The lyrics seem very upbeat, and the song exudes optimism:


Next year we'll sit on the porch

And count migrating birds

Children on vacation will play tag

Between the house and the fields


You will see, you will see

How good it will be

In the next year, in the next year


This is a beautiful song of “happily ever after;” except that it wasn’t intended that way.


Manor wrote the song in memory of his younger brother Yehuda, who had died in 1968, in the War of Attrition. In the song, Manor returns to the scene of his childhood home in Binyamina, where the entire family would sit on the porch, appreciating the beauty of the moment. It is a song of longing and loss, the brokenhearted reflections of a grieving brother.


Nurit Hirsch, who composed the music, initially wrote a very maudlin score to match Manor’s intentions; but she found it so unappealing, she nearly threw the composition away. Ultimately, Bashanah Habaah was saved when a friend suggested that she change the tempo and rhythm. But underneath the joyous facade is a dark inner lining, a recognition that for Manor, the next year will never be as good as the last one.


Parshat Beshalach is about how elusive serenity can be. At the very start, we are told that God did not take the Jews on the direct route to Israel because the former slaves were too cowardly to face battle. This foreshadows what will occur; after achieving freedom, the courage of the Jews will fail time and again, they will complain time and again, and ultimately wander for forty years and die in the desert. They will be detoured, over and over again.


Yet before all of this completely unravels, there is a moment of absolute joy. The Jews miraculously cross through the Red Sea, and then watch the Egyptian army get destroyed. They are now truly free, and in response sing Az Yashir, the Song of the Sea. This is the first Jewish song, a song of great joy, which is now recited every morning in the prayer services. The song concludes with several verses about the land of Israel; sadly, the people who sing this song never make it there.


The placement of this song, right in the middle of a Torah reading filled with angst, teaches us a powerful lesson on how to search for happiness without expecting “happily ever after.” One must still find a way to sing in an imperfect world.


The initial words of the song Az Yashir baffle the commentaries; it is phrased in the future tense, as if to say “then Moses and the children of Israel will sing this song.” Most commentaries explain it is meant as a future-in-the-past tense, looking at the future from a point in the past. But the Talmud reads it very differently. It explains: “From where do we know that resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah? As it is stated: “Then Moses and the children of Israel will sing this song to the Lord” (Exodus 15:1). It is not stated: sang, rather, ‘they will sing’ (indicating that Moses will come back to life and sing the song in the future.)


The Talmud is saying that Moses will return and sing Az Yashir at the end of days. The purpose of this interpretation is to substantiate a theological principle, the resurrection of the dead. But at the very same time, it also teaches the profound truth: fairy tales are not part of this world. The true song of redemption must wait for the distant future; until then, fragility and anxiety will remain a part of our lives.


The Messianic tones of the text extend a bit deeper. Rabbi Baruch Epstein in his commentary Torah Temimah connects the word Az in this song to another time the word Az is used, in Psalm 126. This Psalm describes the redemption, and says, “Then (Az) our mouths shall be filled with laughter, and our tongues with songs of joy.”


The Talmud (Berakhot 31a) explains that this passage in Psalms teaches us “one is forbidden to fill his mouth with mirth in this world.” (i.e., as long as the Jews are in exile.) In an unredeemed world, there is always something to worry about; mirth is only possible after the redemption. Indeed, the Talmud further recounts that one Rabbi was asked to lead the crowd in song at a wedding. He decided to write a new lyric for the occasion, one that says: “Woe unto us, for we shall die, woe unto us, for we shall die.” Not exactly what most couples want to hear on their wedding night!


Another rabbi saw the crowd rejoicing loudly at his son’s wedding, and broke an expensive glass to darken the mood. This ultimately becomes the basis for our custom of breaking a glass under the chuppah; we don’t want to allow ourselves to be intoxicated by joy in an imperfect world. Wholehearted celebration is both impossible and improper in a world of ever-present crisis.


Then how does one carry this burden of fragility?


The 13th-century Italian Kabbalist, Menahem Recanati, offers a very different interpretation of the Talmud, in his commentary on the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:2.) He agrees one breaks a glass under the chuppah because the world is imperfect; and the couple, like everyone else, will face bad luck in their marriage. But the purpose of breaking the glass is to symbolically push the bad luck out of the way; and that is why the crowd responds mazal tov, or “good luck,” to wish the couple only good fortune for the future.


Recanati completely reorients the purpose of the broken glass. Instead of pushing aside joy to introduce worry, the breaking of a glass comes to push aside worry and search for joy.


Undoubtedly, there are those who need to interrupt their celebrations to remember how broken this world is; but for many others, one’s profound sense of finitude makes such joy impossible. They need to learn how to rejoice even when there is no happily ever after, and at least for one night, embrace the possibility of mazal tov for the future.


Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the author of the Sefat Emet, offers a fascinating insight into how the song of Az Yashir and its connection to redemption. He explains that the song of goodness begins in a broken world; but as we continue to sing, we bring redemption one step closer. And this is precisely what Recanati is teaching; let us marry in joy, let us sing in joy, and continue to push back on bad luck. Doing this can change the world.


Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion, shares how a comment in Rashi (Genesis 6:6) gave him great comfort during the Yom Kippur War:

When I read these comments of Rashi, I cannot help but recall the wedding of my eldest daughter, which took place in the yeshiva immediately after the Yom Kippur War. After all the pain resulting from that war – both the pain of the nation and the pain of our yeshiva, which lost eight students – I found it very difficult to listen to the band, and I almost did not join in the dancing. But then I was approached by Justice Zvi Tal, whose son's wedding I had performed on Rosh Chodesh Elul, right before the war. His son went out to battle and never returned. Justice Tal mentioned to me these words of Rashi – "In a time of joy – there shall be joy, and in a time of grief – there shall be grief.

Justice Tal’s words, coming from a bereft father, are heroic. He insists that even in a world of tragedy, there must be celebrations, one must continue to sing.


The lesson of Az Yashir is that we may not get to sing this song forever, but we must sing it anyway. Joy is always fleeting, but even so, true joy is also transcendent. It raises us above the ordinary and gives us a taste of the end of days. And if we start the song now, it will continue to echo, louder and louder, into the future.

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