Yehuda Amichai – A Math Book
I remember a problem in a math book
about a train that leaves from place A and another train
that leaves from place B. When will they meet?
No one ever asked what happens when they meet
Will they stop, or pass each other, or collide?
None of the problems was about a man who leaves from place A
and a woman who leaves from place B. When will they meet,
will they meet at all, and for how long?
As for that math book: Now I’ve reached
The final page with the answers.
Back then it was forbidden to look.
Now it is permitted. Now I check
Where I was right and where I was wrong
And know what I did well and what I did not do. Amen
Yehuda Amichai, a famous Israeli poet, drew our attention to a very unexpected dimension of a regular math task. He pointed out that there are actual people’s lives behind the trivial story of two trains.
Well, as an engineer, my first thought was ‘it’s completely irrelevant! The task is about the time when they’re going to meet.’ I think that as an engineer I have a right to assume that according to this poem Yehuda Amichai is not the best mathematician in the world.
However, as a Rabbinical student, I must ask myself ‘What can I learn from it?’ Perhaps, I can learn, that sometimes I don’t pay attention to many ‘irrelevant’ details when I concentrate specifically on something. On Rosh Hashanah, we read the Akedah story, the story of the Binding of Isaac, the story which is telling us about Abraham who took his only son and was ready to terrify him for the sake of his own belief. Thank God, he was stopped by Malach (an angel). At the end, he sacrificed a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns (Gen. 22:13). Worth noting, that according to the text, he’s never been asked to sacrifice the ram instead of Isaac…
Here is another Yehuda Amichai’s poem.
Yehuda Amichai – The Real Hero
The real hero of The Binding of Isaac was the ram,
who didn’t know about the collusion between the others.
He was volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a memorial song about him—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were so silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.
I want to remember the last frame
like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:
the young man tanned and pampered in his jazzy suit
and beside him, the angel, dressed for a formal reception
in a long silk gown,
both of them looking with empty eyes
at two empty places,
and behind them, like a coloured backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter,
the thicket his last friend.
The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.
But the real hero of The Binding of Isaac
is the ram.
Sometimes secondary and ‘unimportant’ characters play an equally significant role in a narrative. However often they are out of our attention.
Usually, we think about those who are obvious to think about. We see, hear and think about those who are next to us, who are visible and loud.
What about those who are beyond our attention?
Another Rosh Hashanah reading is about reestablishing the covenant between the Jewish people and God.
It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today. (Deut. 29:14-15)
If we think about this verse from a legal perspective then the fact of making an agreement with those who are not present is quite problematic. Let’s look at it from a different angel. What if it is just a reminder for us to think of those who’re currently absent? Some may say that we cannot influence other people, especially if they are absent. I agree. Perhaps, all we can do is to attempt to consider those who are usually ignored when we make our decisions.
What if it’s a reminder for us to ask ourselves questions like these:
When I’m here, how does it affect those who are not here?
When I hear or read something, what hasn’t been mentioned?
Is there something which I ignore in my life?
Is there someone, with whom I prefer to be silent and not to express my opinion?
When I have some power, which questions don’t people ask me anymore?
Let’s just spend a few moments thinking of those from whom we haven’t heard for a while. Let’s just spend a few moments thinking of those ‘secondary characters’ in our lives, who were beyond our attention until this moment. Maybe they deserve to become our real heroes?
In the famous High Holy days prayer ‘Avinu Malkenu’ we define God as our Sovereign and our Parent. Let’s not forget that if God is our King and Father (or Queen and Mother), it means that we all are royal family members, princes and princesses. We all deserve to be real heroes, with the privileges but much more important all the responsibilities which come together with this position!
Shabbat shalom and gmar chatima tova!
Leo Baeck College