A Treetop with Raindrop-Lashed Eyes

Rav Ori Lifshitz • 2007

The eve of Yom Kippur is the time of missed opportunity in the story of Rav Rahumi. His distance from his home met here with the journey of Alterman’s hero, to a meeting that explores the concepts of movement and determination, this world and the world to come, life and death.

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Worlds meet, and so do human beings. Sometimes passing each other, sometimes talking. At special times, they are truly united, confessing to one another, deeply touching one another.

As I studied the issue of eating on the eve of Yom Kippur, two texts, a story and a poem, met for a meeting that was special and meaningful to me. A meeting I have not yet exhausted, but whose light is already hovering in the space I am in.

The story of Rav Rahumi and his wife (Ketubot 62b) is very familiar to all of us, perhaps too familiar to some of the readers. Analyses of the story are found in articles, books and even half of a thesis. I do not intend to analyze its full significance nor to deal with its context within Tractate Ketubot and the mitzvah of onah (maritial intimate relations). I will only draw preliminary lines to prepare the ground for the aforementioned meeting:

Rav Rehumi would commonly study before Rava in Mehoza. He was accustomed to come back to his home every year on the eve of Yom Kippur. One day he was particularly engrossed in the halakha he was studying, and so he remained in the study hall and did not go home. His wife was expecting him that day and continually said to herself: Now he is coming, now he is coming. But in the end, he did not come. She was distressed by this and a tear fell from her eye. At that exact moment, Rav Rehumi was sitting on the roof. The roof collapsed under him and he died.

The narrator’s shorthand loads every word in this wonderful story.

The name of Rav Rahumi - literally ‘the beloved rabbi’ - is eye-catching. His arrival at his home once a year, on the eve of Yom Kippur, is no small matter. The timing may be related to the need to enter the holy day by asking forgiveness from his home for his absence. It is possible that he is preserving the nature of Yom Kippur as a Yom Tov, as described in the Mishna: ‘Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Ab and the day of atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem went out and danced in the vineyards’ (Mishna Taanit 4, 8). However, it seems that this is not a very suitable day for the growth of a relationship - after all, sexual relationship is forbidden, and he will soon leave his house and go to be as one of the trees in the forest of worshipers within the shul.

On the day ‘he was particularly engrossed’[1], his wife watches (from the window?), repeating ‘Now he is coming, now is coming’. This repetition of a pair of words (השתא אתי - in Aramaic) in a story with a length of about 40 words emphasizes her expectation, her hopes and her frustration of the rabbi’s delay, her husband who is engrossed in his learning and not thinking of his wife. His sitting on the roof is contrary to the tear dropping from her eyes, and his fall, which brings his soul to its last resting place, is the immediate result of missing the hour.

The story evokes different emotions – sharing the sorrow of a woman who anticipates her late lover, alienation from the rabbi who is not sensitive to the woman’s distress, perhaps also internalizing the relationship between Torah study and family life, and perhaps even criticism of the woman’s weakness that leads to her husband’s premature death.

In any case, reading the story on the eve of Yom Kippur, against the backdrop of the year’s death, against the background of the heart and the spring that never meet (Rabbi Nahman’s הלב והמעיין), makes it possible to see it as a parable, and its message is surprising.

The person is busy all year long with things that seem important to him. He is attracted to them, and returns to his home, to himself, to his soul, only once a year, on the eve of Yom Kippur. His persistence after his regularities, as in the Story of the Lost Princess (Rabbi Nahman’s מעשה מאבידת בת מלך), creates a catastrophe in the world. The Shechina, who is waiting for him every day, is disappointed, crying and killing him.

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Reb Natan (not from Manmirov [Rabbi Nahman’s Talmid], but from Tel Aviv - the Israeli secular poet Natan Alterman) wrote one of the most important poems for me:

Still the music returns you abandoned in vain

Still the path stretches on, long and wide

And a cloud in its sky and a tree in its rain

Are expecting you still, passerby.

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The wind will rise and like swings in their flight

Bolts of lightning will flash overhead

The lamb and the she-deer will both testify

That you stroked them and pressed on ahead,

That your hands are quite empty, your city remote

And you’ve bent your knee many a time

To a green grove, a woman’s glad throat

And a treetop with raindrop-lashed eyes.

This poem too has received innumerable interpretations, and here too I do not intend to analyse it entirely, but to bring it into a meeting with the author of the sugya in Ketubot.

The music, that is the song of man’s soul (the Chassidic nigun, some say), returns. The song will end, the man will abandon it (in vain), but it will return. The road opens up, and they are still expecting him. The hands will remain empty, the city will always be far away, the lightning is over you and you go on walking. This is the Altermanian wanderer - I shall never stop looking, I shall never stop breathing, And I shall die and will keep going’ (Alterman, ‘On the Highroad’). The walk is the life beyond life. It is the thing.

But this walk has a price. In Alterman’s poetry it is impossible to reach the meeting, certainly not in life. What is possible in this song is a caress, a gentle and warm touch in the sheep’s wool and the deer’s’ tenderness, the smoothing of the hand that does not hold firm. This caress is the connection between the wanderer and his environment, an experience of momentary intimacy, of walking alone and remembering how it felt to be together. And in the end, in addition, to bow down in worship, more than once. This is no longer walking, it is not caressing, it is a fall (a prayer?) on the face, worship, almost Avoda Zara, to the way of those who walk to the distant city. To the grove, to the woman, to the treetop.

And like the lightning in the poem, I suddenly saw Ravina and Rav Ashi meet Alterman, and the Babylonian tale confessing to the ‘stars outside’ (the name of Alterman’s poetry collection). Rav Rahumi’s wife looks forward to him like the cloud and the sky. The music is abandoned, in vain, but it returns every year on the eve of Yom Kippur. The road is long, the city is far away, and the lightning that creates horror and tragedy are the backdrop to the battle’s end. The tear’s fall and the rabbi’s fall from the roof caress the flight of the swings (down and up, up and down).

But as in any good encounter, there is no union and nullifying of one another. Just a touch and a dance.

The Altermanian wanderer sins by stopping occasionally, stumbling, falling and worshiping this world. The real world, the green. His life is on the way, in the movement towards, on the journey towards infinity.

The story of Rav Rahumi presents an opposite sin - Rav Rahumi is drawn after his learning, captivated by the magic of loneliness and learning on the rooftop, and he is falling at this exact point - in his lack of caressing his wife, and the human world around him.

Reading the story in Ketubot as a metaphor also shows that the person who misses the hour does so because of his persistence after his habits, lacking attention for what is really of importance. The nigun is not found, then, in his habit of walking, somewhere under the bridge, but in his house, inside himself.

The distance between the story and the poem is summarised in their relation to crying.

The tear of Rav Rahumi’s wife is the expression of her humanity, the one abandoned by the rabbi, and the one who brings the punishment upon him.

For Alterman, the end is in the ‘treetop with raindrop-lashed eyes’ - and what are those raindrops, if not tears?

The worship of this world, stopping the wanderer in its path, is worshiping concrete reality. The concrete is the growing, the woman, the laughter and the crying.

Are the tears, that are the expression of humanity, a foreign god that must be avoided, and avoid falling at his feet? Are they the authentic expression of what makes man human, and thereby we cannot deny them?

On the eve of Yom Kippur, in moments of separation from the passing year, in moments of grace, of actual contact with ourselves, I will try to distinguish between the times I have worshiped this world, thus missing endless worlds, and the times I continued to hear myself, not looking for the others look, which was awaiting my arrival at home; Between the times in which the music returned and gave me the spirit of walking toward the unattainable, and the times I caressed and wiped out a salty tear from a close cheek, the times that we met.

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[1] It is possible to ponder whether it is Yom Kippur Eve when he is supposed to return home or it is just a mundane day. If it is not on the eve of Yom Kippur, then the intensity of the story is even stronger - the woman’s expectation is for his return every day, and even though he delays his return. The very fact that he was particularly engrossed while she was expecting him, even if there was no theoretical chance that he would come, is enough to conclude the story in it does.

ישיבת שיח יצחק גבעת הדגן - אפרת, מיקוד: 90435