This is my third and final essay about the rich learning I was privileged to share at the ALEPH Kallah, a spiritual retreat at the end of July. In the afternoons, I took a class entitled “Melitz Yosher: On Becoming An Intercessor,” offered by Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, she of generous heart and deep learning.
In Jewish teaching, there is a device called “mashal/nimshal,” in which the mashal is a parable or metaphoric tale from which the nimshal or moral is drawn. The mashal is told in words and concepts we can understand, often referring to familiar people and things; the mashal then shows by analogy how the same ideas and understandings reverberate in higher realms.
One of my favorite teachings of this kind is from the film Il Postino, about the exile of the revolutionary poet Pablo Neruda on a bleak Italian island. The postman of the title, a simple fellow, wants to be a poet to win the heart of a woman (and spend less time schlepping heavy mailbags). Neruda tries to teach him basic concepts such as metaphor. But the postman becomes Neruda’s teacher when one day, sitting at the edge of the water, he says, “The whole world is a metaphor for something.”
Now this teaching from Il Postino has been exceeded in my esteem by Ruth Kagan’s comment when students inquired persistently about the specific details and structures of intercession. “Don’t get too attached to the idea of doing it right,” our teacher said. She shrugged. “You are not doing it. Everything is God,” she said. Then she gestured at the classroom filled with students, the notes we were taking, the windows overlooking a field tangled with the thick green vegetation of a Pennsylvania July, the blue sky and whipped-cream clouds above: “All this is mashal.”
So what are we to learn from it? In part, it seems, that all are connected and there are many ways to live in that truth. A melitz yosher is an advocate, someone who pleads for mercy on behalf of those who need an advocate. The role could be analogized as a public defender, although the defense is not conducted in earthly courts but through other forms of intercession, such as prayer, negotiation and healing action. The class was incredibly rich and useful, filled with practical advice and experience as well as study of relevant texts and precedents. The part I feel most eager and able to pass on here has to do with the role of the intercessor: why is it needed? (Any mistakes here are due to my own misunderstandings, not the fault of an excellent teacher.)
Very often, the same constricting ideas are adopted by faithful and skeptic alike: there is a certain literal-minded construction of divinity that says, in effect, if there really is a Source of Being, a Presence beyond all particularity, then why not sit back, relax and let Him (or Her or It) take care of things? Perhaps there would be an argument for this position if humans were like sea anemones, stuck in one spot and entirely subject to the passage of wind, light and water. But we human beings are endowed with rather extraordinary capabilities: strength, mobility, big brains, opposable thumbs and prodigious creativity don’t begin to cover it. When you look beneath the surface of sacred texts, you begin to see that there is strong encouragement to make use of our gifts on behalf of those in need. In fact, when we fail to step into the breach, things go badly out of whack.
One of the great biblical intercessors I have written about before is Queen Esther, who fasted and purified herself to prepare for her masterful negotiation with the King of Persia, saving her people from an evil plot. She is by no means alone. Check out Genesis 18:22-33 for Abraham’s canny bargaining with God for the saving remnant of Sodom and Gomorrah: this is what they call holy chutzpah, daring to speak truth to ultimate power.
But I think the prophetic writings make it clearest: for example, the places in Isaiah where an intercessor is sought to plead for a people gone badly astray; when none can be found, the verdict is harsh. In Ezekiel 22, priests and prophets alike are excoriated for their terrible crimes of greed and falsehood, and the divine voice says this: “And I sought a man among them to repair the wall or to stand in the breach before Me in behalf of this land, that I might not destroy it; but I found none.”
One of my classmates shared an act of a melitz yosher that was new to me, and very powerful. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, in the Ukraine, was an 18th century Hassidic rabbi who was famous for his pleas on behalf of the suffering. He wrote a prayer that has become known as the “Kaddish of Reb Levi Yitzhak,” which was often sung by the great African American actor, singer, athlete and activist Paul Robeson, who was hounded almost to death by our government during the anticommunist witchhunts of the 50s. A story is told that in 1958, Robeson gave a concert in Moscow, presenting a program of civil rights and liberation songs from many traditions, including Reb Levi Yitzhak’s Kaddish. Before he went onstage, he received a note from the powers-that-be telling him not to sing it because no one would understand the Yiddish. As many of the songs on Robeson’s program were in African languages and no objection had been made to them, and as he knew of the persecution of Jews in the USSR, Robeson could read between the lines.
He introduced the song by speaking truth to power: “And now I shall sing an anti-imperialist song for you which you may not have heard in some time. It was written more than one hundred and fifty years ago by a Russian as a protest against the Czar. The name of the author is Levi Yitzhak, and he lived in the city of Berditchev.” In gratitude for the wonderful class that led me to this story and so much else of value, I share the text below. One of it’s most remarkable features is that Reb Levi Yitzhak speaks from a position of utter cultural specificity to make the point that we are all one:
Good morning to You, Lord, Master of the universe,
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev,
I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
What have You demanded of Your people Israel?
For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the Children of Israel.”
And every other verse says, “Speak to the Children of Israel.”
And over and over, “Command the Children of Israel.”
Father, sweet Father in heaven,
How many nations are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians, what do they say?
That their Czar is the only ruler.
The Prussians, what do they say?
That their Kaiser is supreme.
And the English, what do they say?
That George the Third is sovereign.
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say,
“Yisgadal v ‘yiskadash shmei rabboh—
Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name.”
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say,
“From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to all this.
Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei rabboh—
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name.”