Poem of the Week

Flummoxed by Yom Kippur? Try This

Alex Ben-Ari makes a personal confession of his shortcomings and feels relieved, exclusively in Haaretz.

A small bird. Tanagra Darwini, 1840-1843. Hand-colored engraving by John and Elizabeth Gould
A small bird. Tanagra Darwini, 1840-1843. Hand-colored engraving by John and Elizabeth Gould from Charles Darwin’s 'Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, Part 3.' Courtesy

[Untitled]

Alex Ben-Ari

I ask forgiveness of all the poems
Born misshapen because of my desire to write them
I ask forgiveness of all the people
Whose lives were disrupted by my desire to influence
And of the world
For the superfluous things added to it
And those unnecessarily severed
Because of my lust for symmetry
And happy endings.

I ask forgiveness of my mother
For not knowing how to love her in her misery
Of my children
For the moments when I don’t want them
Of my wife for every time I was too small
To contain her love.

I am lighter than a falling leaf
I am softer than grass
Now a small bird could
Build its nest in me.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden with the poet. First publication in translation and in Hebrew.

Alex Ben-Ari
David Bachar

Non-religious Jews are flummoxed by Yom Kippur. Some go to synagogue only on Yom Kippur, and fast. Abroad, some observe little else but take the day off.

Famously, in 1965 Jewish pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers sat out the opener of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur. It’s not clear what he did instead: The rabbi of a local temple in Saint Paul claimed he attended services there; Koufax’s biographer wrote that the pitcher stayed in his hotel room.

In Israel, with few exceptions -- security personnel, emergency room staffs  – nobody goes to work, not even media employees, nor do they typically answer the phone. Thus, in 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke out, police cars with megaphones had to go around to call up soldiers.

After that, Israel invented “white” radio and television frequencies for Yom Kippur and for Sabbath observers, which broadcast only in emergencies (tautologically, if emergencies are expected).

In the absence of traffic, secular Israelis take to the pleasantly empty, quiet and unpolluted streets on foot, on bikes and on skates; it is possible to spin this into concern for the environment. In synagogues, in the collective confession, Ashamnu, worshippers beat their breast and ask God to forgive a catalogue of generic sins, arranged as a Hebrew acrostic from “We are culpable, we have betrayed” to “we have erred and we have caused others to err.” At home, in some families (ours, for example) individuals ask loved ones directly for forgiveness.

Perhaps Ben-Ari did not write the poem intentionally for this, but it is appropriate for the day. The personal sins are specific: His work might not be good enough; his opinions and desires have negatively affected people’s lives and his material and aesthetic preferences, as well as optimism that might be unjustified, have affected the physical world. 

The second stanza enumerates terrible sins against those closest to him: his mother (not loving her!), his children (not wanting them!) and his wife. The outcome of this confession, in stanza 3: He feels light, soft and at one with nature, safe for fragile new beginnings.

Born in 1973 in the Soviet Union, Ben-Ari came to Israel at age 3. He has published two volumes of poetry.

*Musing: Is it harder to forgive or to be forgiven?

*Bonus: Thesele Kamane leads the acrostic confession at Temple Israel Reform Synagogue, Cape Town, South Africa.