In honor of Thanksgiving, I want to share this poem (see below) with you written by the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), popularly known as Rav Kook, immediately before the establishment of the State of Israel. Not only was Rav Kook a nation builder – recognizing and bolstering the contributions to the Zionist project of secular and religious pioneers alike -- he was a mystic. This poem reflects that mystical sense of ultimate unity that exists inside of each person and the universe.
It may be nice to read this poem around the Thanksgiving table as a form of prayer. It praises the particularistic and universalistic elements that are both integral to Judaism and to our identity as Americans.
Rav Kook reinterprets the very name of our people, Yisrael, the name that is bestowed upon Ya’akov, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah, as he wrestles with a strange figure he encounters at night, the night before he confronts his brother Esav from whom he fled some twenty years ago. As Ya’akov gets the upper-hand, he wont let this strange being go until he blesses him: The being says: “Your name shall no longer be Ya’akov, but Yisrael, for you have struggled with God and people and have been able to withstand,” (Genesis 32:29). This incident serves as the origin of his name. He was essentially an effective God and people wrestler. The Torah was prescient as this became the name of our people who would wrestle with God and people and be able to withstand two thousand years of exile.
In the poem’s last climatic stanza which weaves together the four levels of song, Rav Kook crowns this symphony with an inspiring reinterpretation of our people’s name with a poetic word-play shifting Yisrael to Shir El, the wrestlers of God to singers of God. With this brilliant shift, Rav Kook re-frames and lifts up the essence of our people, as a people who transforms our protracted struggle for survival into a song textured by our perennial hope and values.
This Thanksgiving, let us celebrate the individual freedoms that the constitution of the Unites States protects. As we gather together with our families, let us be grateful how our largerJewish family contributes to the rich fabric of American society. May this poem and our prayers bolster our hope and comfort even when we are embroiled by struggle inspiring us to transform our struggles into song.