“The ‘Zamir’ of the Powerful” and Growth after War

  1. For Man is the Tree of the Field – Vital Growth Emerging from the Ground

Given the terrible costs of war (in every sense of the word), we must attempt to understand the kind of growth that can follow on the heels of destruction and extirpation – that is, we must the world to come, which follows life in this world. This is said mainly about young lives that were uprooted before they had a chance to yield their fruits fully. To that end, we must study Maharal’s explanations of man’s fruits in his world:

It seems that (man’s) name teaches about something uniquely his, that is singular about man and nothing else. This is that he is called “adam” because he is dust from the ground (“adama”). But now we must ask: aren’t all other creations from the ground? Why is only man called “adam” due to the fact that he was created of the earth? The idea of man relates strongly to the earth; this is because the earth is unique in that it has potential and it brings to fruition all of those things that grow from it: plants, trees, and everything else. It has all of these in potential. This is the idea of man: he has potential and his perfection comes to fruition. Thus, his name is apropos of what he shares with the earth, namely, that it alone brings potential into reality through fruits and plants and everything else it has. So too man’s potential is brought to fruition. It is for this reason that man’s perfection is also called “fruit.” (Tiferet Yisrael ch. 3)

          What is the fate of these young lives that were uprooted before they could yield their fruits? Is their share in the next world deficient? Maharal explains the Gemara above to mean that they share is not diminished and premature death does not prevent the transition from potential to actual or the earning of life in the next world:

But do not misconstrue these words to deny perfection to one who cannot bring his perfection to fruition, who departed this world before he was able to realize his potential. We do not deny him the next world at all if he had prepared for perfection but died and was unable to realize his perfection, as the Sages say (Berakhot 6a): if one thought to do a mitzva but was coerced, he is rewarded as though he performed

the mitzva. (Tiferet Yisrael ch. 3)[1]

  1. The Value of Growth in the Lives of Those who Fall Sanctifying God’s Name

This is true in particular about those who fall sanctifying God’s name in Jewish wars. The place of the wholly righteous is reserved for them:

As was the case of R. Yosef b. of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, [who] became ill and fell into a trance. When he recovered, his father asked him, ‘What did you see?’ ‘I saw a topsy-turvy world’, he replied, ‘the superior underneath and the inferior on top’ ‘My son’, he observed, ‘you saw a clear world. And how are we [situated] there?’ ‘Just as we are here, so are we there. And I heard them saying, "Happy is he who comes here with his learning in his hand." And I also heard them saying, "Those martyred by the empire, no man can stand within their enclosure."’ Who are these [martyrs]? Shall we say, R. Akiba and his companions? is that because they were martyrs of the State and nothing else? Rather [he meant] the martyrs of Lod. (Pesachim 50a)

Rambam rules accordingly about the stature of those killed by the prevailing power, those who fell to Israel’s enemies, sanctifying God’s name:

These are the martyrs of the empire, and there is no greater height than theirs. Of them it is written: “For Your sake we were killed all day; we have been considered as sheep for slaughter” (Tehillim 44:23). And of them it is stated: “Gather My saints together, those who have made a covenant with Me through sacrifice” (ibid. 50:5). (Laws of Torah Principles 5:4)

          Maharal explained the significance of this great stature in several instances:

For the martyrs of the empire gave their lives to sanctify God’s name, and by this one becomes completely other to the material world, to the point that he gives himself up to death, to be removed from the world, for the sake of His great name. Therefore, no creature can stand in their enclosure, for there is no connection between this transcendent level and others who incline toward this world while they are within it.[2]

          Those who fell to sanctify God’s name rise above the wings of god’s Shekhina, the source of existence, the root of being, and from there they shine and illuminate like the brilliance of the firmament, where they influence our world and our growth.

  1. World Growth and National Consciousness as a Result of War

War itself, considered the epitome of devastation and destruction, occasionally contains elements of constructiveness and growth, like a tree whose growth can be enhanced by pruning away branches. This is why the time of redemption is called “et ha-zamir,” which literally means “the time of singing” but can also mean “the time of pruning,” as the Midrash explains:

“The time of zamir has come” – the time has come for Israel to be redeemed; the time has come for the orlah to be pruned; the time has come for Egypt to be pruned the time has come for their deities to be uprooted, as it is stated: “and I will do justice to the gods of Egypt…”

“The time of zamir has come” – the time has come for the orlah to be pruned; the time has come for the Canaanites to be pruned; the time has come for Eretz Yisrael to be distributed to the Israelites…

“The time of zamir has come” – the time has come for the orlah to be pruned; the time has come for the wicked to be shattered…; the time has come for the Temple to be built, as it is stated (Ovadia 1): “The rescuers ascended Mount Zion…” (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 2:29-32

          One who contemplates this midrash will realize that the song (zemira) of redemption is bound up with the pruning (zemira) of the wicked in order to make space for a repaired world. This is how Rav Kook explained it in context of World War I:

When there is a great war in the world, the power of the Messiah awakens. “The time of zamir has come,” “the zamir of the powerful”; the wicked are obliterated, the world is intoxicated, and “the sound of the turtledove is heard in our land.” The individuals who die an unjust death in the violent upheaval of war possess the quality of the righteous, whose death is an atonement. They ascend through the root of life, and their life’s essence brings a greater good that is a blessing and benefit to the new world that is being built in every meaning and sense. Then, when the war ends, the world is reinvigorated with a new spirit, and the footsteps of the Messiah become more apparent. As extensive and devastating as the war, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is so is the depth of yearning for the footsteps of the Messiah within it… “Master of war, Sower of righteousness, Nurturer of salvation, Creator of healing, revered in praise, Lord of wonders, Who continually renews the work of creation, day after day: make a new light shine on Zion, and may we all be worthy of its light soon.” (Orot, War §1)[3]

          The zemira, the pruning away through war of the powerful who prevent redemption clears a path for goodness to be manifest. But there is another perspective. War amongst the nations sometimes stems from the outbreak of opposing essences and ideas, and sometimes war originates in other things, but once war begins there develop conflicts between opposing national and cultural ideas.

          War causes every national idea to profoundly refine itself and empower itself. This empowerment continues after the battles have calmed and nurtures, sharpens, and raises national consciousness to where it had not been before. When such a war affects the nation of Israel directly, and its idea is strengthened within the world, the power of the Messiah is awakened.

          Yet even the righteous individuals who die an unjust death, who rise up to the source of life and being, continue to nurture existence: “They ascend through the root of life, and their life’s essence brings a greater good that is a blessing and benefit to the new world that is being built in every meaning and sense.”

          We conclude with a prayer to our Father in heaven in the wake of the most recent war and in as a continuation of the words of our holy Sages: may God make this time one of mercy and love, a time of zamir, when what holds us back is removed, when the wicked are shattered, and when the Temple is rebuilt, as it states: “The rescuers ascended Mount Zion to mete justice out to the mountain of Esav – and dominion was God’s.”

Sing aloud, O nations, of His people; for He avenges the blood of His servants, renders vengeance to His adversaries, and makes expiation for the land of His people.  (Devarim 32:43)


[1] Maharal continues: “Because he did not realize his potential for perfection he is like land that did not produce fruit, leaving things as unrealized potential.”

[2] Derashot Maharal, “Drush al Ha-Torah.” In Chidushei Agadot III, on Bava Batra 65, Maharal explained more fully: “Thus, fortunate is one who has this virtue of coming [to his Maker] while he clings to non-material divine qualities. This stature, which belongs to martyrs who gave their lives to sanctify God’s name, is unattainable by others, because these martyrs are completely transcendent, to the point that no one can connect to them, for they are entirely with God’s Shekhina.” See Rav Kook’s essay “Al Bamoteinu Chalalim” in Ma’amarei Ha-Re’aya I, p. 93.

[3] See also Igrot Ha-Re'aya II p. 312 and Otzarot Ha-Re’aya p. 938.

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