Thursday, May 30, 2013

Levine Kipnis, the Ma'apilim, and Parshat Shelach

This week I met the Israeli poet and author Levin Kipnis.
Actually, I didn't really meet him. He's been dead for quite a while. And, truth be told, I've known his work for quite a while. I just didn't know that he was the author of the songs, er - poems. (He in fact won the Israel Prize in the 1970's.) Here's a little quiz: Do you recognize this poem?

חנוכה, חנוכה,
חג יפה כל כך
אור חביב מסביב,
גיל לילד רך.
חנוכה, חנוכה,
סביבון סוב סוב
סוב נא סוב, סוב נא סוב
מה נעים מה טוב.

How about this one?


חג פורים, חג פורים,
חג גדול ליהודים!
מסכות, רעשנים,
שיר וריקודים!
הבה נרעישה:
רש רש רש!
הבה נרעישה:
רש רש רש!
הבה נרעישה:
רש רש רש!
ברעשנים!

You see - you probably do know Levin Kipnis! Or at least some of his poems. His songs have been played many thousands of times, even by the United States Army Band! He was a famous author of children's poems that my daughter will probably know by heart by the time she leaves kindergarten.

This week, though, I came across a very different poem by Levine Kipnis called אל ראש ההר - "To the Top of the Mountain." Here's the poem:

אל ראש ההר! אל ראש ההר!
הדרך מי יחסום לפדויי שבי?
מעבר הר הן זה מכבר
רומזת לנו ארץ צבי.

העפילו, העפילו,
אל ראש ההר העפילו!
העפילו, העפילו,
אל ראש ההר העפילו!

אחים עלו, אחים עלו -
לב מי יירך ייחת מאבן נגף.
צעד עשו, ראה תראו
פי שניים אנו אז נישגב

העפילו...


Listen to the song (and read the words) and answer the following question: What would you say is the attitude of the author towards the word העפילו or מעפילים - "Climb Up!"? Is להעפיל a good thing to do or a bad thing to do?
From the poem, the answer is clear. He wants us to "Climb the Mount!" Don't be afraid! On the other side of the cliff lies the Promised Land! In fact, the word מעפילים today carries an incredibly positive connotation, completely due to Kipnis' poem. It alludes to those who rise up to fight for the Land of Israel, despite the dangers and despite the risks. The poem itself refers to mortal dangers - and asks:
"Whose heart will soften from a stone of death?
See, do, look you will see
We will then achieve twice-fold!"
Today in Israel, the title מעפילים is so positive that even religious youth groups call an entire age group Shevet Hama'apilim - all thanks to Levin Kipnis.
There's only one problem with all of this.
Until Kipnis' time, the word מעפילים had an entirely different connotation. Instead of alluding to the positive, forward-thinking drive to overcome all obstacles to retake the Land, it had a totally negative implication, which is explicit in the Torah.

The word ויעפילו appears as a verb only one time in the Torah, following the story of the Sin of the Spies. After the Sin of the Spies, God decrees that the Jewish people would, due to their lack of faith in God's ability to guide them in conquering the Holy Land, the nation would spend forty years wandering around in circles in the desert. Their reaction is understandable:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּתְאַבְּלוּ הָעָם, מְאֹד.
And Moses told these words unto all the children of Israel; and the people mourned greatly. (Bamidbar 14:39)
I would also be upset if I learned that I'd spend the rest of my life in the desert, and that only my children would be allowed to conquer the Land. Yet, I find the next verse surprising, even shocking.
וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ בַבֹּקֶר, וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶל-רֹאשׁ-הָהָר לֵאמֹר: הִנֶּנּוּ, וְעָלִינוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר ה'--כִּי חָטָאנוּ.
And they rose up early in the morning, and got them up to the top of the mountain, saying: 'Lo, we are here, and will go up unto the place which the LORD hath promised; for we have sinned.' (14:40)
In other words, they wake up in the morning and say to Moshe, "OK, let's go! We're ready now!"
I can just imagine the conversation between Moshe and the Jewish people (reading between the lines):
Moshe: Let's go? What do you mean 'Let's go'? Didn't you hear me yesterday?! God said that you're going to die in the desert. We're not going anywhere.
People: Yeah, we know God said that. But that was yesterday. And we said that we're sorry. It's time to move on. Today's a new day! Don't be such a spoilsport! Let's go! You were right. We can take the Land! Let's GO!
Moshe's response is clear:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-פִּי ה'; וְהִוא, לֹא תִצְלָח. אַל-תַּעֲלוּ, כִּי אֵין ה' בְּקִרְבְּכֶם; וְלֹא, תִּנָּגְפוּ, לִפְנֵי, אֹיְבֵיכֶם. כִּי הָעֲמָלֵקִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי שָׁם לִפְנֵיכֶם, וּנְפַלְתֶּם בֶּחָרֶב: כִּי-עַל-כֵּן שַׁבְתֶּם מֵאַחֲרֵי ה', וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה ה' עִמָּכֶם.
And Moses said: 'Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies. For there the Amalekite and the Canaanite are before you, and ye shall fall by the sword; forasmuch as ye are turned back from following the LORD, and the LORD will not be with you.' (14:41-43)
In other words, "Don't do it. God will not be with you, and you'll all die." This of course, is exactly what happens. Yet, despite Moshe's harsh warnings, the people insist on doing it their way.
וַיַּעְפִּלוּ, לַעֲלוֹת אֶל-רֹאשׁ הָהָר; וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית-ה' וּמֹשֶׁה, לֹא-מָשׁוּ מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה. וַיֵּרֶד הָעֲמָלֵקִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי, הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּהָר הַהוּא; וַיַּכּוּם וַיַּכְּתוּם, עַד-הַחָרְמָה.
But they presumed to go up to the top of the mountain; nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and Moses, departed not out of the camp. 45 Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite, who dwelt in that hill-country, came down, and smote them and beat them down, even unto Hormah. (14:44-45)
Their reaction? ויעפילו - here translated as, "they presumed to go up."
Yet, the precise meaning of the word is actually unclear, as it doesn't appear in this form anywhere else in Tanach. What exactly does the word mean? Rav Elchanan Samet offers seven possible explanations for the word, of which I'll note a few.
1. In it's most basic meaning, עופל refers to the height of a mountain. Thus, Ibn Ezra explains that the word simply means that they "went up". According to this interpretation, the word carries no value judgment.
2. Targum Onkelos translates the word to mean וירשיעו - "and they acted wickedly"
3. Rashi follows Onkelos and the Midrash, assigning significant ethical value to the word. Rashi writes that ויעפילו means, "they strengthened their hearts," as in "and [God] strengthened Paroh's heart". In essence this refers to an overt desire to rebel. It's a way of saying, "Oh yeah? You tell me not to go? ויעפילו - I'm going up there anyway - in spite of what you want!"
Based on these explanations, the מעפילים were those who not only rejected Moshe's word before the Sin of the Spies. After they did so and were punished, they spit in his face and essentially said, "We're going anyway, in spite of your warnings." This has classically been the connotation of this strange, unique word for thousands of year.
And then came Levin Kipnis, and his poem called אל ראש ההר - "To the Top of the Mountain."
Israeli writer Uri Haitner describes (in Hebrew) the story of the writing of the poem. Kipnis, born in Russia (now Ukraine) in 1894, made Aliyah to Ottoman Palestine in 1913 - at the age of 19. He eventually studied at the Bezalel Academy for Art and Design. 
In 1919, he was on a hike with friends. Towards midnight, they reached a mountain and began to race towards the peak. Most of the racers dropped out, but Kipnis and two others finally reached the top. When they returned to Jerusalem, they shared the experience with their teacher, Professor Eliezer Sukenik. Kipnis explained that this had been the first time he had ever climbed a mountain, having been raised in the flat Pale of Settlement in Russia. Sukenik challenged Kipnis to write a poem about his experience...
Kipnis undoubtedly knew the negative connotation of the word ויעפילו. Raised in a traditional home and educated in Cheder, he surely knew the classical interpretation of the word מעפילים. According to Haitner, he specifically chose to use the word העפילו in order to make a statement. What statement did he want to make? 
At that time, one who wished to make Aliyah had to overcome two specific, very formidable obstacles. First and foremost, the Ottoman Empire wasn't keen on allowing masses of Jews to settle in Palestine, especially given the growing Zionist movement in Europe. At the same time, the vast majority of rabbis issued harsh, stern warnings against the spiritual danger of emigrating to Palestine. Zionism, to most of them, represented the abandonment of Jewish faith and practice. (In fact, for many Pioneers, it did in fact mean that).
One can easily imagine rabbis across Eastern Europe telling their Jewish communities, in exactly these words,
לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-פִּי ה'; וְהִוא, לֹא תִצְלָח. אַל-תַּעֲלוּ, כִּי אֵין ה' בְּקִרְבְּכֶם; וְלֹא, תִּנָּגְפוּ, לִפְנֵי, אֹיְבֵיכֶם.
Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies. 
Except, to the rabbis at the time, they worried less about physical enemies than spiritual ones.
Knowing this, Kipnis responded with his poem: העפילו - "Go up anyway! Despite the fact that there are powerful forces telling you not to come. Overcome them, and come up to rebuild the Land of Zion!"

I find it fascinating that many modern Israelis (even religious ones) know the word העפילו from Kipnis - in the positive sense, and have no idea that for thousands of years, להעפיל meant to rebel against the will of God. Meanings of words do indeed change over time. They take on new connotations and interpretations, teaching us about the Torah, our history, and even ourselves.