Awe and Chasm
By Moti Zeira | 17/06/2010
David Meletz, a member of the Third Aliyah, and a founder of Kibbutz Ein Harod in the Jezreel Valley, succeeded in articulating the sundered spiritual state of the pioneer generation, which has been bequeathed to us, its successors. In complete contrast to his peers, who lived with a feeling that their path as secular-Zionist pioneers created a new man and constituted a permanent solution to their dilemmas of Jewish identity, Meletz experienced secularism's tragedy to its fullest depth"
"Avraham Klein launched into a description of the dusk, at the end of the workday. In the space of the world, the last sunglows embrace the first shadows of night. Light and shadow. Twilight. They will stream home from all ends of the field, slowly-slowly, with heavy, labor-laden steps […] This whole corner of ours touches on my experience in some wondrous way, and I encircle it with a feeling of wonderment – that it materializes here in the space of the world, on the wondrous earth on which we have been placed. What a tremendous experience, and strange.
"Might this experience serve as a spiritual basis for our lives? […] We have experiences, spiritual life, but we lack a spiritual basis […] What is a spiritual basis? When a person knows how to build the regime of his life within social and practical boundaries upon a foundation of a regime commanded by more elevated, definitive strictures. In other words, when a person knows his imperatives in the realm of interpersonal relations, relying on absolute imperatives that arise from the realms between humans and Heaven. Everything that we make, built and create, we do only in the area of interpersonal relations, the relations between an individual and his people. But we stand empty and unversed regarding matters between humans and Heaven" (David Meltz, Maagalot, Am Oved, 1945, pp. 153-154).
I read these words with incomprehensible excitement on a winter night of 1980, at my home on Kibbutz Netiv Ha-Lamed Heh in the Ela valley. I had arrived at the kibbutz two years earlier, after a well trodden and well known Israeli journey: two years as a member in a secular-Zionist-socialist youth movement ("Ha-Mahanot Ha-'Olim" for anyone who really cares), army service in the Nachal Unit, and the pinnacle: "self-fulfillment on kibbutz." I was in a hurry to begin figuring out whether there was anything to those hallowed values that I had absorbed in the youth movement: "human equality," "sharing," "mutual support." Could I infuse my adult life with meaningful values? Would there be a point to them? Depth? Worth?
Words for My Suffering
During that period, I was gripped by questions of identity. I am from the generation of the Yom Kippur War, and the trite answers from the school of the Labor Party, on whose knees I was raised, did not satisfy me. The gap between these answers and the reality that was my life, was too large, and their color began to fade. This was most poignant in encounters with my peers from the religious Zionist world, both in our army service together and in our shared civilian life. The intersection with them was loaded, and aroused in me a strong feeling of inferiority: their roots were deeper than mine, their answers were more soundly based, their position vis-à-vis the winds of reality were stronger. And what about me? As one entering the gates of adult life equipped only with a bundle of tired slogans from his youth movement days, I felt "empty and unversed," in Meletz's words.
I was especially occupied with my Jewish identity. I was born to grandparents who were pioneers in the Third Aliyah, and parents who built the State of Israel with their own hands. I was educated to love the Land, manual labor, the Hebrew language, the IDF, literature, hikes and natural scenery, sing-a-longs, and Israeli folk dancing. These were all welded into my body, knitted into my soul, and in each I felt that I was lacking something. Meletz came along and provided a framework for discussion, words for my suffering: is there a "spiritual basis for our lives"?
David Meletz, a member of the Third Aliyah, and a founder of Kibbutz Ein Harod in the Jezreel Valley, succeeded in articulating the sundered spiritual state of the pioneer generation, which we, its successors, have also inherited. In complete contrast to his peers, who lived with a feeling that their path as secular-Zionist pioneers created a new man and constituted a permanent solution to their dilemmas of Jewish identity, Meletz experienced secularism's tragedy to its fullest depth: disconnection of the thread that connects a person to his environment, his family, his people, and the surrounding universe; loss of the force of a categorical imperative, and with it, a loss of the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and to act according to ethical standards; transience, existential free-floating. Meletz's man, orphaned from God, is aware of the paucity of tools available to him in his war against chaos. What might grant a strong spiritual basis to his life, the life of collective togetherness, if not God, to breathe into it an absolute validity. Meletz viewed with wide-open eyes the pioneering reality that he had built together with his friends. He described the beyond strenuous effort to invent a new, ostensibly popular culture, of workers of the land who are well planted on their soil, from which they draw forth bread. He exposed an unadorned view of the rough seams with which the pioneers patched together their spiritual nakedness, which peered out through the rent fabric: the pathetic Passover holiday as it was celebrated at Ein Harod; Sukkot, observed as the ancient agricultural "festival of water" in a spectacular ceremony near the Ein Harod spring with girls donning Biblical dresses and dancing with water jugs on their shoulders. Culture is constructed in obscurity, claimed Meletz, over generations, with the wisdom of the elderly; how can a single generation, brazen and young, which cut itself off from the chain of generations with its own hands, construct a new culture in a the wink of an eye?
"There are two experiences, the experience of introspection, which is madness, and the experience of work, which is a clinging-on with one's fingernails," writes Meletz. "There is a kind of perspective that is the experience of work, of life, and there is a kind of perspective that is introspection. This is another perspective, that looks this way and that way… this perspective is unadvisable." (Ma'agalot, p. 137). In times of strife, dealing with chaos is not a theoretical philosophical question. Meletz, the pioneer, threw himself every day – together with his friends – into Sisyphean Eretz-Israeli reality, and knew this chaos with all of his senses: the emptiness and the despair, the blackness bubbling up through the collective tangle of relationships, the ignorance of the young generation shooting up from the ragamuffin country, and above all else, the terrible feeling of uncertainty, a loss of meaning, and the inability to overcome in the encounter with death.
Despite all this, in his unflinching confrontation with the chaos, Meletz carved out from it what he called the "wonderment" in the human experience, and the loving kindness in human sharing. In his books, he formulated new content for a faith that opens up – dares to open up – to that which is good, exalted and present within ourselves, and to also put into words the feeling of being orphaned from God, the fear of man's drive to destruction, and the loss of the culture of our ancestors, which had "tremendous life-building and stabilizing power." Meletz believed that in the collective experience, a new, life-building power was coalescing; his work thus orbited around within the tension between "chaos" and "wonderment." It is therefore not surprising that I was drawn to him with an intensity hitherto unknown to me. He articulated my existential state – an abashed, skeptical and godless believer – and still infused me with faith.
Affirmation from Generations Gone-by
A few years after that night in 1980, I set out with my kids from the youth movement on a journey to discover Meletz's world. We studied excerpts from his writings, placed ourselves in the spiritual dilemmas of the protagonists of his books, and grappled with the clear declarations in his writings. At the end of the journey, we traveled to Kibbutz Ein Harod where we had a most moving meeting with his widow, Ruhama, who was then still among the living. A few days later, I went to her again, on my own. I felt a strong need to squeeze everything possible out of this indirect encounter with Meletz. Ruhama opened the picture album, and to my astonishment, I came upon my grandfather, Avrahamaleh, my father's father, a member of the Third Aliyah and founder of our family's Zionist dynasty. He was standing next to Meletz in a photograph taken in 1923 on the deck of the ship that brought them to Palestine. I suddenly felt as if the prior generations of my family were, in some strange way, affirming for me the deep connection that had come to pass between me and Meletz. "Do you see," Meletz asked one of his students in a letter to her, "that the names of my books do not point to a sure and paved way: "Ma'agalot" ("Circles") "Obstacles along the Way," "The Locked Gate," "Beating Around the Point," and now: "Regarding His Lost Path" What, then, can one do? Perhaps that is how I am, and perhaps we haven't been endowed with a sure and paved way, leaving us only with [the attitude of] "despite everything" to grow stronger and overcome through hope and faith." Amen