Jun 11 2014

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – Intimate Hymn

Published by at 10:02 am under Poetry

Intimate Hymn
by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

English version by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi

From word to word I roam, from dawn to dusk.
Dream in, dream out — I pass myself and towns,
A human satellite.

I wait, am hopeful, as one who waits at the rock
For the spring to well forth and ever well on.
I feel as bright as if I tented somewhere in the Milky Way.
To urge the world to feel I walk through lonesome solitudes.

All around me lightning explodes sparks from my glance
To reveal all light, unveil faces everywhere.
Godward, onward to the final weighing
overcoming heavy weight with thirst.
Constantly, the longings of all born call out, “Is anyone around?”
I know each one is HE, but in my heart there writhes a tear;
When of men and rocks and trees I hear;
All plead “Feel us”
All beg “See us”
God! Lend me your eyes!

I came to be, to sow the seed of sight in the world,
To unmask the God who disguised Himself as world–
And yes, I wait to be the first to announce “The Dawn.”

– from “Human, God’s Ineffable Name,” by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, freely rendered by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi. Available from the Reb Zalman Legacy Project

/ Photo by mildhand /

This poem speaks to me, especially to the person I was in my late teens and early 20s. It beautifully conveys the push and pull of the heart eager to break open, the soul eager to feel, the inner eye eager to truly see.

Relating to the world in this way can be disorienting, even frightening at first. Peering beneath the facades and behind the world’s competitive normalcy, the seeing eye can’t help but recognize a terrible ache everywhere present:

All plead “Feel us”
All beg “See us”

Everyone and everything yearns to be noticed, recognized, seen. There is a terrible spiritual hunger at the heart of reality: We all desperately want our existence to be validated in the eyes of another. Not just that we are, but who we are.

The seeker, the visionary, the artist, instinctively wants to be that witness. And so we make ourselves vulnerable in order to see and to feel honestly. But how are we not then overwhelmed by that pleading call coming at us from every direction? Rabbi Heschel gets right to the solution with his prayer–

God! Lend me your eyes!

The solution is to become an open conduit through which the boundaryless Divine can answer. We learn to see honestly, feel honestly, and step out of the way of the immensely honest response ready to pour through.

In this way, God unmasks God. Seeing through you God witnesses God. We complete the divine game of hide-and-seek in each other.

I came to be, to sow the seed of sight in the world,
To unmask the God who disguised Himself as world–
And yes, I wait to be the first to announce “The Dawn.”

Rabbi Heschel was an important figure in modern Hassidic Jewish spirituality, and he was also a key figure in the US civil rights movement and anti-war movement of the 1960s.

I chose this poem today just as much to honor its translator, Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi. Reb Zalman, as he is often called, is himself a much-beloved spiritual teacher, peace-worker, author, and leader in inter-religious dialog. Although I don’t know the details, I have heard that Reb Zalman is unwell. I hope you will join me in sending blessings and good wishes to this great soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel poetry, Jewish poetry Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Poland & US (1907 – 1972) Timeline

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Poland to a family with respected rabbis on both sides of his family. He received his doctorate at the University of Berlin in the early 1930s. While in Berlin, he received a liberal rabbinic ordination and began to teach Talmud. He also joined a Yiddish poetry group and published several of his poems.

In the late 1930s, Rabbi Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland. He briefly taught Jewish philosophy and Torah in Warsaw. Aided by an organization that helped Jewish scholars to emigrate, Rabbi Heschel escaped to London just a few weeks prior to the German invasion of Poland. His mother and one of his sisters were killed in the German invasion of Poland, and two other sisters later died in Nazi concentration camps.

Rabbi Heschel came to the United States in 1940, where he finally settled. He began to teach on Jewish ethics and mysticism.

In 1946, he married Sylvia Straus, a concert pianist.

Heschel’s approach looked to the mysticism and inner spiritual practices of Kabbalah, Hassidism, and medieval Jewish philosophy. He also emphasized social justice activism as a natural expression of the teachings of the Hebrew prophets. He played a prominent role in the US civil rights movements and protested the war in Vietnam.

Rabbi Heschel continued to teach, write, and engage in social activism until his death in 1972.

More poetry by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – Intimate Hymn”

  1. marrobon 11 Jun 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Oh my! This poem is splendid, very moving. The words, the very
    syllables resonate with pure passion. Even more so when read
    slowly and aloud.
    And I agree that the translator deserves recognition for carrying over
    this sense into English. May his health be restored.

    I also ‘savour’ Ivan’s thought of the day ” fierce eye & gentle heart ”
    Seems to summarize the energy of the poem very well.

    I didn’t know Rabbi Heschel’s poetry. Thank you Ivan, for
    introducing this fine teacher of personal valour and spiritual depth.

  2. ebrahimon 13 Jun 2014 at 12:26 am

    Dearly beloved!
    I have called you so often and you have not heard me
    I have shown myself to you so often and you have not
    seen me.
    I have made myself fragrance so often, and you have
    not smelled me.
    Savorous food, and you have not tasted me.
    Why can you not reach me through the object you touch
    Or breathe me through sweet perfumes?
    Why do you not see me? Why do you not hear me?
    Why? Why? Why?

    Ibn arabi

  3. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 13 Jun 2014 at 6:37 am

    Thank you, Ivan, for giving us Abraham Heschel’s
    words. Strange, my friend from St. Louis has been
    sharing her interest in Heschel lately and piquing mine. Today I want to stay with his words in meditation. The one realization that stays with me is that I am not a separate being–one with all in our pains and joys “We all desperately want to be validated in the eyes of another” ” Feel us-see us”

  4. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 13 Jun 2014 at 6:39 am

    (continued) I remember the translator with love
    pray for him and you, Ivan.

  5. radhaon 05 Jul 2014 at 7:22 am

    beautiful mr ivan
    i pray for mr heschel
    we are all pearls of a garland

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