Pre-Yom Kippur Thoughts about Two Giants of Hebrew Literature, Separated by 900 Years

In his short story “The Sign,” the great Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon recounts hearing of the murder by the Nazis of the Jews of Buczacz, the Polish city where he was born. The story ends with the narrator sitting in his Jerusalem synagogue, reading one of the works of the great medieval Spanish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol—whose masterful liturgical poems can be found in many prayer books—when Gabirol’s ghost appears to bring him the sad tidings. Stuart Schoffman reflects on the story itself and on the two luminaries of Jewish literature who are its main characters:

The towering medieval poet will be on my mind as I search my soul on Yom Kippur. His best-known work, Keter Malkhut, a magisterial meld of Jewish theology, Ptolemaic cosmology, and personal confession, is read on Kol Nidre night in various communities. A tiny sample, as translated by Peter Cole: “Who could speak of your wonders,/ surrounding the sphere of fire/ with a sphere of sky where the moon/ draws from the shine of the sun and glows?”

Little is known of his life. Born in Malaga in 1021, 1022, or maybe 1026, Solomon ibn Gabirol lived in Saragossa and died circa 1057 or thereafter, maybe in Valencia. . . . He was orphaned young and suffered from a painful skin disease. His massive Az’harot (literally, “Warnings”) is a verse rendition of the Torah’s 613 commandments, all the dos and don’ts in a dazzling acrostic that Gabirol wrote when he was sixteen, or so we are told. . . . Ibn Gabirol was also a prolific secular poet and a neo-Platonic philosopher famed in the Christian world as Avicebron, the author of the treatise Fons Vitae (The Fountain of Life).

Agnon ends “The Sign” in the local shul in Talpiot [the Jerusalem neighborhood where he had settled in 1929], a humble wooden shack where the narrator recites Gabirol’s Az’harot. The doors of the Holy Ark open, and he sees the kingly figure of a man. Gradually he realizes this is Gabirol himself, and weeps. . . . [T]he mystical visitor weaves a memorial acrostic [about Buczacz] that the narrator cannot remember, but “the poem sings itself in the heavens above.” If Rabbeynu Shlomo [“our teacher Solomon,” as Agnon calls him], shows up on Yom Kippur at my shul in Jerusalem—and why wouldn’t he?—I have a question or two to ask him.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Hebrew literature, Holocaust, S. Y. Agnon, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Yom Kippur

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy