Born to Dream
A Discussion into English of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s “The Reason for Falling”
By Joseph Lowin
A Hebrew poet and an Israeli poet, Dahlia Ravikovitch is also a quintessentially Jewish poet, with a poetic diction reminiscent of biblical and rabbinic phrasing and a metaphysical bent toward questions of faith.
Born in Ramat Gan in 1936, Ravikovitch suffered the early childhood trauma of her father’s death in an automobile accident (to which many of her poems allude). She was subsequently raised on a kibbutz, lived for a while in Haifa, studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and currently lives in Tel-Aviv.
Dahlia Ravikovitch’s first book of poetry, which appeared in 1959, has been followed by a dozen more. That her popularity in Israel has continued to this very day can be gauged from the title of her collected works, published in 1995, (All the Poems Till Now). It is as though readers will be looking to meet old friends.
Although her poems are often tinged with bitterness, it is a light tinge. She does not come through as a pessimistic poet but as a thoughtful one. According to one critic, writing in 1986, (her voice is without question one of the strongest and most exciting, one of the most pleasing in Israeli poetry today).
In 1987, Ravikovitch published a suite of seven poems, with the overall title (Questions in Contemporary Judaism,) which show her concern for the knottiest questions of religion and state. That she is also concerned with universal˜even ultimate˜questions is evident from the poem discussed into English here. As will be seen, whether Ravikovitch deals with contemporary Judaism or universal concerns, her poetry draws its strength from her ongoing conversation with the Jewish textual tradition.
But first, there is Freud. One need not be a psychoanalyst to recognize that the dream of falling from an airplane is a common one. We all “fall” asleep. It may, however, take a psychiatrist, or a poet, to see that such a dream can be about the wonder of birth.
Our poet, steeped in Judaism, handles that dream this way. (1) If a man falls from an airplane in the middle of the night (2) Only God himself can raise him up. (3) God appears to him in the middle of the night (4) And touches the man and eases his afflictions. In the first four lines of the poem the poet, recognizing that in retrospect at least one may be fearful of such a dream, adds a caring and therapeutic God to the dream. God reveals himself to the dreamer and “eases his affliction,” as only God can do.
The next four verses remind us that God is not, however, an earthly obstetrician. (5) God does not wipe away his blood (6) Because the blood is not the soul, (7) God does not caress his body parts (8) Because the man is not flesh. The person being born in the poem is in a sphere somewhere beyond the human, even beyond the animal. Does verse 6 contradict the Torah, which says in Deuteronomy that indeed (the blood is the soul¦? Or does it assert that at this stage in the birthing process the (man¦ is not yet a (man¦? He has nothing to do with bassar ve-dam, “flesh and blood,” a Hebrew idiom for human beings.
In fact, if anything, he is a boy, an angelic boy. (9) God leans toward him, raises his head and looks at him. (10) In the eyes of God he is a small boy. (11) He gets up heavily on all fours and wants to walk, (12) And then he feels that he has wings to fly. (13) The man is still confused and doesn’t know (14) That it is more pleasant to hover than to crawl. Does the boy¦s feeling that he has wings to fly derive from his intuition that at this stage he is an angel? We can deduce from the use of the verb le-rahef in verse 14 that he certainly has godly traits. It will be remembered from the Creation Story in Genesis that the spirit of God merahefet, hovers over the depths. (One should note in passing that Ravikovitch’s use of biblical and rabbinic vocabulary is widespread here. The root of the word zohel in verse 9 comes from the story of the Garden of Eden and the verb le-hitmahme’ah, in verse 16, echoes the tarrying of the Messiah in Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith.”)
The next four verses paint a portrait of a benign God who knows that even signs of love, especially signs of God’s love, can be frightening to human beings. (15) God wants to pat his head (16) But He holds back, (17) He doesn’t want to startle the man (19) With signs of love. God will use the otot, signs and wonders, of verse 19 to startle Pharaoh in Egypt, to get the Exodus going. But here God restrains himself˜does not give in to His desires˜from expressing his love in a concrete way.
God’s self-restraint derives perhaps from his overriding desire to create not an angel but a man.
And so, the poet closes the circle and returns to where she began. (19) If a man falls from an airplane in the middle of the night (20) Only God is aware of the reason for falling. This discussion has taken a poetic liberty by translating the word sof, in the poem¦s title and in the last verse, as (reason,) when everyone knows that it means (end). The end described here may be the end of the dream, when the man wakes up to his rebirth in the morning. But Dahlia Ravikovitch is reaching here for something much more transcendent than the end of a dream or the end of a poem. She is reaching here for˜and attains˜a metaphysical statement concerning God’s purpose of creation in general. Her answer that only (God knows) why we fall to earth implies also that when the birthing–the falling–is over, at that point we must look to the way the life is lived. Then we too will learn man’s purpose, man’s end.
(IvritNow wishes to thank Dr. Arthur Small for his psychological insights.)