By Rabbi David M. Ackerman | Rabbi of Beth Am Israelin Penn Valley, Pennsylvania (Former National Outreach Director for JTS)
posted on October 9, 2008 / 10 Tishrei 5769
Maya Angelou’s celebrated poem, “Caged Bird” (Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing. Random House, 1983) has long inspired me, especially at this time of the year. Grippingly, the poem contrasts “a free bird [who] dares to claim the sky” with “a bird that stalks down his narrow cage,” a creature of limited vision and range. Although the “caged bird stands on the grave of dreams,” he still has longing in his heart. Angelou’s powerful refrain concludes this great poem:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Each of us, I think, is like that caged bird, yearning to be free. Like the caged bird, we both fear and long for the unknown. Like the caged bird, we wish we possessed the courage and cool confidence of the free bird that “dips his wing in the orange sun rays,” “leaps on the back of the wind,” and “names the sky his own.” Like the caged bird, we open our throats to sing of freedom.
In our tradition, that “fearful trill . . . heard on the distant hill” is kol shofar (the voice of the shofar). We cite it daily in the words of the ‘Amidah: t’ka b’shofar gadol l’heiruteinu, beseeching God to sound the great shofar of our freedom. During the year, God sounds that shofar. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we’re meant to sing that song, to sound that shofar for ourselves. The hope is that by the time Rosh Hashanah arrives, and certainly by the time Yom Kippur ends, we will be ready to ride the wind and claim the sky as our own. But it doesn’t happen automatically and it doesn’t unfold overnight. To the contrary, the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) mark the culmination of a long process of prying open the “bars of rage” (Angelou again) that confine our souls and our authentic selves.
Our calendar imposes a starting line for our inner annual journey to freedom at the emotional low point of the year, the Ninth of Av. On that day we chant from the Biblical book of Lamentations (Eicha in Hebrew), a series of mournful dirges written in response to the destruction of the First Temple two and a half millennia ago. This year a triad of verses found in Eicha’s third chapter caught my eye and ear:
“He has walled me in and I cannot break out; He has weighed me down with chains. And when I cry and plead, He shuts out my prayer. He has walled in my ways with hewn blocks, He has made my path a maze” (Eicha 3:7–9).
Uniquely among Eicha’s poems, chapter 3 speaks in an individual voice, sharing the agony of one beaten-down soul—walled in, chained, unable to pray, a caged bird.
Commenting on the last verse, “He has walled in my ways with hewn blocks, He has made my path a maze,” Talmud Yerushalmi (Maaser Sheni 5:2, 56a) adds a beautiful detail. Once upon a time, a network of caves connected Lod (on the plain near the sea) and Jerusalem, enabling people to make the uphill journey quickly and with ease. After the Temple’s destruction, the locations of those buried passageways were hidden, making the path upward more conflicted and more difficult. The trail still exists; it’s just harder to find.
Our souls’ path back to health, wholeness, and freedom is complex and difficult. But it’s not impossible. In the weeks between Tish’ah Be’Av and the Yamim Nora’im, we undertake that journey, despite the obstacles along the way, one labored step at a time. And hopefully, by the close of Yom Kippur, your soul and mine will have broken free of its cage and, like the free bird of Maya Angelou’s poem, can now soar across its own sky. Clearing the passageways, inner and outer, and taking to the skies is the essential work of the Days of Awe and the weeks prior.
Yom Kippur’s luminous spirit of release, an absolute counterpoint to Tish’ah Be’Av’s dark mood of incarceration, emerges most notably and powerfully from the day’s haftarah, courtesy of the prophet Isaiah. As the haftarah begins, Isaiah quotes God: “Build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people!” Remove allobstacles! The prophet proceeds to condemn those who fast as a matter of form but whose behavior and inner core remain unaffected and unchanged. “Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.” What then does God want from us?
Here’s Isaiah’s stunning answer: “No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of lawlessness, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. “
To the ears of a Hebrew speaker, the verbs, in rapid succession and in command form, tell Isaiah’s story. Pateach, hater, shalach (unlock, untie, set free): that’s the message of Yom Kippur. To be sure, Isaiah means for us to break the yokes that oppress others, but I think he also, maybe even primarily, means for us to set our own souls free and complete the long climb from despair to wholeness. The lush brightness of the journey’s culmination will overwhelm the arid darkness of its beginning. The prophet’s promise to us declares, “You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.” That’s Yom Kippur’s goal.
I wish to make reference to one more poem, this one from the pen of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, an eleventh-century giant of the Golden Age of Spain. Ibn Gabirol writes in a short piece of “a triad of evils” that enslaves his spirit. In stirring and resonant language, he concludes his lament with these words:
Consider my agony, the punishments I suffer,
How my soul is imprisoned like a caged bird.
Accept me as Your constant servant,
For to be Your servant is to be ever free. (Hayim Schirmann, 193)
Across the centuries, perhaps eternally, caged birds sing of freedom. Across the trailways and flight paths of our lives, we long for wholeness and connection and authenticity. Across the anxiety of these weeks leading up to the Yamim Nora’im, we yearn for the confidence and inner strength to claim the sky. This Yom Kippur, may the concluding tekiah gedolahserve to herald the return of our souls to wholeness, health, and freedom.
G’mar ve-hatimah tovah—may we each be inscribed and sealed for a good year.The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.
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