Selichot 5779 – Rabbi Howard Cooper

Selichot 2019 : FRS

Someone asked me this week if I was going to be speaking at this Selichot service and when I said yes, they said, in a tone I thought was slightly cynical but also maybe a bit hopeful: ‘Well, have you got anything uplifting to say in these terrible times?’

‘In these terrible times, have I got anything uplifting to say?’ Good question. I don’t normally think that my job necessarily is to be uplifting. A sermon isn’t a bra. But I did sort of get what they were saying. They were wondering, in these so-called ‘terrible times’, what is there that can lift the spirits? Where do we go to feel hopeful about our futures – personally, nationally, collectively on the planet? And how does that need for uplift relate to the self-chastening introspection that is at the heart of these approaching High Holy Days?

But when I did start to think into these ‘terrible times’ feelings (which I know lots of people share), what came to mind – and this may be a psychological defence, I’m not sure, a way of protecting myself from some of the awful realities we’re currently going through (that I haven’t got the ko’ch, the energy, even to begin to list) – but what came to mind was this poem, that I’d like to share with you this evening, work at with you this evening. And see where it takes us in terms of the spirit, our human spirit.

(I’ll read it in a while but I want to give you some background first).

The poem connects two of the greatest European Jewish writers of the 20th century, Romanian-born Paul Celan and the German poet Nelly Sachs. Celan, born in 1920, started writing poetry as a teenager, in German, was interned in the Czernowitz ghetto in 1941, survived various labour camps after that, lost both of his parents in the Shoah – his father to typhus following deportation, his mother was shot, too weak to continue in her labour camp – and having survived the War, found himself eventually in exile in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1970. He was just 50 when he threw himself from the Pont Mirabeau into the Seine.

Nelly Sachs was almost 30 years older than Celan, and in 1940, as she approached her 50th birthday, she was about to be deported to a concentration camp, when – with the help of the Swedish royal family (a story in itself), she escaped with her elderly mother to Sweden on the last flight there out of Germany. She lived in Sweden for the rest of her life, continued writing, in German, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but suffered many mental breakdowns and hospitalisations until her death, also in 1970 – just a couple of weeks after her friend Celan, as it happens.

‘These terrible times’ of ours, indeed.

The immediate background to this poem is Celan and Sach’s first meeting in 1960, their only meeting as it happens, after many years of correspondence, letters back and forth, Stockholm to Paris, Paris to Stockholm, letters about their mutual obsessions, passions, mental disturbances; about the Shoah, and Jewish history, about the fate of the Jews, about what they had witnessed and lived through and survived, all themes they were wrestling with in their writing, in their poems.  By 1960 they had become very close, like brother and sister they both felt, but they had never met, until in May that year Sachs was to receive a literary award in Germany, and they agreed to meet. In Zurich. They would have met in the town where Sachs was to receive her award – it was just over the border from Switzerland – but she said she could not manage, could not bear, to spend even one night on German soil.

How our pasts – personal, collective – can haunt us, restrict us, drain hope out of us. Past traumas, of different kinds, can shadow us to the end of our days.  Knowing this should make us cautious, diffident, at this time of the year especially, about any assumptions, too glibly held, of the possibility of inner change. Yes: change is possible. But, no: sometimes the past has a grip on us we cannot just shake off. The wounds are too deep.

So Celan and Sachs met – at the Hotel Stork in Zurich. (Tripadvisor gives it a 4.5 rating, now a ‘lifestyle boutique’ hotel – guests appreciated ‘the views from the rooms over the lake’, and ‘the friendly, professional staff’).

And they talked, these two survivors. And back in Paris a few days later, Celan wrote this poem.  You can see that Celan dedicates it to Nelly Sachs.

It’s in German of course, but because of the German language’s tainted, death-dealing associations, Celan in his poetry felt the need to break apart his mother-tongue – it was also literally, his mother’s tongue, the language they had spoken at home – and to re-assemble it in new ways, re-create it in a way that tried to almost alchemically cleanse it of its blood-soaked history of complicity in genocide: an impossible project, but a noble, almost a sacred task – to craft, carve out, a new kind of German, fractured but honest, fragmented but searching, hesitantly, out of the ashes, for some kind of moral truthfulness.

And Celan did, painstakingly, forge this new kind of poetic speech out the shards of the old, but once we read him in English, in translation, we find that he is often almost untranslatable. But what can we do? Here it is, we have to attempt the impossible – in this as in much else – ‘Fail Again. Fail Better’ – so let’s read it in translation, which I have stitched together from different sources, different attempts at rendering the feeling -world of one language, one person, into a language we here can all share (although the original is there if you prefer it).

As an aside – and forgive these apparent digressions and deviations on the way, they are neither digressions nor deviations, but at the heart of what I’m trying to address this evening – there’s a larger issue here, that’s relevant to the High Holy Days, that I’m trying to highlight when I talk about translation,  namely: how can one person’s trauma ever be communicated fully to another person? We always stay outside the pain of the other, however hard we try to translate it into terms we know, feelings we understand. We can listen, we need to listen, it makes us human, to be open to the other – their story, their troubles, their pain – but we need also to have the humility to recognise that we don’t know how it is, for them, we can’t really ‘translate’ it, we can’t ever understand it fully – ‘Oh, I know just how you feel…I feel your pain’. Rubbish! –  we can catch a glimpse of it maybe, but our limitations are always shadowing us: thus the Beckett piece that headlined our evening- ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’. So there’s hope for you.  If you want it.

Here we go.


Zurich, at The Stork

            For Nelly Sachs

Our talk was of too much, of

too little. Of You (Thou?)

and But-You (Thou?), of

how clarity troubles, of

Jewishness, of

your God.




On the day of an ascension, the

Minster stood over there, it came

with some gold across the water.


Of your God was our talk, I spoke

against him, I

let the heart that I had,


for his highest, death-rattled, his

quarrelling word –


Your eye looked on, looked away,

your mouth

spoke its way toward the eye, I heard:



don’t know, you know,


don’t know, do we?




On Selichot we start this annual process of asking ourselves: ‘what counts?’ Celan meets Sachs on Ascension Day in the Christian calendar – it commemorates the story of Christ’s ascent to heaven – and the sun is shining and they see the reflection of Zurich’s great church, the Minster, mirrored in the water and they talk of other ‘ascensions’, as they each had already done in their poetry: of the screams of Jews ‘ascending’ to heaven, and the bodies of Klal Yisrael ‘ascending’ in smoke into the skies over Europe. They came together that day and talked about Jewishness, about faith, about God, sharing questions, facing doubts – just as we do, the Celan and the Sachs inside us at this time of year – wrestling with the God of history, and the God of tradition, and the God we doubt, and the God we don’t believe in, and the God we question, and the God we quarrel with: the ‘You’ in the poem (Du – intimate, dialogic, the language used to a beloved) and the ‘But-You’ (Aber-Du) : the struggle to believe in a You when we face a world of pain, upset, failures in our personal lives, our collective life as a Jewish community, in our country, on our scorched planet. ‘These terrible times’.  Aber-Du : ‘But where are You?’.

No, we have no clarity, about any of this – we might wish for clarity, to see things clearly, the way ahead, for ourselves, our families, our world, but we can’t see the way ahead, there is no clarity, in spite of our wishes and prayers: yet, Celan intuits, ‘clarity troubles’, there are some questions where too much knowing, too much cleverness, gets in the way: we think we know better, we think we have life sown up, we think we’re better than ‘them’, we think we have the answers…But in this annual period for reflection and inwardness, we call all our certainties into question: ‘clarity troubles’, we have to start again, we have to re-build, step by step, moment by moment, what we can rely on. For, as Celan says, in that poignant, heart-rending ending:  ‘we/ don’t know, do we?, / what counts.’

And yet, hope does exist – Celan puts it at the epicentre of this numinous poem. ‘I/let the heart that I had/hope…’ In spite of everything he’d experienced, witnessed, questioned, doubted, refused to countenance, been unable to believe, hope was still there. It’s at the heart of their meeting, their encounter, their Begegnung – ‘All real living is Begegnung’, Martin Buber had written, ‘All real living is meeting’.


In the poem the hope is – for what? It’s hope for God’s ‘highest, death-rattled…quarrelling word’ – quarrelling/wrangling (haderndes) is a key word for the poet, it echoes back to the Torah, where the people of Israel quarrel, against Moses and against God – the quarrel with God goes back a long way in our tradition – but also, crucially for Celan, the word goes back to the book of Job, where Job, from the midst of his suffering and, as the text says, ‘bitter of soul’, turns to God and says (10:2): ‘Don’t condemn me, let me know why you are contending/wrangling/quarrelling with me’, ‘tell me what the purpose is of your quarrel with me’.

This, for Celan, is where hope lies: that it might be possible to wrestle (or be given) a meaning, a personal meaning, out of our experiences – particularly our painful experiences, our sadness and disappointments, our failures to achieve our goals, our failures to live up to, or out of, our better selves.

Over these weeks now, through the High Holy Days, we return to these themes: what can give us hope for this coming year? How do we work out ‘what counts’? I find in this annual journey that Beckett’s words are – paradoxically – a source of comfort, and hope. If we start by acknowledging that all this spiritual work is beyond us, that we will fail to achieve the goals we set ourselves, we will fail to be shining examples of kindness or courage or generosity or compassion or wisdom, that we will fail to enact the fantasy of what we could be – if we start with the reality of ‘failing again’, we can relax into who we really are with our inadequacies and weakness, our flawed humanity, and see what is possible, what might be possible, what we can realistically do better at in our lives, our relationships, at work, or in the family, or with friends. The humility to know our limitations, that trying and failing is no crime, but part of what it means to be human, this is where we can start. ‘Failing better’ at life sounds a modest goal – but it can take some of the heaviness, the pressure, off, as we step into this High Holy Day journey.

We aren’t living – as Celan and Sachs lived – in the abyss, the apocalypse. We have our own battles, yes, but we too can appreciate when the sun reflects ‘gold across the water’, we can look up and out and see wonder, see something that sings to us, that moves us, inspires us, touches us, softens us, or gives us resolve.


That visionary gleam, that golden reflection, takes us beyond our small selves into something bigger. Poets have always recognised this, shaping words into signposts towards the beyond. I’ll leave you with the Wordsworth:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

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