4.45. Yehuda Amichai, poem ‘The Real Hero’ (1983)

Yehuda Amichai’s poem Ha-gibor ha-ʾamiti (“The Real Hero”) refers to the biblical story of Genesis 22 about Abraham, who is about to sacrifice his only son in order to prove his faith and trust in God. This human sacrifice is prevented at the last moment by an angel, whereafter, instead of his son, Abraham sacrifices a ram which had been entangled in the bush. In Gen. 22, there is no explicit connection between the ram’s horn and the shofar, and moreover, scriptural passages with a shofar do not refer explicitly to the sacrifice of the ram. The Talmud, however, mentions both the ram’s horn and the shofar: “R. Abbahu said: Why do we blow on a ram’s horn? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Sound before Me a ram’s horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and account it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 16a. And so does the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book: “O King, recall the ram caught by its horns in the thicket, / on behalf of those who sound the ram’s horn on this day.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 416.

In Yehuda Amichai’s poem The Real Hero, the trust in God has disappeared and the story of Gen. 22 is turned upside down, as not Abraham, but instead the ram is considered the hero.

The real hero of The Binding of Isaac was the ram,
who didn’t know about the collusion between the others.
He was volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a memorial song about him—
[5] about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were so silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.

[10] I want to remember the last frame
like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:
the young man tanned and pampered in his jazzy suit
and beside him the angel, dressed for a formal reception
in a long silk gown,
[15] both of them looking with empty eyes
at two empty places,

and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter,
the thicket his last friend.

[20] The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.
But the real hero of The Binding of Isaac
is the ram.

*Amichai, Selected Poetry 156-7. Translated by Chana Bloch. Reproduced by permission of University of California Press Books. “The others” in v. 2: Abraham, Isaac, the angel, and even God Himself, have been conspiring against the ram. In v. 7, they abuse him for their sacrifice, their announcement of war and their obscene joy. This exchange of roles involves a inversion of the tension curve. In Gen. 22, tension increases during the three-day journey to Mount Moriah, the building of the altar, the binding of Isaac, and the pulling out of the knife. Shortly after the climax with the intervention by the angel and the appearance of the ram caught with its horns in the thicket, the tension decreases during the sacrifice of the ram—God’s reward for Abraham’s trust in Him—and the journey back home. Thus, the biblical story reveals a peak curve with the horns of the ram just after the peak.

In contrast, The Real Hero reveals a valley curve: in v. 1 and vv. 23-24, the ram is the true hero; in vv. 2-3 and vv. 20-22, “the others” abandon him and plot a conspiracy against him; in vv. 4-6 and v. 19, his only friends, the poet and the bushes, cannot help him; in vv. 7-9 and vv. 17-18, he is slaughtered and abused. In vv. 10-11 and vv. 15-16, the poet evaluates the situation after the sacrifice; and finally, in vv. 12-16 the indifference of the saved Isaac and his guardian angel comes to light. According to the literary historian Yoseph Milman, vv. 15-16 “looking . . . at two empty places” are “an ironic allusion of the verse ‘in the mount of the Lord it shall be seen’ (Gen. 22:14), suggesting that the Mount of Moriah has always been a place vacant of God.” *Milman, “The Sacrifice of Isaac and Its Subversive Variations in Contemporary Hebrew Protest Poetry” 78. Just before the low point of the valley curve, the ram’s horns appear as shofarot.

In a Bakhtinian sense, The Real Hero can be considered a parodic stylization of Gen. 22. The representing discourse of Amichai’s poem conflicts with the represented discourse of Genesis; it “clashes hostilely with its primordial host and forces him to serve directly opposing aims. Discourse becomes an arena of battle between two voices.” *Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics 193. Whereas the biblical authors want to hold up Abraham as an example of unconditional obedience to God, whatever the consequences, the poet presents an inversion of the story, using it as a protest against inhumanity.

The Present of Amichai’s poem is directed by the Past of the biblical stories of Gen. 22 about Abraham’s sacrifice, and possibly, also biblical wars in which the shofar was blown. At the same time, this biblical Past is altered by the Present of the poem, which becomes clear in the final vv. 23-24: “But the real hero of The Binding of Isaac was the ram.” Here, Amichai projects his modern ideas about warfare and killing humans and animals on to Gen. 22, which is seen in a different light. This change of Eliotian perspective is expressed by the tenses of the verbs. V. 1 reads, with italics added: “The real hero of The Binding of Isaac was the ram[.]” This verse is set in the past tense, because the Present of the poem is directed by the Past of the biblical story. The concluding vv. 23-24 read: “But the real hero of The Binding of Isaac / is the ram.” Here, the verb is set in the present tense, because the Past of the biblical story is altered by the Present of Amichai’s own burning question.

This burning question of the poet concerns the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Lebanon War of 1982. In Jewish tradition, the chronotope of Abraham’s sacrifice, Mount Moriah, is identified as the Temple Mount, that was conquered in the Six-Day War. *“According to later [postbiblical] Jewish tradition, Moriah was identified as the hilltop in Jerusalem where Solomon built the Temple. . . . This identification . . . is accepted by [Flavius] Josephus . . . and the Talmud.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion 479-80. Shlomo Goren, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, blew the shofar on the Temple Mount, *Chapter 4.40 and Naomi Shemer glorified this event in her song Jerusalem of Gold, *Ibid. while Yehuda Amichai commented on the conquest of the Old City in his cycle Jerusalem, 1967, with Jerusalem is a port city as one of the poems. *Chapter 4.41. The interpretation of The Real Hero as a poetical comment on the Six-Day War is shared by the literary historian Yair Mazor; according to him, Amichai interprets the sounding of the shofar on the Temple Mount “as a disturbing sign of presumptuousness,” while the possessive pronouns in “their battle cries” (v. 8) and “their obscene joy” (v. 9) “manifest this recoil from such conceited behavior, in which he [Amichai] wishes no part.” *Mazor, “Farewell to Arms and Sentimentality: Reflections of Israel’s Wars in Yehuda Amichai’s Poetry” 16. Mazor adds, referring to the period after the Six-Day War:

High pride, excessive self-confidence, and vain haughtiness arose. . . . The traumatic Yom Kippur War [the war between Israel and a coalition of Arab states in 1973] was the bitter result of those perilous developments. Still, the lesson was not learned. Grief and blatant rage surfaced during the summer of 1982 [with the invasion of the Israel Defense Forces in southern Libanon]. *Ibid. 16.

The interpretation that the Lebanon War of 1982 was the direct inspiration for Amichai’s The Real Hero, that was written immediately after this war, is supported not only by Yair Mazor, but also by David Jacobson, who stated, “We can discern in this poem the sense of some Israelis at the time of the Lebanon war that there was a secret conspiracy of the government to send youths off to war without giving the nation the true story of why they were fighting.” *Jacobson, Does David Still Play for You? Israeli Poetry and the Bible 128. Mazor assumes that the word “volunteered” in v. 3 refers to volunteerism, a key concept in the Israel Defense Forces. *“Farewell to Arms and Sentimentality” 17. According to the official information of the IDF, volunteering is especially meant for “lone soldiers,” that is, those medically unfit, those who arrived in Israel at age 26+, and those who did not obtain Israeli citizenship. *Cf. the website of the Israel Defense Forces: http://www.idfinfo.co.il. Mutatis mutandis, the ram in both Gen. 22 and The Real Hero is the next best option after Isaac. As v. 3 of the poem reads: Hu kemo hitnadev lamut bi-mekom Yiẓḥak (“He apparently”—literally: “as if”—“volunteered to die in place of Isaac”), the ram seems to have no choice. Yoseph Milman believes that the “curly wool” (v. 5) of the ram—some rams have it on their heads between their horns—is an allusion to the characteristic curly forelock of the first batches of Israeli soldiers. *Milman, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” 78.

In The Real Hero, the authoritative discourse of Gen. 22:2: “Take your son . . . and offer him” has lost its traditional meaning. However, biblical values still exist and the golden rule of Lev. 19:18: “Love your fellow as yourself” *Lev. 19:18 is even extended to the animal, which is no longer a means but a goal. Blind obedience to God is not obvious, neither is warfare in His name, announced by blasts of the shofar.

 

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