I was given a poem this week, an entirely unexpected, wonderful gift. It’s called ‘The Ballad of the Shot Heart.’ It relates to much I care about; let me explain why.
It was written by the Russian poet Nikolai Panchenko who served on the Voronezh front and was wounded twice in the Second World War:
At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing,
I know: my heart is getting smaller,
And suddenly – I have no heart!
With each burst of fire, he ‘donates’ a piece of his heart, losing it ‘bit by bit’ until there’s nothing of it left, because there’s an order ‘Don’t have a heart at war!’
He grows ever stronger; he helps save his country; he survives. But he’s lost his heart. Since then, he goes about trying to reassemble it:
“Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls.
“Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door.
“Don’t you know, a man without a heart
Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.”
These lines at once reminded me of another poem, by Avraham Sutzkever, about the lead plates of the Rom Printing Press, the best Jewish press in the world. The Rom Talmud serves to this day as the prototype for further editions. I’m lucky enough to have a set from the 1870’s, complete with the stamp of the Tzarist censorship. When I use a volume, I feel generations speaking from its pages, rich with the indentations of the letters. Sutzkever describes, in Yiddish, how he and other resistance fighters steal out of the Vilna Ghetto
The lead plates at the Rom printing works.
We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,
And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.
One can turn a heart into heartlessness, and generations of culture into ammunition. But how does one turn them back?
Mercifully I’ve not been in the front lines. But I’ve met many whose souls carry the wounds of war, and of other forms of life’s many conflicts. I’ve learnt that repairing the heart and restoring the soul is the core of what religion is about.
Tikkun is an overused word, especially in the phrase tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world.’ But its true kabbalistic context remains closely relevant: it’s about reconnection, the part with the whole, the exhausted mind with the flow of life’s spirit. In the language of the mystics, it’s about restoring the spark of holiness, lost within us even to ourselves, to the healing divine radiance.
People don’t knock on my door, or on the gates of synagogues and churches, saying ‘Give me a heart.’ But that’s not because this isn’t what we want. It’s because we’re shy of such words, because we haven’t phrased our concerns in such language, even to ourselves. Or perhaps it’s because we aren’t consciously aware that it’s just this that we most need.
If, or rather when, we’re asked, what do we say? If we ourselves were asking, ‘Give me back my heart; restore me my soul!’ what would we do?
The Psalmist has an answer which speaks to me: ad avo el mikdeshei El, ‘until I come to God’s sacred spaces’ (73:17). I appreciate the plural because there are many such places: the quiet of prayer, which isn’t really about asking for things, but about re-finding ourselves in the presence of God; the welcome of a kind community; the affirmation which comes from being listened to with solicitude; the solitude and companionship of nature. All these are God’s sacred spaces.
We all need our hearts back. The world needs its heart back.