The Cycle of Renewal: A Journey through Texts

In Judaism, the categories of “new” and “old” are often intertwined, as in the verse from the book of Lamentations recited each time the Torah scroll is returned to the ark during synagogue worship, in which the worshipper pleas, “Renew our days as of old!” (Lam. 5:21). 

Israel is a great example of this. Zionism is both ancient and modern. As a political movement, it is modern, dating back to the 19th century. As a value, it is an ancient idea rooted in our oldest sacred texts. Indeed, this joining of the old and new is the essence of the name of Israel's commercial and cultural hub — Tel Aviv — the Hebrew name given to Theodor Herzl's book Altneuland, meaning “Old-New Land.”

How can we view the relationship of the old, the new, and the act of renewal, through a conversation between the old words of sacred texts and the new words of modern Hebrew song and philosophy?

AS YOU READ THESE TWO TEXTS, CONSIDER:
  • How is it true that there is “nothing new under the sun,” and how is it true that “After the holidays, everything will be renewed”? Can these be true at the same time?
  • What might Kohelet say about Naomi Shemer’s song, and how might Shemer understand Kohelet?
  • What does it mean for something to be renewed or rejuvenated? What is that thing’s relationship with the past?

One of the most famous views about the “new” in Jewish sacred texts comes from the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which denies that anything can be truly new:

ספר קהלת א׳, ט׳-י״א

מַה־שֶּׁהָיָה הוּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶה וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּעֲשָׂה הוּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂה וְאֵין כׇּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ׃

יֵשׁ דָּבָר שֶׁיֹּאמַר רְאֵה־זֶה חָדָשׁ הוּא כְּבָר הָיָה לְעֹלָמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִלְּפָנֵנוּ׃

אֵין זִכְרוֹן לָרִאשֹׁנִים וְגַם לָאַחֲרֹנִים שֶׁיִּהְיוּ לֹא־יִהְיֶה לָהֶם זִכָּרוֹן עִם שֶׁיִּהְיוּ לָאַחֲרֹנָה׃

KOHELET (ECCLESIASTES) 1:9-11

Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new beneath the sun!

Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say, “Look, this one is new!” — it occurred long since, in ages that went by before us. 

The earlier ones are not remembered; so too those that will occur later will no more be remembered than those that will occur at the very end.

In Israel, the summer is long and hot, and it is common for almost no rain to fall and the ground to become brown, barren, and dry. At the end of this season is the Jewish New Year, the holidays of the month of Tishrei, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. At the end of the dry summer, the entire country seems to take a break from work, school, and a normal routine for these holidays. Naomi Shemer’s song “Hitchadshut” (התחדשות), “Renewal” describes the feeling once the holidays end, the first rains come to quench the earth, and life returns to normal — a very different take on what it means for things to be new:

נעמי שמר – התחדשות

,עייפות בלתי מוסברת

.פיק ברכיים לא מובן

…זו שעה שלא חוזרת לעולם — אבל

בליבך אתה יודע

שמעבר לפינה

אהבה חדשה

ממתינה

אחרי החגים יתחדש הכל

יתחדשו וישובו ימי החול

 — האוויר, העפר, המטר והאש

.גם אתה, גם אתה תתחדש

NAOMI SHEMER – RENEWAL

Unexplained tiredness,

Trembling in the knees not understood.

This is an hour that will never return — but…

In your heart you surely know

That just around the corner

A new love 

waits

After the holidays, everything will be renewed.

Ordinary days will return, renewed.

The air, the earth, the rain and the fire —

Also you, you too will be renewed.

Naomi Shemer is best known for her song “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”), which she wrote just before the 1967 Six-Day War. It became an unofficial anthem after the reunification of Jerusalem, and some proposed that it replace Hatikvah as Israel’s national anthem. Her works read like a history of the state. Born in 1930 in Kvutzat Kinneret in the Galilee, a kibbutz her parents helped found, she studied at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, performed in an IDF entertainment troupe, and launched a long, successful career, eventually winning the prestigious Israel Prize in 1983. When she died in 2004, she was buried in the Kinneret Cemetery, just a few meters away from the grave of Rachel the Poet, whose poetry Shemer featured in many of her songs.