Yom Kippur Neila 2021
There is a story told that has, in the last century or so been attributed to King Solomon, though it is found in a number of different cultures and not in fact found in the traditional Rabbinic texts nor is the central phrase found in bible. It goes like this:
Of all King Solomon’s servants, the bravest and most faithful Benaiah, the captain of the guard, had been the King’s companion in the fabulous adventures of his earlier days and more than once saved his master’s life. He had never failed in any task that Solomon set for him and he was very proud of this record. One day Solomon decided to play a trick on him and to set him a task he was sure he would fail :”Benaiah, I want you to find me a certain wonderful ring, with magic powers,” said the King. “If a happy man looks at it, he at once becomes downcast and gloomy; but if a person in misery or mourning beholds it, hope rises in his heart and he is comforted.” I would like to wear it for the festival of Sukkot, in six months’ time.
Now King Solomon knew that there was no such ring but Benaiah began to search. First he went to the finest jewellers and goldsmiths and silversmiths in Jerusalem, for he didn’t know whether the ring was of silver or gold, set with precious stones or plain. To each he described its magic qualities, but no one knew anything about it. They had not even heard of such a ring. Benaiah then tried the smaller shops and less prosperous dealers. Always he met the same raised eyebrows, the same shake of the head. Ah, this ring must be treasured in some far-off city, thought Benaiah. When the great caravans came southward from Babylon and Damascus and Tyre, he was the first to meet them, and he spoke to the traders in precious gems, and said: “I am seeking a ring with this magic quality: When a happy person looks at it, he becomes sad; and when a wretched person sees it, he ceases to grieve and is comforted. Do you have it? I will pay any price. It is for King Solomon.” The merchants shook their heads, they had never even heard of such a ring.
Benaiah went to Beersheba in the south, to meet the caravans that came up from the cities of Egypt, and from Yemen, the land of perfumes and asked the merchants: “Can you find me a ring which has the wonderful power of changing grief to joy and happiness to sorrow at a glance. They could not. Benaiah went down to Jaffa, where the ships came in from the Great Sea and the Ocean of Darkness, in the west, and the Spice Islands and the Land of Ophir, to the east and south. To each merchant he said, “I seek a magic ring. It makes a mourner forget his grief, when he looks at it; but when a happy person sees it, their heart sinks and there is no joy in them.” But each one answered him, “I know of no such ring” Benaiah thought, How wise is my lord, the King! He knows the things hidden from other men, even at the ends of the earth! Meanwhile weeks, then months, went by. It was summer, and there was no sign of the ring and no one had ever heard of it.
The last harvest of the year came, and with it the Succot festival was approaching. Every time King Solomon saw Benaiah, he would “Well, how goes the search, Benaiah? Have you found the ring?” when Benaiah shook his head, Solomon said with a pleasant “Search diligently, Benaiah. You will surely find it.” But as the days went by and brought no good news, he began to avoid the places where he might meet the King. Now it was only a week before Succot. Benaiah could not eat and his nights were sleepless. He dreaded the moment when he must tell the King he had failed.
It was the last night before Succot Eve. Benaiah lay restless bed for several hours; then he rose and dressed and walked silent city, hardly knowing where he went. At dawn he found himself in a poor neighbourhood, with small shabby houses. As the sun rose, people in patched and faded garments came out of their dwellings and set about the morning’s business. Benaiah saw a young man spread a mat upon the paving-stones in front of his home, and arrange on it some baskets of cheap silver and turquoise trinkets. He asked the young man about the ring, but the jeweller shook his head, he had never heard of such a thing.
Meanwhile the jeweller’s old grandfather had come out to sit by the doorway in the early sunshine and he spoke to the jeweller. “Wait” the young man called out, “I think we can serve you. HE took from one of the baskets a plain gold ring, such as is used for weddings. With a sharp tool he engraved something on it and gave it to Benaiah
Benaiah hurried home and prepared for the festival. When the celebration was at its height, King Solomon turned to Benaiah. A hush spread around the table. “Now, my faithful Captain,” the King asked “where is the famous ring?” To Solomon s astonishment, Benaiah cried: “I have it, O King! It is here.” And he placed it on Solomon’s hand. As the King looked at it, the teasing laughter faded from his face. He became silent and thoughtful, for the magic of the ring was working. The jeweller had engraved on it three Hebrew words Gam Zeh Ya’avor—”This, too, shall pass.”
It is an important story, for that magical ring – or rather the phrase engraved upon it – reminds us of the impermanence of our situation in the world, indeed of any situation in the world. The book of psalms has many reminders of the transience of our existence – in psalm 144:3-4 we read
יְֽהֹוָ֗ה מָֽה־אָ֭דָם וַתֵּדָעֵ֑הוּ בֶּן־אֱ֝נ֗וֹשׁ וַתְּחַשְּׁבֵֽהוּ׃
Adonai ma adam va’teida’eihu, ben enosh vat’chashveihu
O God, what are human beings that You should care about them? Mortal beings that You should think of them?
אָ֭דָם לַהֶ֣בֶל דָּמָ֑ה יָ֝מָ֗יו כְּצֵ֣ל עוֹבֵֽר׃
Adam l’hevel damah, yamav k’tzeil oveir
Human beings are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.
And possibly my favourite verses on the subject (psalm 103 vv14 ff)
For God knows how we are formed, is mindful that we are dust. Human beings, our days are like those of grass, we blossom like a flower in the field then the wind passes over it and it is no more, its own place no longer knows it. But God’s steadfast love is for all eternity to those who have reverence and God’s righteousness to the children’s children.
כִּי־ה֭וּא יָדַ֣ע יִצְרֵ֑נוּ זָ֝כ֗וּר כִּי־עָפָ֥ר אֲנָֽחְנוּ׃
אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כֶּחָצִ֣יר יָמָ֑יו כְּצִ֥יץ הַ֝שָּׂדֶ֗ה כֵּ֣ן יָצִֽיץ׃
כִּ֤י ר֣וּחַ עָֽבְרָה־בּ֣וֹ וְאֵינֶ֑נּוּ וְלֹֽא־יַכִּירֶ֖נּוּ ע֣וֹד מְקוֹמֽוֹ׃
וְחֶ֤סֶד יְהֹוָ֨ה ׀ מֵעוֹלָ֣ם וְעַד־ע֭וֹלָם עַל־יְרֵאָ֑יו וְ֝צִדְקָת֗וֹ לִבְנֵ֥י בָנִֽים׃
Ki hu yada yitzreinu, zachur ki afar anachnu, enosh k’hatzir yamav, k’tzitz hasadeh ken yatzitz, ki ruach avra bo v’einenu, velo yakirenu od m’komo. V hesed Adonai mei’olam v’ad olam al y’rei’av, v’tzidkato livnei vanim
We are living through difficult times – of that there is no doubt. But as Solomon’s ring reminds us, this too will pass. I see photos of masked people during the influenza pandemic of 1918 and know that the strangeness of our social distancing and face protections are not so new to society and will again recede into history. I see – and feel – the grief and pain of mourners and know that the pain will lessen as we adapt to the loss of loved ones. We will never forget but we will reshape our lives to go on without their physical presence.
When you look at life through the lens of eternity, or with the eyes of a gardener who sees a seed grow and develop, flower and even fruit, and then fade, brown and dessicate in just a few short months, there is a peace to be achieved however sharp the pain of current realities.
We humans have the gift of being able to process grief, anxiety and pain; we reshape ourselves around it, we may not make something as beautiful as a pearl around the grit of the distress, but we make something extraordinary simply by breathing through it all, living and hoping and trying to cope with whatever comes next.
Gam zeh ya’avor – this too will pass and we, the individuals, the relationships, the communities, the peoplehood – we will still be here. We just need to trust in tomorrow.