On the 20th Yahrzeit of Yitzhak Rabin

SONG OF PEACE

On the death of Rabin

 

Death itself is no surprise, of course,

least of all my own –

oh, but I hear you crying out

as you take the wound with me,

you too,

bled by the years, a hundred,

a thousand years of war –

this madness that would breach the garden wall

and fire into the wedding feast.

 

How quickly hands forget their gifts –

empty of flowers, of poems, of candles

yet to be lit;

empty of emptiness,

again you carry fists, you shout,

you run to my body as if it were in pain,

or still belonged to me.

 

No.

Destiny has led me

to this ancient well, these stones washed clean,

this water cool and sweet, and flowing out

to any who thirst;

soon I will wet my face and hands,

and drink.

 

If only I could share the cup with you,

my people, all the world,

the cup of peace.

 

But I cannot and this is my sorrow.

And so I keep asking to return, I keep trying

to slip back into that broken body

even as death sinks deeper –

squeeze back in, like a child

who tries to crawl into his baby bed of years ago

and he cannot fit.

 

But know that I live, and so will you

in Jerusalem,

the holy dream made real

where we dwell together in peace,

all the sons and daughters of Abraham,

and all the children of God.

 

The new life opens with such welcome,

yet I would return, if I were allowed,

to the blood and dust of my ravaged land,

the struggle and the joy.

Death consumes only a particle of me;

my spirit goes on – sharing with you

the song of peace.

 

– Jane Galin

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Shabbat Noakh 5776: Raging Seas

These are difficult days. The bad news from Israel, and from so many other places of hurting and hatred, seems to come in waves, deep ones. On such a day as this one feels as if one might drown. The imagery of Jonah’s cry is gripping: The waters compassed me about, even unto the soul; the deep was round about me; the weeds were wrapped about my head. (Jonah 2.6)

This is the week of parashat Noakh, the parashah of the Great Flood. We read that human beings have descended into a Hobbesian nightmare of khamas, anarchic, murderous, pointless violence. Regretting the creation of humanity, G-d chooses to erase the work, by eradicating human beings, and tells Noakh that the creation of humanity will then begin again.

Sometimes, reading this story can make one wonder if the khamas we have seen in our own time is not similar. Where do we rate, on a Flood scale? The Rabbis of antiquity had no doubt, and they formed our prayers and taught our myths accordingly: we should all be wiped out, if G-d were to adhere to the strict Divine attribute of Justice. 

Here is the prayer: During Yom Kippur, this is the essence of one of our most powerful prayers, in which we basically say: we know that we don’t deserve this world. We know that we are as guilty as the generation of the Flood, and You should wipe us out – but please don’t. Please forgive us; give us another chance to do better.

Here is the legend: The world would have been wiped out long ago because of our sins, if it were not for the presence of the Thirty-Six righteous ones, the Lamed-Vavniks. They do not know who they are, but it is for their sake that the world is allowed to continue.

Most of us may never meet a lamed-vavnik, and most of us most certainly are not of that number. But the Rabbis elsewhere assert that even if we are unable to complete the work of righteousness, we are nevertheless not free from doing our part. 

So when the days are difficult and the floodwaters of despair rise “even unto your soul”, consider one act which is always within your power, even in the midst of much violence, hatred, and despair:

And G-d said to Noah: “The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them” (6:13)

Why was the generation of the Flood utterly destroyed, but not the generation of the Tower? Because the generation of the Flood were consumed by robbery and violence, while amongst the generation of the Tower love prevailed.  – Bereshit Rabbah

Shabbat Bereshit: We’ll Keep the Light On

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep (Bereshit 1:2)

First comes darkness, then light.  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 77b)

At the beginning, there is darkness. This is not only true of the account of Creation as we find it in the Book we call Bereshit, known in English as “Genesis”. It is true of life, as well – our own, as we are conceived, and of much of the rest of Existence.

Darkness is a challenge to those of us life forms which depend upon our eyes to navigate. In the light, we orient ourselves by looking around; we judge our surroundings by visual cues; we can assess threat or safety at a distance, and signal the same. But in darkness we wander, disoriented, perhaps even lost. We seek to relieve it by finding a source of light, and the relief you have felt when you realized that the batteries were still good in the old flashlight is recognizable to us all.

These days of our lives are meant to be so full of joy, as we have just come through our Days of Awe, our fall Sukkot harvest festival, and our yearly blowout with our beloved Torah. But there is increased violence here at home; today there are reports of more than one random shooting in a public place. And there are terrible reports coming in from Israel, where one act of violence after another has led to speculation in Israel’s newspaper of note of a third Intifada. And there are other sadnesses: medical workers come under attack in a bombing raid. Refugees face indifference, and worse. A homeless man begs on a street corner near you.

Here is the real challenge to our lives and the way we live them: do we really believe that the things we do bring light to this world of ours, which so desperately needs it? Jewish tradition urges us not to underestimate the power of the choices we make, and the acts by which we are known. Every small spark of kindness can add to the light in this world by which we find our way out of this terrifying darkness. But the challenge is to stay focused upon the power of a small act, when one might give in to the impulse to believe that there’s no use, that it doesn’t matter.

On this Shabbat, consider your own morale and your purpose in the world. Do you perhaps wonder about whether you can really make a meaningful difference in the misery you see all around you? If so, remember this: your own personal ethics either stay with you under this kind of stress, or they need an upgrade. To turn away and say that there is nothing you can do is to misunderstand your purpose in the world. As another teacher put it:

“Let there be light” was the first statement in Creation, because “light” is the true purpose of existence. To bring light is our purpose: that each of us transform our situation and environment from darkness and negativity to light and goodness. Through the study of Torah and the fulfillment of mitzvot, we strengthen the light of creation. 

It’s getting darker. It’s getting colder. And this is when you need the most support for your own ethical choices and your confidence in them. Refuse to give in to cynicism. Get that free upgrade by lending your presence and getting strength from your religious community. This is the village that devotes itself to keeping the light on – through davening, study, and the kindness that can be shown only through social justice work.

Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell this parable: a man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: brother, show me the way out of this forest! The other replied, but I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere. They have only led me astray. Take my hand, and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Hayim would add: so it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray. Let us join hands and look for the way together.