Awakening

[NOTE: On Friday evening, during our Kabbalat Shabbat, I offered a D’var Torah on this past week’s Torah portion.  As much of what I said was not written out I want to try to recapture some of the gist of what I shared with the congregation.  I am doing so in response to a number of requests that I share the poem which I read at the conclusion of my D’var Torah.  I want to acknowledge and thank Rev. Heidi Haverkamp of Bolingbrook, IL for bringing this piece to light on Facebook.  Rev. Haverkamp and I met at Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing for Clergy earlier this summer.]

* * * * *

Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Ki Tavo, offers us a powerful glimpse into the lives of our Biblical forebears and life in Jerusalem in Temple times.  While on the surface the text comes from Moses speaking to the Israelites as part of one of his “farewell addresses” which comprise the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy.  The portion opens with the description of the ancient ritual in which the Israelites would bring the Bikkurim – the first fruits of their late Spring/early Summer harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem.  The ritual is described with more detail than we usually encounter in the Torah outside of the descriptions of korbanot  (sacrifices) in Leviticus.  The ritual includes the call for the bearer of the offering to hand his or her basket of “first fruits” over to the Kohen (priest) and recite a litany which is still familiar to most in the Jewish community today:

5You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26: 5-10)

We recognize most of these verses from the Passover Seder as they were placed into the Haggadah by the early Rabbis after the destruction of the Temple so as to preserve this sense of our people’s history as recorded in these verses.

The first phrase of this litany, “My father was a fugitive Aramean,” has been translated and interpreted in a variety of ways.  The Hebrew of just the opening phrase, aram oveid avi, is open to diverse translations and interpretations. If I remember correctly, the old Maxwell House Haggadah (“old faithful” to many families) translates the phrase as “My father was a wandering Aramean.” In the midrash (which subsequently finds its way into many haggadot) one interpretation renders the words as “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.”  In my eyes, both readings express distress at the existential reality of our ancestors in ancient times, most especially during the challenging sojourn in Egypt from which God subsequently delivers the Israelites as the rest of the litany recounts.

As I reviewed the portion anew last week I could help but be struck by the resonance of not just one, but both renderings of that phrase as I reflected on one of the most disturbing threads of news reports over recent weeks: the growing stream of refugees leaving war-torn Syria, and other parts of that beleaguered region, fleeing for their lives .  We know that over recent years countless numbers have lost their lives as ISIS brutally pursues its conquest of the region (and beyond.)  Somehow the outcry over the loss of life and the apparent inability of the nations of what we think of as the “civilized world” to respond to this crisis reached a crescendo this past week as media outlets reported both in word and image the story of the death of a three-year old boy whose family was fleeing the violence.  His drowning seems to have suddenly brought the focus and outcry that has largely been missing.

To be sure, this entire situation is complicated.  Yet, in the face of that image, many were able to see past the complications and raise their voices to condemn the outrages being perpetrated and call for response.  No small part of this also comes in response to the steady and growing stream of refugees making their way to Europe.  I cannot read or listen to the new reports of the staggering numbers of refugees with out also being mindful of our people’s centuries of fleeing per suction, of the countless numbers f times Jews had to flee their homes in the face of mortal danger.

It was against the backdrop of this that I noticed that my colleague, Rev. Heidi Haverkamp posted a poem on Facebook by a 25-year old Somali-British poet named Warsaw Shire.  Her poem captures the sense of desperation, fear, and uncertainty that I have to imagine many of the refugees fleeing for the lives must be feeling.  I do not know when Shire first wrote her poem.  I only know that it, more than anything else I have heard or read, brought me face-to-face with humanitarian crisis our world must finally face and address.  As one blogger wrote, “Nothing I have read in the past few weeks has stuck with me more than the line: ‘You have to understand,’ Shire writes, ‘that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.’”

In Jewish life we are approaching the start of a New Year with hopes and prayers for the blessing of being inscribed in the Book of Life. While there are no easy answers, how can we pray for life and blessing and ignore the cries of those fleeing in terror for their lives?  Here is Warsan Shire’s poem.  I hope it speaks to you too.  I hope it can shake us out of stupor so that we can call for the nations of the civilized world,” ours included to do something in response to this horrific injustice and tragedy.

HOME,” by Somali poet Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
mean something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard

in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father

no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up

how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hungry

beg
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-

leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

* * * * *

[Postscript: This morning’s Israeli news media outlets are reporting about Israeli government officials vocally and publically debating whether Israel could open its borders to some of the refugees.  It must noted that Israel has, fort quite some time now, been allowing refugees from Syrian to cross the border in the Golan Heights where they have been receiving medical care as assistance in resetting their lives.  Nevertheless, Israel, like the other nations of the “civilized world” has been debating what to do with refugees crossing her borders.]

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One thought on “Awakening

  1. Erin Giesser says:

    Thank you, Rabbi, for the poem. I will use it with my high school English classes in Revere.

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