‘I never saw him again’: it’s only this week that I heard those searing words from a refugee.
‘If only I could hear your voice’; ‘If only I could hold you in my arms once again’: few lives are never pierced by such thoughts.
It does not lie within our power to avoid the terrible separations of death.
Our heart is never only our own; those we have loved inhabit its chambers too. When they die, we may attempt to close the internal doors. But unlike the cupboards in the lounge, the contents of which we may take with sorrow to the second-hand shop, we never can empty the heart’s rooms of the looks, or smells, or the sound of the voices of those we love. We are never immune from memory, welcome guest, or sudden intruder when an unanticipated sight summons us unprepared to the when and the where of what once was.
Our lives are simultaneously defined by the irrevocable passage of time and the irremovable presence of all we ever have been. Our hearts are fashioned by everyone to whom we are ever bound by love.
That is why unnecessary separations are so cruel, partings forced upon us by war, persecution, violence, cruelty and crime.
Since I had to flee, I’ve heard from two of my children. I’ve no idea where the other two are. Pray for them. Pray for me.
It’s several years since a mother from Africa spoke those words to me. There are millions like her, searching among the living, among the records of the dead, searching the lacerated terrain of memory; needing to move on, not wanting to let go.
Perhaps that was what those twenty-two years were like for Jacob, our Biblical ancestor, when he was shown that blood-soaked, multi-coloured coat and concluded that his beloved son Joseph was dead:
I will go down to my son mourning to the grave. (Genesis 37:35)
In this week’s Torah portion he is informed that Joseph is alive after all. ‘It is enough’, he says, ‘My son Joseph yet lives. Let me go and see him before I die’.
Their meeting is among the most moving moments in the Bible:
He appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept upon his neck, more and more. (Genesis 46:29)
Who wept on whose neck? ‘It was Joseph who was weeping’, says the commentator Rashi. His father, Jacob, was engrossed in the recital of the morning Shema meditation. The moment had such power over him that he transposed his overwhelming feelings into prayer.
‘No’, explains Nachmanides; it was Jacob who wept:
It is well known in whom the tears are found, in the elderly father who finds his son alive following grief and despair, or in the regal young son…
Nachmanides knows all too well: he himself was forced to flee his native Spain, leaving all his family behind. In 1267 he added this postscript to his letter home:
I am banished from my table, far removed from friend and kinsman, and too long is the distance to meet again…I left my family, I forsook my house. There with the sweet and beloved children, whom I brought up on my knees, I left also my soul. With them, my heart and my eyes will dwell forever. (Letters of Jews through the Ages ed. F Kobler)
My heart goes out to all those who long to see a beloved face, hear a beloved voice, whom war, violence and cruelty keep apart. May the coming secular New Year herald a time of ‘Yet my loved one lives. Let me go and see him…’ May we, too, help bring refugee families together.