January 8, 2016 admin

Small fragments

I read in this week’s Torah portion about how God promises to deliver the Children of Israel from slavery ‘with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,’ and, in a kind of davka response find myself thinking about Jacob Glatstein’s poem My Brother Refugee:
     I love my sad God,
     My brother refugee
     I like to sit with him on a stone
     And silence him to all my words.
(It took me a while to find the passage. I could remember the image but not the name of the poet, and while searching on-line and came across this verse by Benjamin Zephaniah:
     I come from a musical place
    Where they shoot me for my song
    And my brother has been tortured
    By my brother in my land…)
Jacob Glatstein wrote his poem after the Holocaust; he refers pointedly to ‘the God of my unbelief’ and to ‘my feeble God’ who is ‘human and unjust’.
But, for myself, I don’t think of the God who is ‘my brother refugee’ like that. Instead a host of biblical and rabbinic images come to mind. They may constitute ‘the lesser path’ of Jewish theology, while the more trodden road remains that of the God who is ‘rav lehoshiah – mighty to save’. But they demarcate a path nonetheless. They include such verses as ‘I am with each person in their trouble’ (Psalm 91) and Isaiah’s famous ‘In all their affliction [God] was afflicted’ (Isaiah 63:9). They embrace the image of God who promises to share with the people the uncertain fate of exile and remain close to them wherever misfortune leads them. They have their source in the basic faith that each person contains the ‘breath of God’ breathed into them at birth and that God is therefore the sacred and inalienable companion of every human life.
Glatstein continues:
      My God sleeps and I watch over him
      My tired brother dreams the dream of my people.

I’m not convinced this God is as deeply asleep as Glatstein suggests as, or that God has been transformed into the fabric of a dream, as it must almost inevitably have seemed to the poet in the terrible revelations of the post-Holocaust years. In the history of the Jewish People, and in that of many other peoples; in weeks and months of long, hungry and thirsty pilgrimages; in the flight across borders; in the longing for safety and a land of our own where no one will shoot us for our songs; in all these immortal hopes and struggles for justice and kindness, dignity and respect, my refugee brother God cries out.
It is in fact one and the same God who called to Moses in the burning bush, in the unquenchable fire of his heart, with the promise of salvation and redemption.
I don’t believe in any literal, physical sense, that God reached down from the skies and sent a plague upon the cattle as they pastured by the Nile. But I do believe that tyranny and cruelty destroy countries with the plagues of war, drought, darkness and disease; the evidence is before our eyes. And I believe in the mighty power of the God whose call for freedom, dignity and justice is harboured in small fragments in a million, million hearts.

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