Shana Tova. I begin with a quote from peace activist and poet Muriel Rukeyser who said,
The universe is not made of atoms, it is made of stories.
Rukeyser was Jewish and this was a very Jewish thing to say. To speak of choosing life as we are commanded to do in today’s Torah portion brings to mind countless stories of personal and collective courage and determination wherein a woman, a man, a child; or a family; or a village; or even an entire country may feel like giving up on life, but instead they prevail. Our vastly rich Jewish storytelling tradition brings us stories of choosing life against all odds. It comes to us through centuries of pathos, humor, inexpressible grief and the fierce tenacity of survival. And in my own work as a poet and storyteller with refugees and immigrants I am continually reminded that when we are fully present listening to someone else’s story we come to know them more fully and with a fuller humanity.
Several years ago at Hanukkah, it was my honor and pleasure to tell stories for a Kol HaNeshamah gathering. One of them was a story within a story, in which an old and wise teller was searching for the “right” story for a woman who was grieving the loss of a loved one and had nearly given up on life. To locate the story that would help the grieving woman re-engage in living, the storyteller is said to have “closed her eyes, opened her heart and entered the world between worlds, that mystical place where the presence of stories can be found.”
Isn’t this mysterious space between worlds the place we are asked to enter on Yom Kippur—the opening of the gate where we acknowledge the presence of the holy in whatever way we can begin to touch or taste it? Isn’t this Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” space —that between place–where we are present for each other? Torah and Haftarah ask us to enter the gate of Yom Kippur leaving the secular world temporarily behind to reenter it and our own lives more fully. We listen to ancient texts with the burden of history whispering to us along with the many disturbances, imbalances and cruelties of this present time. These histories and recent events continue to confound us and stun us with their turbulent wars, violence and unspeakable sorrows. And yet, we are here, we have chosen life, we embrace our tradition, we embrace our children, we cherish the smallest things—a good cup of coffee, a slight lift of wind, a stranger who smiles at us, a red leaf floating past.
But, as everyone knows, it is not so simple as that. We are reminded in today’s Haftarah from Isaiah that our comfort alone will not sustain us, nor will our fasting ennoble us, or enrich our spirits, if we cannot do something active and present toward who or what is hurting, traumatized, and suffering. How do we balance the deeply particular pleasures of being alive with our own mortality, with the inevitable losses we have or will encounter and with the disparities and complexities of our world? The dialectics woven into today’s Torah portion are ours with which to grapple. The light and the dark, life and death, hateful speech and blessed words, hope and despair, the open gate of the vulnerable heart and the closed border of the heart that is immune to the anguish of others—human, animals and all that should grow and thrive on the earth.
We’ve recently learned that throughout North America three billion birds have disappeared. This becomes part of our collective story and our collective mourning. On a personal level, it is heightened to a great degree of sadness because in my years of listening to refugee and immigrant stories, I have thought of language as a flock of birds, since like birds our stories transcend borders. As many of us know from our own or our family history, in exile we bring our mother tongue and our stories with us. Our stories can be the winged messengers, the one thing that carries no extra weight if we are forced to leave home — something to carry with us that uplifts, that allows mourning and memory and connection with each other, building bridges between us rather than walls. Loss of this kind of intimate language diminishes us, as does the loss of billions of birds.
I am no stranger to narratives of loss from people who have had to leave their homes. I have witnessed the details of treacherous, life threatening journeys as told by people who have endured them with remarkable courage. I speak of my years working with refugees and immigrants in the same breath as speaking of the disappearing birds and of how our stories can connect us across many different kinds of boundaries, because all three—birds in flight pattern, the overwhelming flow of people who are on the move and language that tells our truest, most vulnerable stories—are migratory and all are subject and often victim to counter-narratives, harsh policies and actions that have and continue to bring harm. We do not want a country in which we lose our birds or our stories, nor do we want to see anyone who has migrated from a place that is no longer safe, to be detained, humiliated or endangered. We each carry stories that bind us to place and to what we define as home; who does not want to feel at home in the world, present with the honeyed sweetness of a life well-lived?
The late Barbara Myerhoff reminds us in her eloquent book about ritual, storytelling and Jewish elders that “Humans are fundamentally storytellers and meaning makers—that a person can bear almost anything but a sense of meaninglessness and chaos.” The meaning we all derive from telling our stories and being seen and heard and validated allows us to bear what seems unbearable.
Last fall, I had the privilege of working in Athens at a center for women and their children who were asylum seekers. It was humbling to witness how stories and poems transcend borders. These refugee women chose hope over despair, they chose to believe in a world their children might inhabit and belong to more safely. A Kurdish woman from Northern Iraq, who had suffered persecution, wrote that she used to love the color yellow, color of the Sun, of the East, of a new life and a new day, how nothing remained like it was before, and that now she lived for her children, that their future had become her everything, the only thing in her life. Listening to her, intensified my grief and anger at the immeasurable trauma that occurs at our own southern border with family separation. At the same time, I recognized her story as a universal story of motherhood and of strength and hope. An Afghani woman in the group wrote how the color blue gave her a sense of ease, softening the harshness of the many wars in her homeland. This was a woman who had lost her entire family—mother, father, brother, sisters—yet she wrote of the deep meaning brought to her in a new, welcoming place where her two children, who were her everything, might have a bright future.
It takes courage to choose life in the face of exile and it takes tremendous strength for all of us to remain hopeful. We are a people of diaspora with stories of migration in our roots and we are a people called to choose life, to expand our community of belonging so that no one is a stranger. In any language this is Tikkun Olam, the intentions and the gestures toward repairing and restoring what is broken in our beautiful, beleaguered world.