Holding One Another On Our Shoulders
This passage is excerpted from a d’var Torah shared at the URJ Biennial convention's Shacharit service focused on tikkun olam, repair of the world.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells this story:
A man crosses the street in rain, Stepping gently, looking two times north and south, because a boy sleeps on his shoulder. No car must splash him. No car drive too near his shadow. The man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo but he’s not marked. Nowhere does his jacket say fragile, handle with care.
His ears fill up with breathing. He hears the hum of a boy’s dream deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able to live in this world, if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing with one another. The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.
(“Shoulders,” Red Suitcase: Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye)
The writer is a poet and a Palestinian-Arab American. I am a Jew, a Zionist, an American and a rabbi. Yet we are both parents of kids and children of parents. Her story conveys the prayers I hold for her children, and she for mine.
Our liturgy acknowledges the world is “far from wholeness” and that it “waits still to be redeemed.” But how do we secure the wholeness our world desperately seeks?
Torah directs us to begin gently, sensitively, to acknowledge and hold in our hearts the humanity we share with all creation. This includes those in prison and those who walk free, those blessed with shelter and those vulnerable to the elements.
Like the man holding the child in the story, we must first take notice that it is raining. The rain of apathy and polarization, the rain of stigma and shame pour down on our aspirations for wholeness with no end in sight.
One thing I love in this story is that it could take place anywhere, this man going unnamed along with his sensitive cargo. I want to ask him so many questions: Are you carrying your own child? Are you carrying a child you do not know out of harm’s way? Might we, right now, be the living embodiment of your protective, dutiful force? Right now, might we see ourselves holding one another’s children on our collective shoulders?
I pray that this be exactly our commitment. Just remember the teachings of the Torah portion Chayei Sarah: In the course of three chapters in Genesis, Abraham mourns for Sarah, secures her burial, arranges a marriage for Isaac, remarries, and later dies and is buried. So much happens to him that the composers of Torah could have easily concluded with Abraham’s burial. But instead they continue, in order to acknowledge the names of the people who are strangers to us.
I am speaking of the descendants of Abraham we know the least about: V’eleh Toldot Yishmael, these are the generations of Ishmael.
Ishmael, the progenitor of Islam, is honored! We are reminded of their grandmother, Hagar, once banished in the Torah, and in a way, the world Hagar inhabited is ever so gently redeemed. Eleh Sh’mot B’nai Yishmael, we read, the names of her grandsons: Nebaiot, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Duma, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedmah.
It is poignant to raise their names, for the very first principle of social justice is our knowledge that all human beings are b’tselem elohim, in God’s image.
If this is true, Ishmael is not just estranged from our patriarch Isaac. He is also his grandson’s baba, the patriarch to a family worthy of our acknowledgment and our concern. It would be more convenient not to know Ishmael’s kids’ names; it would be simpler to think of the Ishmaelite clan as an aggregate entity, bent on rage and provocation against the descendants of Isaac.
Wouldn’t this be convenient – if only it were true? Yet justice is not simple. It is rarely clean or convenient.
No, justice is not about wishing away complexity or disunity. Our faith teaches us that tikkun olam is about what you do with the mess in front of you. Our faith tells us to bring order to chaos, to offer healing to disunity – and to not just kvetch about the tune of indifference prevailing in our culture.
We are commanded to sing louder than that tune, to drown it out.
I find this work of justice difficult. Daily, I receive and read countless emails, texts, and posts that tell me who to fear and in whose presence to tremble. The messages are mixed: We are to be afraid of both lawless gangs and corrupted law enforcement, to fear the gunmen who stalk our malls and our schools, and also the tyranny of a government denying us our rights to freedom.
The noise is cacophonous, and the barrage of messages relentless. It assaults our attention.
That is why I ask you to join me in seeing the names of Ishmael’s children as a kind of beautiful melody to drown out the darkness.
I want you to hear in these names a kind of aspiration to hold the other in our arms and cross an ever-widening road with the stranger in our arms.
I want you to hear in these names a kind of healing prayer, a chance to take pause from the kind of suspicion that too many times has victimized God’s creations, and remember the purpose of our covenant in the first place, to bless all the families of the earth.
Mi Shebeirach, may the one who blessed Nebaiot, who blessed Kedar and Abdeel, the one who supported Mibsam, Mishma, Duma, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedmah, may the Holy One who blessed each of Ishmael’s children, created in God’s image, alongside Isaac’s children as well, give us courage. May God give us courage to allow these teachings of Torah to open our hearts. And may our open hearts teach us to hold one another carefully as the rain pours down.
May we look two times, north and south. May we lift up everything that makes us human, all those that are tender and pure, those with whom who are familiar and those we do not even yet know. May we hold them close, protect them, and cross in their company an ever-widening and perilous road soaked in the rains of conflict, violence, and peril.