Autumn/Tishrei: the season of change. This is the season when we listen to the call of the shofar. It is a sound of celebration, a sound that heralds joy for the New Year. But it is also a call to action.
The blast of the shofar challenges us to wake up, dares us to act differently. But responding to the call to action is difficult when we fear change and hesitate to examine ourselves truly. Often we feel powerless in the face of injustice or incomprehensible tragedy. Usually we just don’t know what to do.
If we are honest, sometimes we feel tired and hopeless because the bad news seems relentless. “Here we go again. Not another famine/war there again. There’s always war there. I don’t have time for this.” Academics and humanitarian workers refer to this phenomenon as “atrocity fatigue.”
The Syrian refugee crisis has been in the news, relentlessly, for the past few weeks. I feel overwhelmed thinking of the 11 million people displaced so far. What are we doing about it?
I was in Beirut in the spring of 2012 for an academic conference on human rights and literature. This was a year into the increasing insurrections and uprisings in Syria and a year since the beginning of the Siege of Homs. It was while the United Nations attempted – and failed – to mediate a ceasefire and just before the massacre in Houla on May 25. And, it was a few months before the Red Cross defined the conflict as a civil war.
The increasing tension was barely making news in North America. But, in Beirut, we read the daily newspapers with clenched teeth, not sure when things would spill across the border into Lebanon.
While visiting the ancient town of Byblos, we met a shoe polisher and his young son. They told us they were Kurdish refugees from Syria and that they had left because things were beginning to go badly for them. They were very worried about family members still there.
“This is going to spill into our country, too,” our Turkish friend said.
“We Lebanese are used to war. We just finished one though. Why couldn’t there be a longer break before the next one? Our civil war lasted 15 years. May this one be shorter,” said one Lebanese friend.
“Beirutis can feel war coming. These past few weeks, we have been feeling it crawling on our skin like bugs,” another Lebanese friend said.
“How much for a shoeshine? Please do all of our shoes,” our American friend said.
Where might we look to for answers and for inspiration? Where might we find a Jewishly focused response?
I am not a rabbi, so I can’t point you in the direction of a particular sacred text or tractate. But I am a writer, and a reader, and I know we can also look to the words of our poets, to the tefillah wrought by our artists. Adrienne Rich, the late and great American-Jewish poet, challenges us to consider the relationship between poetry and politics, between art and engagement. In her long poem, “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” she writes: “A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who wrestles for the / soul of her country / as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul of his country … as he wrestles for his own being.”
We can speak about political accords and funds and actions – and these are critical and practical steps in a crisis – but these steps must also be rooted in ethical engagement, in wrestling with the heart and the mind. Poetry and creative response is one way to wrestle with difficult questions. Our poets have written jeremiads, reflections of the heart, lamentations, prophecies, and calls to action that encourage us to see complexity, paradox, and nuance – that compel us to feel, to think, and to act.
What would it take for those ideas, for those attributes of poetry and art, to be accepted as the necessary precursors and foundations to action? What of responses to war and to large-scale human suffering that are founded in the nuanced reflection, questioning, and wrestling that is at the root of poetry?
Rich’s poem concludes with these questions: “Where are we moored? What are the bindings? What behooves us?”
The poet’s words are a kavanah – a kavanah for the month of Tishrei and beyond.