Congregation B'nai Israel

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I stood with Abraham and Prayed with Sarah (Confirmation, Part 2)

by Ira Wise, June 2018/Sivan-Tamuz 5778

For at least a quarter century, our service of confirmation has included a prose poem read as a cantata by the entire class. It was adapted from the work of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, one of the great Zionists of the Reform movement. This year’s class read it in rehearsal this past week (May 1) for the first time. It was incredibly moving. As always.

We had an interesting discussion about who the speaker in the poem might be. Some thought it might be God confirming the covenant. Others thought it was every-Jew, confirming both the covenant with God and his or her connection to our people – past, present and future. By the time we get to Shavuot, I am certain that we will hear in their voices that the “I” in the poem is each and every one of our confirmands. We are proud and grateful to be their teachers. Here is the poem:

I stood with Abraham in his lonely vigil and read the destiny of my people in the stars. I prayed with Sarah that a child might be born, and God responded with Isaac in her womb.

I was with Moses, an alien prince among an alien people, and from the fire I heard God summon him to service. I sang with Miriam at the Red Sea, and danced to celebrate our people’s liberation. I was at Sinai and entered there the everlasting covenant between my people and its God.

I was with the prophets, who came to destroy old worlds and to build new ones. I heard them lash out against injustice. I warmed at their compassion for the weak and their concern for the poor.

I moved among the mountains of Judea with the lionhearted sons of Mattathias. I saw the miracle of a single cruse of oil that illuminated the Temple of Adonai.

I was with Hillel, when he summarized the whole Torah in the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. I was with Akiba, when he inspired a revolution, defied an empire, and died a martyr.

I wandered with my people into many lands, where Christians and Muslims ruled. I walked with them over all the highways of the world. I was with them when they drank out of the bitter cups of pain, humiliation, cruelty, and hatred. I saw them stay sane, in the midst of madness. I saw them stay civilized, in the midst of brutality. I saw them lighting candles in the midst of darkness.

Then I saw the night lift and the dawn break and into the new world, blessed with liberty and freedom, I marched with them triumphantly. I saw their shackles fall off their limbs, I saw the radiance of their emancipated minds and hearts. I saw them enrich every land that gave them opportunity. I was with them when they landed at Ellis Island, and fell in love with the land that stood for liberty.

Then I saw the night descend again. I saw them suffer as no people has ever suffered before. I saw them burned and gassed and tortured. Then, like a phoenix, I saw them rise again in the old land. In Israel, I saw them begin a new life, based on the ancient teachings of the Torah.

I saw them nurture saplings in the wilderness. And I watched them make the desert bloom. I was with them in Israel’s wars, I stood by them when their precious hard-earned state was in danger. I trembled when they did, and I rejoiced when they rejoiced. I was at the Wall.  I was in the Sinai.  I was on the Golan Heights.

Shall I leave them now? Can I part company with this immortal band whom I love? They have become too dear and precious to me. They are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, soul of my soul. They are my people. Their quest is mine.  They will live within me. And I will live with them, forever.