Gam Zeh Yaavor
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW
My d’rash tonight begins with an Aboriginal poem, by Frank Doolan:
Black Woman, Black Woman, my mother the earth,
Soul of my substance the rich black dirt,
Coloured blood red a black man's blood,
Absorbed for eternity by your endless love.
You gave birth to me just yesterday,
What makes you think I drifted away?
You sheltered my soul from the genocide,
What I feel for you is absolute pride.
I'm Young and I'm Vital, I'm Black and I'm Free.
If I hurt you I'm sorry, I'm just being me.
Times they're a changing and people change too,
That don't mean I changed how I feel for you…
'Cause you are forever my mother the earth,
The soul of my substance the rich black dirt.
Coloured blood red, a Black Man's blood,
Absorbed for eternity by your endless love.
Source: Black Woman - Creative Spirits, retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/arts/poems/black-woman
The image of the ground swallowing a person’s blood raises two images for me from the Torah:
But the blood absorbed by the earth in the Aboriginal poem is specifically a black man’sblood. So unfortunately, it also brings up for me a more contemporary image: that of a black man pinned to the ground by a white man’s knee on his neck that ultimately suffocated him to death. The image of George Floyd, whose death this week many of us watched “live” – if one can say that of watching a man die.
Yes, this is an American image, that occurred on American soil. But we all share the same earth – the same earth that the Aboriginal poet speaks of as his embracing mother. There are too many images of mother earth embracing a son who dies at the hands of his own brother—a son whose skin colour matches hers, be it the “rich black [Australian] dirt” of the poem, or the black tarmac of the street pavement in Minneapolis. There are too many images throughout history of brothers killing brothers, of racist brutality, of what our tradition calls sinat chinam– hate without cause.
But before there was ever a Stolen Generation, and before there was ever a slave trade – the very first killing of a brother by his brother began with Cain and Abel – and this was in the very first parasha – in the eyes of our tradition, this fratricide occurs at the very beginning of time. This appears to be an eternal problem in the human experience.
So I’ve been thinking so much this week about what “eternal” means, and about a story – the story of King Solomon’s ring. The wise King Solomon sends his servant out to find him a magical gift – a special ring that has the power to make a sad person happy, and a happy person sad. So the servant goes out, and he has a lot of trouble finding such a ring, but eventually he comes back with one. And the magic ring he brings to Solomon isn’t really magic – it just bears an inscription. The inscription says, in Hebrew, Gam zeh ya’avor. “This too shall pass.” This is the ring that reminds the sad person to be happy because this too shall pass. This is the ring that reminds the happy person that one’s bounty can be fleeting too, so don’t get too excited – this too shall pass. There’s supposed to be comfort in this idea of gam zeh ya’avor.
But when I think about institutionalised racism endured by the black community in America, so many of whom were deprived of the opportunity to buy houses in certain neighbourhoods, for instance, so they didn’t accumulate wealth to pass on to their children and raised their families in poverty... When I think about the generational agony endured by the Stolen Generation in Australia, many of whom would have lost their parents andtheir children... When I think of Holocaust survivors whose trauma is found to pass down to their children biologically... then I have to ask myself, does everythingreally pass? Because it seems that discrimination actually endures, and just takes different forms in different generations, and trauma actually endures and impacts every generation differently, and poverty actually endures and manifests differently in different nations. These things don’t pass and disappear; they pass on,to the next generation. Gam zeh ya’avor? I’m not so sure. Since Cain and Abel, brothers have been killing brothers, and this problem is starting to feel eternal.
The story of Cain and Abel, however, doesn’t take place until the 4thchapterof Genesis. I thought about that this morning. In fact, the 7 days of creation happen before Cain and Abel are born, since their parents, Adam and Eve, aren’t created until the 6thday. So there is, in the eyes of our tradition, much that is olderthan fratricide. In fact, the Mishnah teaches that in addition to what God created during the first 6 days, God created another 10 things before the 7thday – before the first Shabbat. And one of those 10 things was the ground that swallowed the rebel Korach. That is, one of God’s creations was Merciful Mother Earth who embraces the blood of her children, whom humanity rejects—whom humanity can’t seem to treat with mercy, or decency, or dignity.
There is something older than Cain’s murder of his brother– something more eternal because it is a Godly construct, created by God, when God was in charge of deciding what needed to be on the planet. A merciful earth was put in place for eternity. A merciful earth that accepts the blood of every human being without regard to the colour of one’s skin or society’s definition of race, because, as the Talmud teaches, no one’s blood is any redder than anybody else’s. Fratricide, domination of one race over another, brutality and inequality – these are humancreations that started only later, after Shabbat, the day of completion of God’s universe. We must neveraccept them as eternal. We must always seek to abolish them. Statues can be toppled, apologies offered, constitutions changed, and restitutions made – all of which may not heal past wounds, but can reverse a deadly, tragic order that we’ve taken as a given, if we’ve noticed at all.
Gam zeh ya’avor. This too shall pass, but as a human construct, humanity itself will have to dream up how to make deadly human constructs a thing of the past. Many of the Aboriginal poems I explored this past week speak of the power of dreaming. We need to dream a safer world into being, and that means listening to each other’s dreams, hearing them, and not suffocating them to death.
So I’d like to close with another Aboriginal poem called ‘A Right to Be Heard’:
A right to be heard
Not censored of word
A voice that is true
Not a momentary view
A word that is said
It remains in our heads
Of value that’s true
In both me and you
It signals the start
From deep in our hearts
A sentence recalls
From the big to the small
It flows like a stream…
“I have a dream…”
Source: A Right To Be Heard - Creative Spirits, retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/arts/poems/a-right-to-be-heard