Allow me first to thank Professor Andrew Rehfeld, President, and the Directors, the Board of Governors and the Faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for conferring this honor upon me. And may I add that after a lifelong tour of many communities, here and abroad, I feel in this space—emotionally, spiritually and morally—“ha-khi ba-bayit ba-olam” (more at home than anywhere else --as the El Al slogan has it).
“I have learned much from my teachers and my colleagues.” But, following in the footsteps of Rabbi Hanina (Ta’anit 7a), I can say, humbly and gratefully, that I have learned the most from my students. Some of them are here today. I will only single out your beloved Dean, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, one of the most outstanding of those students who, after graduating, went on to become scholars, teachers and directors of institutions dedicated to Jewish and Hebrew education.
And I am so grateful that my three beloved children could be present tonight. They all live in Israel and are working, each in his or her own way, to make this world a better place.
It is a double privilege to share this honor with my dear friend Susan Silverman, who, among other blessed activities, has contributed tirelessly to the effort to cancel the deportation of asylum seekers from South Sudan and Eritrea.
In the few minutes at my disposal, I would like to offer a short ‘lesson’ in literature.
T. Carmi, “Landscapes” (tr. Stephen Mitchell and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi)
White bird over a green river; two;
One electric pole; two;
More than that (roofs
and clouds and blades of grass)
are hard to count in a train,
so I won’t mention them.
In fact, I think I’ll note
just one bird.
Or maybe only its wings.
He was standing at the top of the tree
wearing blue overalls,
Suddenly his face opened,
his body twisted like a branch,
his hands filled with wind,
and he fell.
I saw from the window of the train,
after a patch of grass
and just before a couple of horses.
I note only
the fact of his falling.
I didn’t hear the scream.
The train in which the speaker of this poem is sitting is both a real, solid object in the world, and, of course, a metaphor for life itself—and for the narrow aperture through which we perceive the world.
What, indeed, can be seen through the window? Only the bare traces of what is out there. The train whisks through the changing scenery, which here represents everything that is outside the experiencing self. When we exit these hallowed halls and venture out into the wintry Jerusalem night, each of us will grasp a different detail of the whole: one will see an electric pole, the second will note clouds and blades of grass, and the third just one bird—or maybe only its wings. And there will be one who will record the man falling from the top of a tree, even if he doesn’t hear his scream. Like in Breughel’s “The Fall of Icarus,” where nobody notes the young man’s splash as he hits the water—except for the painter himself, and whoever gazes intently at the painting.
I bring Carmi’s poem for a few reasons: because like some of you, dear graduates, and like myself, he came Here from Elsewhere (in his case, as in mine, he came from the United States to Israel, and from English to Hebrew). And also like you and like me, he brought Jewish sources into the profane spaces of Israeli Hebrew. (In the words “one electric pole; two…” we can hear the resonance of the High Priest on Yom Kippur: “And thus he would count: ‘ahat, ahat ve-shnayim…’”)
In addition to being a valued Hebrew poet, Carmi was a two-directional translator between Hebrew and English, a cherished teacher and a dear friend. And he taught students like yourselves Hebrew Literature at HUC in Jerusalem. Twenty-five years ago, it was my sad privilege to fill in for him in this building during the last months of his life. But I am quoting from his poem today mainly because it signifies the plenitude, the pleasures and the ethos of the Hebrew language that “returned home” seasoned with the wisdom and the restraint it had acquired in other places.
The poetic trope of a railroad journey through strange landscapes is itself an import from distant lands. There are of course trains in Israel, but they do not signify the unfamiliar, as they do in English, American and European literature.
The task was always—and remains—to import distant vistas, sounds and sights into our claustrophobic—or claustro-philic—world. Like the church from Königsberg, Leah Goldberg’s hometown, floating in the Mediterranean Sea in her poem “Tel Aviv, 1935.” Or like the pair of stone lions guarding the bridge in Würzburg, Yehuda Amichai’s hometown, transported into Hebrew verse beside the lion’s head resting on its paws over the lintel of the poet’s home on Emek Refaim. To bring the distant close, to open windows, eyes and ears to the ringing of church bells, the sonorous call of the Muezzin, the prayers of the Women of the Wall—or the silent prayers of those who refrain from approaching the Wailing Wall at all. To see the sounds and hear the sights of those who live among us, here in Jerusalem, those invisible and silent ones who mingle with us on this side or on the other side of unscalable walls.
To note the man falling, but also to hear his scream: that is your mandate as you go out into the world. I congratulate you, graduates of this blessed institution, on your impressive achievements and on your commitment to a Judaism that does not confine itself to its own narrow precincts, that is not even content with noting the injustices beyond its windows—but commends you to go out into the world and lend your hand to the man who falls.