The Hero's Brother - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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The Hero's Brother

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Written by Wendy Zierler, Ph.D., Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR/New York, for her weekly “Hebrew Poetry and Prayer” class.

#21 Tzvi Yair  ([Hirsch] Meir Steinmetz 1915-2005), “To the Hero,” from Kol shirei Tzvi Yair: Vol. 1, Behevyon nefesh (1997):

To the hero poem

 

 

To the Hero[1]

 

My brother, poised in battle,

My blood

I shall empty[2] into your veins,

My strength

I shall pour into your bones,

And I’ll clothe you in compassion

And I’ll envelope you in confidence

And I’ll adorn you with a wreath of praise—

My spirit walks on the battleground

At your right hand—

What more else

Is there in my power[3] to do for you?

 

Only you, my brother,

Are the one poised in heavy battle,

Jeopardizing his life unto death[4]

And I am but the keeper of the baggage[5]

Of the broken hearts.


Buck ZierlerToday, Yom HaShoah, is also the Yahrzeit for my father’s older brother, Isaac Buck Zierler, an officer in the RCAF, who was shot down over Leipzig less than a month before the end of World War II in Europe. By all accounts, Bucky was an impressive young man–handsome, intelligent, a student athlete who won an award for scholarship and athletics at the University of Toronto, a devoted son and brother. My father never stopped mourning his loss, in part because of their immense closeness as brothers, in part because the arrangement was that when Bucky came home to Sarnia from University, my Dad would be able to follow in his footsteps and go to University himself. When Bucky went missing, my father’s whole life plan was upended. His parents had already lost one son to drowning before my father was born, and now they had lost a second to this terrible worldwide tragedy. It would be several months until my father’s parents would receive confirmation of his death; and it would be on my father to be nurse his parents through their grief, to somehow fill the shoes of this older brother who became more and more of a heroic legend as the years went by.

When Bucky was away overseas, my father would go every Friday to the post office in Sarnia to send him packages – food, socks, cigarettes—whatever he needed. This image of my father carrying provisions to the post office for Bucky, and in general, the sense of reverence for a heroic brother at war were both on my mind when I chose this poem, “El Hagibbor” by Tzvi Yair (1915-2005), a Hungarian-born, American Lubavitcher Hassid and a lifelong Hebrew poet, as today’s shir hadash shel yom

The speaker of this poem addresses his heroic brother at war with a determination to send him and fill him with everything he needs to stay strong and protected. Echoing God’s promise to pour out blessing upon Israel in Malachi 3, the speaker pledges to pour out his own blood and strength into his brother’s veins and bones, to envelop him in praise and confidence. מה לאל ידי לעשות לך עוד? – what else is it in my power, he asks rhetorically, to do? The phrase “mah l’el yadi,” recalls Lavan’s threatening words to Jacob when Jacob steals away with Rachel and Leah (after the episode of Rachel stealing the teraphim) – I have it in my power to do you harm, but for the fact that your God is holding me back. Lavan may think he has power, but he is forced to admit that he has been constrained. So too, the speaker here: with all that he has pledged to do and done, what really can he do to protect this brave brother from harm? 

Buck ZierlerIn the end, his brother is off at war, a direct target for danger. And he, the speaker, is at home, cast in the role of keeper of the baggage. In the story of David and Goliath the shomer hakeilim is the one who watches David’s bags while he goes off to fight the Philistine hero. The one who worries for him and waits on the sidelines. And the one who will be left ultimately, to tend and mend the broken hearts brought about by his loss. My father David was just that; he was the “shomer hakeilim” for his brother – the one who sent his brother packages, and helped tend the family furniture store when his brother was off at war, and held the broken hearts of his parents when his brother never came back. And now, we, his children are the shomrei hakeilim for our Dad, carrying the package of his love for his older brother and the memory of his heroism, year after year on this day, for as long as we are able. 

When I contacted Tzvi Yair’s family about the meaning of the poem (ie., which particular hero their father/grandfather had in mind in writing the poem) the daughters/granddaughter offered various theories: that it was about the Lubavitcher rebbe, on the front lines of צבאות ה׳; or about any Israeli soldier risking his life for his fellow citizens and Jews; or any hero who puts themselves at risk for others–very timely, his daughter Esther Tauber said. In our current moment, this poem might be seen as referring to all of the essential workers/everyday heroes who are showing up day in and day out to help us all get through this difficult time. And on Yom HaShoah ugevurah, it can be read as a tribute to those who courageously put themselves at risk to save their fellow Jews or fellow human beings from the scourge that was Nazism.


[1] The title might be seen as possible play on Bialik’s iconic first poem “Eli Hatzippor. At the same time it directly references the liturgical habit of referring to God as “Ha-El Hagibbor.” It also calls to mind the prophesied son in Isaiah 9:5: כִּי יֶלֶד יֻלַּד לָנוּ בֵּן נִתַּן לָנוּ וַתְּהִי הַמִּשְׂרָה עַל שִׁכְמוֹ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵץ אֵ-ל גִּבּוֹר אֲבִי עַד שַׂר שָׁלוֹם. Thanks to R. Steven Exler for this reference).

[2] See Malachi 3:10 וַהֲרִיקֹתִי לָכֶם בְּרָכָה, עַד-בְּלִי-דָי. I shall pour out blessing upon your, more than what is sufficient. Pouring blood into the veins of a brother also calls to mind the Yom Hazikaron song about siblings of fallen soldiers and the line in its refrain, אתה לי דם בעורקים - the haunting and beautiful song and video is here. (Thanks again to R. Steven Exler for this reference).

[3] Cf. Lavan’s speech to Jacob in Genesis 31:29  יֶשׁ לְאֵל יָדִי לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּכֶם רָע – I have it in my power to do you harm

[4] This expression appears in Deborah’s song, Judges 5:18: ”זְבֻלוּן עַם חֵרֵף נַפְשׁוֹ לָמוּת וְנַפְתָּלִי עַל מְרוֹמֵי שָׂדֶה.“ (Zebulun is a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death, and Naphtali, upon the high places of the field.)

[5] The position of “shomer hakeilim” appears in I Samuel 17:22 in the story of David’s volunteering to fight Goliath. David leaves his baggage or tools with the keeper of the baggage and runs out to face Goliath even though he is but a boy among warriors. In the end, he emerges victorious against this Philistine who would curse and mock the Israelite army.


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