To Jonathan Omer-Man
I stood alone at the foot of Sinai,
A stranger among my people.
There was one who called my name,
And we stood together at the foot of Sinai,
But my strangeness came between us.
I gave him my love on the Day of the Covenant—
He never knew what door it was he closed against me,
Or what was broken with my heart.
I turned away from him on the Day of Atonement,
Not giving, not asking forgiveness,
And away from the shadow of Sinai.
“It was your world!” I told him in despair.
Then there was a long silence.
I never told him that Sinai itself
Was his world, not mine—
I found nothing that day to deny it.
I have wandered now for twenty years,
Burdened with a twofold love and hate,
And God at last has thrown the gauntlet down.
By the ancient right of my people
I answer challenge for challenge,
Daring God to compare the weight
Of my grief against my treason.
Now it is the season of the Covenant,
And I have written him a letter
Not giving, not asking forgiveness;
Only knowing for the first time
That God’s justice and mercy are one.
Now I stand bruised but unfallen,
Awaiting the Day of Atonement,
The gauntlet in my hand,
Awaiting an answer to my letter,
Awaiting the blessing of God
Upon my battered arrogance—
A stranger among my people,
A daughter of Israel at last.
© 2009 by Linda S. Sang
I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all.
This poem was written sometime in late May or early June 1984. It has no direct connection with my sister’s death on May 18th of that year, although there are a great many indirect connections. I can’t remember now whether I wrote “Unsent Letters” first or “Gevurah,” but there couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks between them. “Gevurah” commemorates an intense process of reassessment that was going on at about the same time. It’s hard to say when that process began—maybe a couple of months before my sister’s death. Although I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, I now recognize that period as the time of my second initiation.
Maiden, Mother, Crone: I have experienced three major initiations in my life, corresponding to the three phases of the moon, the three stages of a woman’s life, the three faces of the Goddess. All of them unfolded over a period of about four months. They were not ceremonial initiations, although I’ve also experienced a few of those in more than one spiritual tradition. Judaism wasn’t one of them. But Judaism— specifically, my own experience of Judaism--was at the epicenter of all three of the inner initiations. After a real initiation, you can no more go back to being who you were before than a butterfly can go back into its cocoon. I’m grateful to Clarissa Pinkola Estes for giving me the language to talk about initiations, and for making it possible for me to recognize my third initiation even as it was unfolding. But that was many years after I wrote this poem.
On Yom Kippur 1964, when I was eighteen years old, I stood in the courtyard of a suburban Reform temple and silently made the vow spoken under duress, the Marrano vow. Of course it was many years before I realized I had done that. To this day, I can’t be sure whether what I did was a sin or not, although I’m inclined to the belief that it wasn’t. What still impresses me the most about that moment is its absolute inevitability. I can’t conceive of any alternate reality where something very much like it wouldn’t have happened. At times I’ve said—somewhat melodramatically, I have to admit—that I called down a curse on the Jewish community. But it wasn’t so much a curse as a massive counter-rejection of a world that rejected me—and had recently told me so in the most direct and painful way possible.
I have struggled to understand that moment ever since, although in the beginning I was simply reactive. When I walked out of the temple courtyard with my head high, taking great care not to look at a certain young man as I passed him, mostly what I felt was the grim satisfaction of seeing through a scam at long last. Nobody ever bothered to tell me that being Jewish wasn’t my birthright as I’d always been led to believe. It was something I had to be able to afford. If I hadn’t been such a naïve fool and so madly in love, I could have figured it out myself a long time ago. Oh well, better late than never.
But I’ve never been satisfied with easy answers even if they are my own. Even beyond the desire to avoid pain, even beyond the desire for love and acceptance and recognition, my deepest desire has always been to understand, to explore both wider and deeper, to discover the hidden connections between events and understand their significance. It didn’t take me long to realize there was a great deal of meaning under the surface of that moment when I stood at the crossroads in the temple courtyard. I also sensed there were some meanings that would only become clear as the future unfolded, not only for me personally but for Judaism itself. But it was a long time before I was able to overcome enough of the anger and bitterness to begin exploring those meanings.
So inevitably, my second initiation involved taking a long, hard look back in time at the first one. It was completed when I wrote the last line of this poem. I didn’t know I was going to end it that way until just before I wrote that line. I can still remember the tears streaming down my face when I realized there was no other possible ending for it. There was another quasi-ceremonial ending to the initiation a few months later on Yom Kippur, a small private ritual nobody knew about but me. I returned to the same spot in the temple courtyard where I stood 20 years before and formally retracted the Marrano vow.
That was the beginning of my “re-entry” period, although there was still plenty of leftover bitterness and resentment. It manifested as a hyper-critical attitude, a hair-trigger touchiness, my sensitive radar ever alert to the slightest hint of condescension or condemnation. I probably projected it a hundred times where no condemnation actually existed. A few months after Yom Kippur, I attended the first meeting of a lecture series on the tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav at the local Reform temple. I was very impressed with the speaker, but in his talk he used the word “heretic.” I walked up to him after the lecture with a chip on my shoulder the size of a log and asked him what he meant by a “heretic.” He answered thoughtfully, “I would say…someone who mistakes the part for the whole.”
I know he picked up on the Attitude right away, but he also saw past it and through it to the yearning underneath. That’s why “Gevurah” is dedicated to him.