The humble willow — a metaphor for the human condition

Israeli poems, plays, novels are the conduits of Judaic culture.

Biblical figures and literary structures, as well as moral directives are filtered through these aesthetic forms. They promote the play of the imagination, a creative-thinking-out of-the- box for the constant renewal of Jewish culture.

In these days with the passing of the holidays, there’s a particular poem about Hoshana Rabba that lingers on the edge of my consciousness. The poet, Dr. Bayla Schorr who has used poetry as an interpretive mode in writing about the weekly biblical portion and Talmudic tractates, now turns to the Hoshana Raba use of the lowly “arava,”the willow that grows on the edge of rivers, to describe the human condition, and how people relate to the “other”.

Help us, help us greatly,
On this day of the “aravot”
please save us/we, who are similar to “aravot”
that have no taste or smell.
(my translation)

Schorr identifies Hoshana Raba with unheroic man, everyman, vegetative growth without uniqueness, remembered only when desperately flogging the humble willows in a last chance for atonement.

This identification with the undistinguished, the invisible, is also evident in Schorr’s poem about Lot, Abraham’s nephew. She points up what it feels like to be secondary in a life narrative. Lot, Schorr reflects, is Abraham’s sidekick who accompanies him from Aram Naharaim. Abraham is the founder of monotheism, the father of the Jewish people, while Lot lives in his shadow, echoing his hospitality to the angels, but also perverting it by offering up his daughters instead of his heavenly guests to the wicked Sodomites

There is however, some poetic justice regarding Lot’s progeny. The nation of Moab came from Lot, and it was the Moabite Ruth, who brought forth the Davidic dynasty.

Compassion for the forgotten ones in the Jewish tradition runs throughout Hebrew literature.

A pathetic biblical figure who has been portrayed in modern Hebrew poetry is Mephibosheth, Saul’s youngest son who was crippled while escaping the battle where his father and brother Jonathan were killed.

In her poem ”Mephibosheth,” the poet Zelda (1914-1984) captures the Ignominious position of this pitiable creature. She describes Mephibosheth, the son of the failed king Saul, living at the mercy of David. He sits forgotten, of broken body and spirit, a trophy at the table of his father’s successor. Zelda’s writing captures the ever-so fragile, threatened existence of man.

In The Liar and the City—to be translated into English in 2019—Ayelet Gundar-Goshen brings a very mundane, contemporary example of what it feels like to live in the skin of someone who feels ignored and forgotten. Nofar, a painfully shy and plain teenager working at an ice cream stand during the summer, is insulted by a vulgar celebrity. When he accidentally grabs her arm, she inflates the situation into sexual assault. Her lie puts her in the limelight and the ensuing outpouring of public sympathy gives her newfound confidence and friends. Eventually, she admits to the lie and herself emerges more empathetic. Gundar-Goshen, a psychologist as well as a writer is particularly sensitive to the underdog, the unseen person, “My story is how someone who feels completely unseen can do terrible things to get the world to see her,”she says.

The Hebrew tradition, as expressed in both past and present literature, affects great empathy with the “weak,” the “strange and stranger,” in all its variations.

One can only wish that those creating legislation for the people of the land would call upon the compassion of the tradition to which they give lip service. As the rains begin, pouring its mercy upon the world, may it also bring grace to the humble willows.

About the Author
Rochelle Furstenberg is a journalist and literary critic who has written extensively on literary and cultural topics.
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