The poet, Muriel Rukeyser, learned from her mother the family tradition that she was a direct descendant of Rabbi Akiba. Muriel carried that legacy into a life of vision and activism, beginning in the 1930’s when she wrote and spoke out on behalf of wrongly accused black men in Scottsboro, Alabama. She fought for West Virginia miners afflicted with silicosis. Rukeyser supported the People’s Olympiad, conceived as a protest against the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Her battles against McCarthyism, her support of feminism as well as her efforts against the Vietnam war demonstrated that her energies had not flagged over the years.
Tangles of injustice, opposition, and uncertainty made the walk of her life hobbling and humbling. Her social and political activism required the slow, painful, constant realignment of passionate vision with rational insight. If only the past could lead directly to the redeemed future and circumvent the present! But the activist knew that such was never the case; and she nurtured the vision that halting steps would come to be a graceful dance leading to God.
Muriel offered this vision of her activism in the tradition of her ancestor in a poem called Akiba:
This is not the past walking into the future,
The walk is painful, into the present, the dance
Not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.
(Click here for the poet’s words and voice)
An ancient story carries Akiba’s own celebration of human effort enlisted in the service of improving the world. A Roman governor asked Rabbi Akiba: Whose works are better, the works of God or the works of human beings?
Akiba brought out sheaves of wheat along with delicate cakes and said to him: These sheaves are the works of the blessed Holy One; and these cakes are the works of humans. Are not the cakes more pleasing than the sheaves?
(Click for midrash in Hebrew and English)
Bread begins with the raw ingredients that are the works of God. But only through the works of humans does the loaf come to be. Regardless of whether we sustain or distain one another’s causes and convictions, human industry conspires to make possible the bread on our tables. Because the bread rises to a whole greater than the sum of its parts, Rabbi Akiba, and his descendants, recite a blessing over bread that celebrates not the work of humans, but rather, nurtures a vision of the One who brings forth bread from the earth.
May it make for a better world if we come to know those who sow and grow, who harvest, grind, bake, transport, and sell. They enable the blessing. Let bread symbolize the best aspects of our variety and our common needs. Let the bread that we eat fuel action and feed hope. We are the descendants of Muriel Rukeyser and of Rabbi Akiba. We share the same bread, the same painful walk and work; and we move slowly towards the dance.
What a blessing and how timely this poem and midrash – Bless you for bringing this to us all.
In the past few years, as the inevitability of these days became more clear, what gave me consolation was that, however dark things looked in Germany during the time of the Nazis – the lights did come on again. No one living then would have believed it possible, but the lights came on again. So that, too, gives me a bit of hope for the future.
And the other, perennially Jewish question – Are your bags packed and is it time to leave? Well… that one’s a bit more difficult these days. Timing is still a problem, but to where… the difficulty then was getting a visa to one of a dozen or so destinations in western Europe and the Americas. Today, in this interconnected and interdependent, (and increasingly mad, and frankly anti-Semitic) world – where to, exactly?
Which is why, in the end, I attempt (too often unsuccessfully) to take refuge in the long view – in this poet’s view – because in the end “What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.” A journey that takes us out of mitzrayim – out of the narrow places – of this day to day life into an open hearted be-ing in connection and relationship, in conversation and mitzvah, feeling in the end what it means to enrich the world – each of us by our unique presence and existence, to bring our own precious and innate gifts to each moment and to each person we meet on this journey. We, too, are discoverers of God.
No easy walk to anything worthy. This is beautiful.