Healing Poetry

“We Shall Prevail”: A Poem for Unprecedented Times

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, PhD, shares a poem about finding strength alone until we can be together again.

When I was an undergraduate, I took a summer class in Shakespeare. My professor started every class by reciting a sonnet. When teaching a play, he admonished us to pay attention to the songs. Our tradition embraces the same wisdom – witness the Song at the Sea, the Song of Deborah, or all 150 Psalms. Here is my poem, my song, for these challenging times.

We Shall Prevail: A Poem for Unprecedented Times

We are living in a strange moment.
Nothing we have ever experienced before..
Some of us have seen war.
And pressed hard on the muddy floors of foxholes..
Some of us have faced illness.
And watched the drip of IVs restore life in our veins..
Some of us have lost our life savings.
And wondered if just enough will still be enough.
To live our lives..
All of us have lost loved loves.
And felt the finality of death sting our souls.

But now we are in an unprecedented moment.
Not some of us but all of us.
Not a recitation, a Passover plague,
Or a lesson about a 14th century catastrophe.
With the Angel of Death leading rats.
Through the streets of dying medieval cities.
We are not in the Philadelphia of the Yellow Fever.
Or the pandemic of 1918 during the First World War.
Which viciously cut down young lives like a silent machine gun.
With bullets forged from bacteria.

We are living in a strange, unprecedented moment.
Unfortified by the Olympian fortresses of modern science.
Which has yet to create a synthetic shield to a microscopic virus
That penetrates all human armor.

We are living a moment of growing, personal isolation
Increasingly instructed to self-isolate,
To withdraw from society and sports and entertainment
And even simple, familiar acts of faith.
No one is saying it out loud but the message is clear
“You must be strong alone,
You need to be disciplined and smart,
And cautious and vigilant.”

Tradition teaches to live with a pure heart,
Science says to live with clean hands.
Now is the time to collect our inner selves
And to be strong alone
Until the time comes again When we can be strong together.

Until then
Until that day
Let us resolve that we shall prevail.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, PhD

March 13, 2020

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, and the Chair-Elect of the Board of Governors of Gratz College. A historian of the American Jewish experience, Sussman has taught at Princeton, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College.

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