A lament for Eric Garner

Eric Garner is the unarmed 43 year-old Black man who was killed by the NYPD in Staten Island in July. The whole incident was recorded. He was placed in a choke hold and can be heard saying 11 times: “I can’t breathe,” before he died. The coroner had ruled it a homicide, but the officer who killed him was not indicted. Clergy and other people of faith have been active in the widespread protests against police killings. The following poetic response, one among many from around the country, is based on Biblical passages and other religious and philosophical texts.

Then the Lord God fashioned the human,

dust from the earth,

and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

and the human became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7)

I can’t breathe.

 

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

into that dust,

like a female impregnated by a male,

for they join and this dust is filled with all.

With whom? Spirits and souls. (Zohar 1:49)

I can’t breathe.

 

Dust from the earth,

this dust is the holy land

and it is the place of the Holy Temple.

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

this breath of life is the holy soul that is drawn from that supernal life. (Zohar 3:46)

I can’t breathe.

 

Dust from the earth,

from the lower realms,

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

from the upper realms. (Breishit Rabba 12:8)

I can’t breathe.

 

Thus the dictum of Scripture, By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, is analogous to its dictum, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth, in the same verse. For the terms His word and His saying are used figuratively in the same way as the terms His mouth and the breath of His mouth, the intention being to signify that the heavens have come to exist through His purpose and will. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 1:65)

I can’t breathe.

Breathing in, I calm body and mind.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment I know

this is the only moment. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace)

I can’t breathe.

 

At the core is the breath, instinctive, not given

not taken, it is not a privilege or a right, it is

even independent of oneself, even on those

dark nights when in the loneliness of an empty bed

you try harder than you ever have not to breathe

you do, and the breath breathes you, and you are

again.

I can’t breathe.

 

I hate, I despise your feast days,

And I do not savor your sacred assemblies.

Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,

I will not accept them,

Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings.

Take away from Me the noise of your songs,

For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.

But let justice run down like water,

And righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5)

I can’t breathe.

 

Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice;

Aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

Defend the cause of the widow.

Alas, she has become a harlot,

The faithful city

That was filled with justice,

Where righteousness dwelt-

But now murderers. (Isaiah 1)

I can’t breathe.

 

The violence then of the decreation

of the moment when the breath no longer

comes. What did that feel like? What

unearthly panic? What desperate rage

and struggle brings to the surface

the cry for the basic elements of life.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

 

Aryeh Cohen, author of the book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism , is a professor, social justice activist, rabbi and lecturer. He teaches Rabbinic Literature and social justice at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University. Prof. Cohen is a board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,  and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice CLUE-LA. He was recently arrested in a sit-down in the streets demonstration for Walmart workers.

Reprinted by permission of the author from http://www.justice-in-the-city.com/

 

Photo: New York City takes to the streets to protest the announcement by the grand jury that police officer Daniel Pantaleo would not be indicted for the homicide of Eric Garner. (Dave Bledsoe/CC)

 


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