Yehuda Amichai, “Water Cannot Return”

Thanks to Juliana de A.K. for tweeting this poem.

Water Cannot Return (tr. Rabbi Steven Sager, from here)
Yehuda Amichai

Water cannot return in repentance.
To where would it return? To faucet, to sources, to earth, to roots,
to cloud, to sea, to my mouth?
Water cannot return in repentance.
Every place is seasons as of old, seas as of old,
every place is beginning and end, and beginning.


In her autobiography, Ivanka Trump recalls a time when she was much younger, in her father’s personal aircraft. Her father’s second wife was running late and the plane was due to take off. Ivanka saw Ms. Maples on the ground, rushing toward the plane, and brought this to the attention of her father, hoping he would stop the plane and let her board. Mr. Trump had the plane take off anyway, explaining that running five minutes late was unacceptable. “You have to be on time.”

It’s near impossible to overstate the impact divorce has on children. Children initially don’t know except through their parents; when they accept other authority figures into their lives, they are making an incredible commitment. It’s probably safe to say, as the HuffPo article linked above says, that Ivanka – maybe even all the Trump children – are just scared to death their father will cut himself off from them in a fit of arbitrary rage. That the abusiveness on display, where he’ll shout at a woman for 90 minutes in a “debate,” is being thrust on us because this is a dysfunctional family’s attempt to remain whole. To be sure, it looks like many Americans can relate to this far too well. Donald Trump’s perceived authenticity speaks to the fact that we’ve allowed a lot of toxic people to define us. We think crude self-assertion strength, imposing one’s will the only salient aspect of argument. People that read books, are honest, treat their children and others with respect, model positivity, give willingly are simply “chumps” not just according to Trump, but the longer this goes on, the American people themselves.

Clearly, a sense of home, a sense of wholeness is needed to not go insane. But how far does “home” reach? Not all of life can be having a perfect family, can it? Before I comment on Amichai’s lovely poem, this thought: the Bible does seem to say, for better or worse, that life is inheritance. God created, Adam and Eve betrayed, Seth and Noah affirmed, the Mosaic law perfected, the land itself the provision of covenant. The am olam has everything through God, and they know this because it has been handed down through the generations. “Honor your father and mother” is why Naboth cannot give up his vineyard. The inheritance is complete. What is there but to do justice and walk humbly with one’s God?

In this vein, it is easy to see t’shuvah cannot quite be repentance in the Christian sense. Turning back to God is merely a homecoming. A sense of transcendent justice, of sins that must be purged, is unnecessary. Ironically enough, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son speaks t’shuvah very well. The prodigal son returns home and is accepted. He’s back where he belongs, with his family.

Is what is true of us true of God, in whose image and likeness we are made? “Water cannot return in repentance.” Water is not simply water, nor primordial chaos. Because of God, it is the essence of life. It does not return, it does not repent.

Water goes. “To where would it return? To faucet, to sources, to earth, to roots, to cloud, to sea, to my mouth?” If it “returns” to the earth, it does so on its terms. Water courses, flowing through and defining life. “Roots” is the outstanding word, for water goes and life grows.

This seems a controversial position. If one identifies water with God, one might imply God entails progress, when the Biblical understanding entails God’s completeness. But Amichai understands that descendants as numerous as the stars are not the stars themselves, fixed and remote. “Home” must account for the dynamism of love; it is not enough for a family to be a barely functional family. That sense of primordial longing all of us have can only be addressed by the photographs that come with the frame for so long.

So Amichai, because he can do this, rewrites the cosmos:

Water cannot return in repentance.
Every place is seasons as of old, seas as of old,
every place is beginning and end, and beginning.

This sounds like Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. That is true, but only true because everything is under the sun, in its change, growth, blossoming. There is no return, no repentance, but a going back and forth. Seasons as of old, seas as of old, only bear witness to the world we help create. Every place is a beginning and end, and beginning.

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