Poem of the Week A Vow Renewed

Sagit Arbel-Alon recounts a fellow doctor’s tragedy.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

Doctors Without Borders

Sagit Arbel-Alon

To Dr. Yousuf Shatat

Facts – that’s all you gave us

In straight medical language:

That despite the curfew the news came through

About the accident,

That there was someone who’d sub for you at the hospital

That you passed through all the roadblocks at a run

And along the way you recalled all the dozens

You’d saved,

That it took you half an hour to swallow the distance

To the knowing

That you realized the extent of the disaster,

That without extrication she wouldn’t survive

That you entreated those you see

Only the occupiers

(Among them my sons – perhaps – who were raised to good deeds),

Your voice is still steady as you try to persuade

The commander,

The officer,

That she’s just a child,

That you’re just a doctor,

Her father,

Who can’t stop the hemorrhage.

A muezzin’s howl bursts from your chest

And two chairs away from you

I too renew the vow.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. From "Mehutz Lama’agal" (Out, Standing), Carmel, August, 2013.


Israeli-born surgeon Dr. Sagit Arbel-Alon is the director of the Bat Ami Center for Acute Treatment of Sexually Assaulted Survivors at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Karem, Jerusalem, and a volunteer with the nonprofit organization Physicians for Human Rights.

Arbel-Alon writes that “Every day medical and scientific work confronts me with its wonders on the one hand and its often painful limitations on the other.” And indeed, this poem talks about the painful limitations of medicine – specifically as exacerbated by politics: Arbel-Alon met Dr. Yousuf Shatat, an emergency room physician in Hebron, at a meeting of the doctors’ Narrative Project of the Palestinian Israeli Bereaved Families for Peace forum. There Shatat recounted the death of his 12-year-old daughter Ireen. In this poem, Arbel-Alon retells his story from the perspective of an Israeli doctor, mother of four and woman of conscience.

The language here is dry and factual. The points are ticked off using the rhetorical device of anaphora, the repetition of a word: “That … That ... That…” The facts that some of the poet’s children are soldiers and that the child in question is Shatat’s daughter emerge only near the end of the narrative.

The short, final stanza shifts to the present and describes the emotional reactions to the past: The howl bursts from the father’s chest and the poet renews her vow – the Oath of the Hebrew Physician.

This oath, composed by Prof. L. Heylprin, founder of the neurology department at Hadassah Hospital, for the first graduating class of the Medical School in Jerusalem, contains the following lines: “You will fulfill your duty day and night to stand by the sick in their distress at any time and at any hour.

“And you will aid the sick irrespective of whether they are converts or gentiles or citizens, whether they are ignominious or respected.”


* At the Kol Nidre service that opens the observance of Yom Kippur, the following is recited three times: “"All [personal] vows we are likely to make, all [personal] oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our [personal] vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths." When is it appropriate to renew important vows?

לד”ר יוסוף שאטאת

רַק עֻבְדּוֹת מָסַרְתָּ לָנוּ
בְּשָׂפָה רְפוּאִית חַפָּה:
שֶׁלַמְרוֹת הָעֹצֶר הִגִּיעָה הַיְּדִיעָה
עַל הַתְּאוּנָה,
שֶׁהָיָה מִי שֶׁיַּחֲלִיף אוֹתְךָ בְּבֵית הַחוֹלִים,
שֶׁעָבַרְתְָּ בְּרִיצָה אֶת כָּל הַמַּחְסוֹמִים
וְשִׁחְזַרְתָּ בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֶת כָּל הָעֲשָׂרוֹת
שֶׁלָּקַח לְךָ חֲצִי שָׁעָה לְִגְָמֵא אֶת הַמֶּרְחָק
אֶל הַיְּדִיעָה,
שֶׁהֵבַנְתָּ אֵת גֹּדֵֶל הָאָסוֹן,
שֶׁבְּלִי חִלּוּץ הִיא לֹא תִּשְׂרֹד,
שֶׁהִתְחַנַּנְתָּ לִפְנֵי אֵלּוּ שֶׁאַתָּה רוֹאֶה
רַק כְּכוֹבְשִׁים
(בֵּינֵיהֶם גַּם בָּנַי, אוּלַי, שֶׁגֻּדְּלוּ לְמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים),

קוֹלְךָ עוֹד יַצִּיב כְּשֶׁאַתָּה מְנַסֶּה לְשַׁכְנֵעַ
אֶת הַמְּפַקֵּד,
אֶת הַקָּצִין,
שֶׁהִיא בִּכְלָל יַלְדָּה,
שֶׁאַתָּה רוֹפֵא,
שֶׁלֹּא מַצְלִיחַ לַעֲצֹר אֶת הַדִּמּוּם.

יִלְלַת מוּאַזִּין בּוֹקַעַת מֵחָזְךָ
וּבְמֶרְחָק שְׁנֵי כִּסְּאוֹת מִמְּךָ
גַּם אֲנִי מְחַדֶּשֶׁת אֶת הַשְּׁבוּעָה.

Dr. Yousuf Shatat and Dr. Sagit Arbel-Alon.Credit: Ron Alon
Sagit Arbel-Alon.Credit: Eyal Alon

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