Unraveling our difficult story
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
For the last 10 days I’ve been wrestling, wondering, and wandering with an extraordinary group of Jewish and Christian clergy in Israel. At the Shalom Hartman Institute we’ve learned with and from each other, have had encounters with Israelis and Palestinians who expressed opinions and experiences from one end of the spectrum to the other. We’ve prayed in synagogues and churches, and of course, we have eaten copious quantities of hummous, eggplant and grilled peppers.
Israel inspires, and always has inspired, strong feelings. One of the amazing facets of being on the road with folks who have committed their lives to service, community, action and faith, is that they have patience. They know how to listen. And they are funny. Through each other, and in the capable hands of our Hartman teachers and guides, we have looked deeply into the core of religion and geo-politics. We have pondered the journey from being powerless to having power, from being landless to having land, from believing in a utopian peace to seeking garden-variety peace. As it turns out, power is hard to control, land can’t actually be owned, and utopia literally means “nowhere.” Need I say more? It’s a huge story, a roller coaster, a fast and furious downhill slalom. And it is so deeply, frighteningly, stunningly human.
This week’s Torah Portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1—22:24) takes us through several hairpin turns in Abraham and Sarah’s lives. They encounter angels in the desert; miraculously overcome infertility to have a child in their very old age; they challenge God; they narrowly escape an ancient metropolis’s fiery destruction. There is incest, drunkenness, teen pregnancy, sibling rivalry, broken family and a close call with human sacrifice… Oh, yeah, high drama. Abraham is his own wild ride—in one moment, a human rights activist; and in the next, about to plunge a knife into his own son’s chest. He challenges God over issues of justice but moments later is lying, cheating and scamming. He is a generous host and a terrible guest, he mixes meat and milk. He is kindly, cruel, shrewd, humble, daring, meek and macho. And Sarah—sassy and salty, tender and tough as nails, Sarah. At times aggressive, at times yielding. Some say they are the first Jews. After this week in Cana’an I’m thinking maybe it is more accurate to say that Abraham and Sarah were the first Israelis.
It is hard to talk about Israel, especially in the Bay Area. Bay folk tend to pass a lot of judgment on Israel, spewing vitriol, wagging fingers, tsk tsk tsking with our tongues. Others cast aspersions on Palestine, citing violence, corruption and treachery. I’ve just spent a fortnight with a crew of Christians and I guess I’ve picked up a few of their scriptural sound bytes. Because if I, an American, had to sum up my attitude about this place right now, I think I’d choose the quip “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It is a mirror and a mess, a nightmarish dream come true.
I am deeply grateful to our Chochmat HaLev members Daniella Salzman and Fred Werner. Their take-away after having visited this trippy land was, “There are so many truths there.” And they initiated our Israel-Palestine Program. I am so thankful that Rabbi Saraleya has brought the Hartman Institute to us by offering the iEngage program. Through excellent teaching, facilitation, and guidance, we are being given an extraordinary gift: the opportunity to study, unravel and discuss a difficult story—our difficult story—in safe, respectful community.
I urge you to embrace the messy paradoxes, and maddening contradictions of our tradition. May it lead to deeper understanding, compassion, and ultimately some kind of peace. Peace in our tortured country, peace in the Holy Land, and peace in our own complicated hearts.