Reflections from Jerusalem

Monday, July 21, 2014

Snap Shots:

The way many Americans currently receive Red Alerts about missile attacks through our phones, Israelis receive alerts on their phones from their friends and family through What’s App.  One friend described to me, “It’s like Facebook for smaller groups—yet more addictive.”  Groups can include: Gan (preschool) parents … Extended family … Army Units …


“Did you see that picture of the class in front of the train station on the tiyul (field trip)?”


“What are you going to bring for Shabbat dinner?”


“Did you hear?  I think we’re being called up for active duty in Gaza.”

Two mothers of boys in the army spoke to each other in the morning. One had helped her son pack to leave for Gaza just days before. Now she prays. She told the other mother that she prays for a sukkah of peace to cover and protect her son. For schach (the branches on the top of a sukkah) she imagines all the things her son loves—his trophies, his favorite books, his sense of humor … she continues to pack all of the schach and send it to God. She trusts (hopes?) that God will know just how to place it over and around her son to guard him. Her prayers do not cease as she implores God: ufros aleiv sukkat shlomecha—spread over him Your shelter of peace.

One of our beloved Hartman scholars, always immaculately dressed, looked disheveled in the morning. Her son, a commander in the IDF, had heard that several Golani soldiers whom he had trained had been killed in an incident. There were no details and no official news—just conversations through What’s App. By late morning, Israelis throughout the country could tell by what wasn’t being said in the news that their fears had materialized. Jerusalem was heavy with the inhalation of an entire country waiting for devastating news.  

After lunch, we walked into a classroom where another beloved scholar, a teacher of philosophy, sat in the front of the classroom gripping his phone with one hand. He began:

I’ve been thinking about this class all morning—how I would you teach you from Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.  So, on the one hand, I hold the teaching I was going to do with you today. But, in the other hand, I hold the phone where I received the text that I have been called up to go to Gaza.

He told our group of rabbis that he would know for sure whether the order would go through within six hours. Then, unless the IDF froze the order, he would be notified whether he would need to go in the middle of the night or the morning. Of course, he hoped to be able to spend the night with his two young daughters and wife.  As he said:

I would like to wake up, drink my coffee, read the newspaper and then go to the news of the paper.

We told him to go to pick up his daughters from the gan—he taught us enough Torah for today. As he stood, about to leave, the class stood with him and sang the prayer for the State of Israel: Avinu she’bashamayim… as he left we continued praying through song:  Ufros aleinu sukkat shelomecha…  

Soon after he left, he received word that his order had been frozen. Paraphrasing Tolstoy’s version of Napoleon in War and Peace, he had said: “War is the kingdom of uncertainty.”

In the early evening, I took my sons to get a slice of pizza. As we waited for the pizza to heat up, I looked up at the TV screen. The headline at the bottom of the screen stood with a fixed stare: 

13 Golani Soldiers—Dead.

Next to me, a pregnant woman, surrounded by her young daughter and two sons kept repeating a tearless wail: "Wai, wai, wai….  wai, wai, wai….wai, wai, wai…" 

Walking home from dinner we passed a bus stop filled with people. On the side of the stop, we noticed a young woman in her soldier's uniform looking at her phone and weeping.

I went to a concert of piyutim (liturgical poems) at the Institute that evening. The raw, perfectly textured Yemenite voice of Shai Tzabari pierced through the crisp night air of Jerusalem.  He closed the evening of song with Ahuva Ozeri's Kol Kore Li Bemidbar- A Voice Rings Out to Me in the Desert.   

A voice rings out to me in the desert

And I am alone.

I turn my eyes

To you in prayer.

It is Israel

That is crying to you.

And me in the desert,

I cry my soul out.

I slept with the phone next to my bed. Just before 7 a.m., I heard the familiar:


An e-mail from David Prystowsky (Executive Director of JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council) came through.  

The subject line:

Two Americans killed in fighting in Gaza Strip.

The text of the message was almost as brief and heartbreaking as the subject: 

One of them went on a birthright trip two years ago and then moved to Israel and joined the IDF

 I cry my soul out even as turn my eyes to God in prayer: Ufros aleihem sukkot shlomecha.


Friday afternoon, July 18, 2014

Getting ready for Shabbat today, my heart was heavy.   As I bought my Shabbat flowers, purchased my last little salads-extra humus and eggplant-and went to our favorite bakery for the mini-meringues the boys love; as I cleaned the floors, arranged the flowers, set the table…  I continued to think about our soldiers in Gaza.  What a different Shabbat they will have.  I think about their parents, some of whom I was just speaking with yesterday, who will know so little peace on this Shabbat.  So I will implore the angels of peace we welcome into our homes this evening to bless us quickly and leave with great haste.  Spend the evening with our soldiers-don't leave them until they are home safely.  And the rest of us will take care of each other.

Shabbat shalom.

Friday morning, July 18, 2014 

Late last night I read the dreaded (inevitable?) news: The IDF began minutes ago a ground attack against the Gaza strip to take care of terror tunnels…

For many of us, our morning had been filled with unsettling pain- and vey little hope.

Many of us had seen for the first time the pictures of the Palestinian cousins-- small boys on Gaza beach-- who had been accidentally killed by a bombing raid.

We saw sobering footage of thirteen terrorists carrying rocket-propelled grenades, explosives and other weapons coming through a tunnel from  Gaza.  Thank God, they were thwarted.  

We barely noticed when the "cease fire" came… and went.  One Israeli lamented: "Hamas just holds their people hostage."

Further confirmation of this came when we got the news: 20 Missiles Found in UN-run School in Gaza.

Can we avoid getting caught in the wheels of the Hagadya machine?   

This phrase from a Yehuda Amichai poem has continued to play in my head in these weeks.  Greater escalation of violence and despair… the cat that ate the little goat, the dog that bit the cat… the shochet that killed the ox, the angel of death that killed the shochet

What are we to make of the Holy One Blessed Be God who slays the Angel of Death in the end?

I am here in my beloved city with my two small children who love being here.  They love their Israeli counselors at their sports camp.  They love chewing the shells of the sunflower seeds, eating the seed and spitting out the shell like any good Israeli.  They love Bamba.  They love going to the Kotel and praying.  They love wearing white and walking to Kabbalat Shabbat Services through the winding hills that take us to new prayerful adventures.

Yesterday, I ended my day of viewing life in Palestinian East Jerusalem and the Ultra-Orthodox community of Ramat Shlomo with a reporter from Y Net who talked about a wall of hate between Palestinians and Israelis.  Yet, as Shabbat approaches, I focus on the humanity that lives beyond the wall as I hold on to some lines from a different poem by a young Amichai written in 1949:

On a roof of the Old City

Laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:

The white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,

The towel of a man who is my enemy 

to wipe off the sweat of his brow.

In the sky of the Old City 

a kite,

At the other end of the string,

a child

I can't see

because of the wall.

Despite the pain and worry of imagining young Israelis soldiers tunneling into danger to prevent further danger-- or maybe precisely because of this-- I enter into this Shabbat with Amichai's reminder of the humanity of the world.  For me, that means living with the reality that we must route out forces that cruelly tramp down that humanity.  

I pray for the safety of Israel's soldiers.  

And I pray for the unseen innocent children caught in the wheels of the cruel machine of destruction: keep them from harm.  Free them as well.

As Shabbat descends on Yerushalayim Lamata (earthly Jerusalem) and our prayers ascend toward Yerushalayim Lamala (heavenly Jerusalem), I will continue to pray for our soldiers and the State of Israel-- with personal prayers and as part of our liturgy.  When Shabbat descends on Chicago, I hope you will do the same.

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, some Hartman Rabbinic Leadership Initiative colleagues and I decided to take full advantage of being in Jerusalem. We went to the Cardo in the Old City (the main street of Jerusalem nearly 1,500 years ago) to visit with a sofer (scribe) who has had the honor of writing eight Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). As we came upon the row of Roman pillars in the Cardo where only three pillars stood complete, others broken at different points, my oldest son Eli (6 years old) asked: "Who cut these down?"  Jerusalem is a city of interrupted traumas, whole in its brokenness.

The sofer taught the children how to write the first letter of the Torah: the bet.  As the children immersed themselves in the writing of Torah, I couldn't help asking the sofer about his experience with writing one letter from this week's Torah portion: the broken vav. "When writing a torah scroll, does writing the broken vav bring you some emotional feeling?" 

For those of you unfamiliar with the actual text of this week's Torah portion Pinchas, it has a scribal anomaly-- the vav in the phrase "Brit Shalom" ("covenant of peace") is broken—the top does not connect with the bottom. The vav itself is interrupted—whole in its brokenness. In fact, in some ways we feel like we have entered the story of Pinchas in that interrupted space. The action of his story occurs in the previous portion when he slays a son of Israel and a Midianite harlot in their act of transgression, thereby saving the rest of the Israelites from a Divine plague. This week, we are thrown into the middle of that story-- just after the climax but before the resolution. (Who am I kidding? There is no resolution. Like Israel, the Torah lives with a series of unresolved moments like an emotional tel [see Wednesday’s reflection].) The story continues at the beginning of this week's Torah portion.  In verse 12 of Numbers 25 we read God's message to Pinchas:

"Hin'ni, noten lo et briti shalom."

"H'nini, I give you my covenant of peace."

The vav in the word “shalom” is broken. Why? 

Some midrash say that it's because after such a violent act the peace that comes is imperfect and a bit broken. Yet, the sofer offered a midrash of his own—or, gave me implicit permission to make midrash from his words.

He said that he did get an emotion when writing the broken vav—he felt excitement. It broke up the regular pattern of transcribing the scroll. This was a welcome disruption—it woke him up, called him to attention because it required great focus. The broken vav still has to be a perfect vav. While the top might look a lot like a yud, it cannot be a perfect yud or else it cannot be part of the vav. Thus, the top half of the vav looks rather like a yud reaching down to the bottom part of the vav, and the bottom part of the vav appears to be reaching up. That is the key to transcribing the proper broken vav.

Beautiful-- interrupted but whole. 

How? By reaching-- one to the other, yet with a bit of space between. 

This time has called us to attention as Jews. We are living with Israel and with Israelis on red alert. Diaspora and Israeli Jews, reaching out to one another. 

And, yet, for me it goes still deeper. 

After our children finished writing on parchment, ready to run out to the Kotel before dinner, once again we heard the sirens. We huddled together as we listened:





In the 10 minutes following the hits, we sat in a circle playing a familiar game from Jewish camps—hands on top of hands, clapping one another's hands as we tried to avoid getting out: echad, shtayim, shalosh, arbah… (Such a normal thing to do with a group of children…)

Life is a series of interrupted traumas. We ourselves are emotional tels. 

Where do we find shleimut (wholeness) amidst our frailty, our brokenness? Where do I find greater wholeness? I find it in the act of reaching out and up to the Divine who surrounds me and holds me during these series of traumas that compose the hours of my life. 

And all the while, my God—whom I call by a name that begins with a yud-- reaches for me. The sacredness of my life breathes in the space that exists between the reaching in this broken vav that is life. 

Shabbat shalom.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Wednesday evening, I sat in my last class on Israeli music with Yossi Klein Halevi.  Unlike the norm here in Israel, he opened his shiur (lesson) with his observations of the matzav (situation in Israel). He said:

"Israelis live with a series of interrupted traumas."

Before everyone can process one trauma, they are on to the next-- a kidnapping, a murder, a murder, missiles, sirens, booms, helicopters pulsing overhead. 

Yossi concluded, "We live with this series of unresolved moments like an emotional tel."

He illustrated this point with a popular song written by Ehud Banai in 2009 called "Ani Holech" ("I Walk"). The song tells the story of Banai going to the doctor who tells him that it will be good for his health and heart if he takes up walking. Banai decides to act on the advice and sets out for a walk down the streets of Tel Aviv. A relaxing, heart-healthy walk turns into something quite different. As he walks, he sees the place where a scud hit in the early ‘90s. Suddenly, he's reliving the wreckage. Further along, he walks down Dizengoff Street and smells the smoke of the suicide bombing of a bus in 1994. He keeps walking the streets and encounters the people who, like him, still bear the effects of the Second Intafada, the second war with Lebanon ... Israel is an emotional tel.

Writer Teju Cole recently tweeted: "We're not evolving emotional filters fast enough to deal with the efficiency with which bad news reaches us."  As my phone continually buzzes with Red Alerts:

"Rockets Attack: Sderot"

"Rockets Attack: Moatza Ezorit Sdot Negev"

I realize that this is how Israelis have lived with reality for a long, long time. Israel is an emotional tel.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Yesterday, I walked into a 5:30 p.m. class at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Instead of hearing Yossi Klein Halevi speak about Israeli music with heart in mouth, he spoke about the matzav (situation) in a very different voice.  He spoke of the 40,000 reservists being called to the south. He spoke of the knesset and whether liberal parties would support an incursion into Gaza. Yesterday he opened our class entitled "War and Peace in Israeli Music" with the very real possibility that Israel soon will go to war. Yesterday, I heard the last line of Shalom Chanoch's "Avshalom" in a different way: "What will surely come tomorrow?"

After picking up my two sons (six and four years old) from camp, scrubbing them in the shower and giving them dinner, I left them with our wonderful babysitter to return to the Institute for a lecture on the future of liberal Judaism in North America. (God love our sensitivity to the Canadians.) Donniel Hartman opened the evening by saying, "We are going to do something very Israeli: we are not going to talk about the matzav."  He explained what we already know about the Israeli way, to check phones to see whether brothers, sisters, daughters, sons would be called up among the 40,000 for miluim (reserve duty) and then go back to regular activities—in this case, watching the  World Cup. So we listened to a lecture and talk-back on the future of liberal Judaism, but many of us ducked out a little early nonetheless.

As you already know, around 10 p.m., all of Jerusalem heard the sirens of the Red Alert. I was walking west with some friends, on the sidewalks of barren streets, heading home from the lecture. When we heard the sirens, we did not see an obvious way to the miklat (shelter) or even a stairwell of the surrounding apartment buildings. We stood on the sidewalk, debating whether to try to find shelter or continue home. As another minute was about to pass, one friend commented: "You know this is a 90-second kind of thing, right?"  We decided to try to find a miklat in the nearest building.  However, a 10-second check made it obvious that we would not easily find one. Heavily influenced by the fact that children were waiting in a miklat only minutes away by foot, we walked with our heads tilted toward the sky. Soon we heard one boom, followed by another and then stillness. We walked more quickly. 

I came home to my sons and their babysitter in our living room having just returned from the miklat-- all in their PJs, all exhausted, one of my sons a bit weepy. We talked a bit about what happened – and I tried to answer truthfully but age-appropriately — all the questions my older son asked. (I, a Reform rabbi, am feeling more and more messianic, hoping that there will come a time when a mother, no matter the age, will not have to explain battles and war to her children.) 

This morning, I put a new app on my phone called "Red Alert" so I can see where and when missiles are landing.  

This afternoon, I checked the route to the new location of my son’s camp – one that has a miklat big enough to house all the children.

I read poetry on war and peace by great Israeli poets.

I cried.

I comforted.

I continue to pray.


Friday, July 4, 2014 

Two days ago, I went through the ritual of readying my boys (ages 4 and 6) for their first day at camp in Jerusalem. I packed their backpacks with swimsuits, towels and water bottles. I lathered them generously with sunscreen. 

Behind the ears? Check. 

Back of the neck? Check. 

Under the eyes? Check.

I kissed my sons in each of those spots as I put on the sunscreen—behind the ears, back of the neck, under the eyes. I savored each sunscreen-y kiss.  

Then, a new part of the ritual I could not have imagined as I pictured this moment the day before: I told my six year-old son about Gilad, Naftali and Eyal, the three Israelis teenagers who had been killed. Following the sage advice of their camp director (let your children hear it from you in a safe environment before they hear it from others in ways that can be scary), I told him a very simplified version and invited him to ask any questions. After a short series of questions and answers, we walked together to the camp bus stop.

With the love that I have for my own boys, I felt a compulsion to somehow be with Iris and Uri Yifrach,  Bat-Galim and Ofir Shaer, and Rachel and Avi Fraenkel, who would look on later that day as their boys’ caskets would be lowered into graves, one next to the other. 

No more camp. No more sunscreen.  No more kisses.

After picking up my sons from camp and giving them a snack, I carved out some one-on-one time to provide my eldest son more time to talk about his day and its events.  Then I gave and received more hugs and kisses before I got into a cab headed to Modiin with two dear colleagues with whom I study at the Hartman Institute: Rabba Sara Hurwitz and Rabbi Eric Solomon. The cab took us as far as the police would allow.  Then we began the hour-long walk up and down a winding road crowded with a mixed multitude of the Jewish people.

You, no doubt, have read of the tremendous heat as tens of thousands of Jews walked toward the cemetery. Make-shift water stations from vans and ambulances decorated the hillsides where the Macabees once walked (though I could not stomach the image of any fighters that day). We reached our stopping point on the top of a hill tightly packed with every type of dusty Jew listening to the funeral below. Some tried to hear the muffled voices from the funeral below through loud speakers. More listened through headphones to a live broadcast on Israeli radio. All—motivated by different reasons—felt the same compulsion to be present.  While I could not hear much—one line spoken by the prime minister rang in my rabbinic ears. He quoted the angel from the Akeidah:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy.” 

How we had all prayed that an angel had stayed the hands of the murderers.  

I woke the next morning to a new horror.  Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager, had been murdered after the funeral. I ache as I think of his parents. I could not attend his funeral, though I imagine the invocation of another biblical passage of an angel—the one who miraculously saved Ishmael from certain death after his mother cried out. Wishes that this saving angel had worked miracles to protect Muhammad no doubt rang out that day.  

On Shabbat, we get ready to pray for the opportunity to welcome angels into our midst, these familiar yet ever elusive messengers of peace. We pray for them to bless us with peace. Then we will send them on their way. Yet we must continue to pray for them. 

We pray for their continued strength on the journey—that they enter every single home, shelter, shack, or tent in each neighborhood—east and west, north and south.    

We pray for their bravery—to enter all places even where they have not been welcomed.  

We pray for their audacity—to  bless our world with peace—even as our actions continue to scream: “We don’t want you here!  You are not welcome!”—they will respond: “We are messengers of the Holy One Blessed Be God.  We do not take ‘no’ for an answer!” 

And through our prayers, they will bless us and all God’s children with peace.

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.