Monday, July 21, 2014
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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:
white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
The towel of a man who is my
to wipe off the sweat of his brow.
In the sky of the Old
At the other end of the string,
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
I pray for the safety of Israel's soldiers.
pray for the unseen innocent children caught in the wheels of the cruel machine
of destruction: keep them from harm. Free them as well.
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.
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
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
"Hin'ni, noten lo et briti
"H'nini, I give you my covenant of
The vav in the word “shalom” is broken.
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
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
Thursday, July 10, 2014
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
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
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
"Rockets Attack: Sderot"
"Rockets Attack: Moatza Ezorit Sdot Negev"
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?"
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
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
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
I read poetry on war and peace by great Israeli
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?
Under the eyes? Check.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
through our prayers, they will bless us and all God’s children with