As a follow up to my earlier post, I’d like to share a d’var torah written by Anne Lewis, one of the 9 lovely people I went to Bethlehem with. Luckily for me (and you, the readers), she was able to write out her thoughts – something I still have not done – and has permitted me to share it with you. (I’ve added the links for clarity and translation.)
January 4th, 2008
“Patach Libeinu – Open our Hearts”
A red-head sky highlights the stones of Bethlehem’s huddled buildings. I stand on the roof of the Al-Rowwad Theatre Training and Cultural Center in the Aida Refugee camp with a group of American, Canadian and Australian Jews. After a day of listening to stories, my heart is cracked – open and hurting. AbdelFattah Abusrour is the last to speak. In addition to running the Al-Rowwad center that provides arts programming for children, Abed is a playwright, biology professor, painter and father of four. In a few minutes, we will board the mini bus to start back across the mammoth, four-mile gulf between this place and Baka, the neighborhood in Jerusalem I called home for two years. Abed sends us off with a quote from The Little Prince:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
My eye catches a shard of the security barrier, jutting out like glass from skin. I think of the cup my friend Uzi crushed at his wedding a few nights before. The wall is wedged in front of the burial place of Rachel, the matriarch, who wept for an open womb. When the mini-bus first wove along the grafittied concrete, our tour guide, Elias Ghareeb told us, “Rachel was our first matriarch to die in childbirth. Before the Intifada, many women of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths would come here to pray for children.” For the capacity to bring new life into the world.
George Sa’adeh is the headmaster of an interfaith school established by the Greek Orthodox Church. He is also the Deputy Mayor of Bethlehem. On one of the walls of his office hangs a heart cut from red felt. At the center, a girl in a plaid jumper poses for a school portrait against a digital background of wildflowers. Later he tells us that this girl is his daughter Christina. The week the Intifada broke out, George was driving to the store with his wife, Najua and his daughters Marian, fifteen, and Christina, twelve. Soldiers opened fire. He was shot nine times and Christina was shot in the head and neck. I see her picture on another wall, and around the room are images of Mary and Jesus, photographs of George shaking hands, a Palestinian flag. When he was younger, George studied in Los Angeles. Now, he is back in this barbed birthplace of a Messiah. He is a member of the Bereaved Parents Circle with other Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to bullets and shrapnel. All of them are set on countering the horrific experiential education so many children receive on both sides of the wall – the lessons Marian could have locked into that day in the car. They will teach their children and their children’s children that human beings have the capacity to open our hearts to one another.
Most of the day, I am moved most by the normal human things, how Elias jokes about the gnarled roads and the impulsive drivers. He wears a golden band on his right hand, an engagement ring, which he will move to his left hand when he and Lena, his fiancé, get married in the summer. We meet Eilda Zaghmout, who works for the Holy Land Trust, an organization that trains individuals in non-violence. She wears silver eye shadow, red nail polish and has a degree in business from Amman. She has just learned she is pregnant with the first child of the next generation of her family. At Al-Rowad Cultural Center, Abed shows us videos of the teenage boys from the refugee camp doing traditional dabka dance. There, the walls are lined with photographs teenagers have taken of their lives. “Beautiful resistance,” he calls it. I am struck by how surviving with an intact soul and an open heart is subversive from all places around the Green Line.
In this week’s parsha, Va’era, we read over and over about Pharaoh’s heart. The fact that Pharaoh’s heart was stiffened or hardened is reiterated twenty times in the tanakh, sometimes in response to Pharaoh’s own will and other times at the hand of God. With a rigid heart, the stubborn ruler is unable to hear the words of Moshe.
The JPS Commentary elaborates on this theme in Exodus:
“It is to be noted that in the first five plagues Pharaoh’s obduracy is self-willed. It is only thereafter that it is attributed to divine causality. This is the biblical way of asserting that the king’s intransigence has by then become habitual and irreversible; his character has become his destiny. He is deprived of the possibility of relenting and is irresistibly impelled to his self-wrought doom.”
When humans willfully and continually numb our hearts, we risk permanent loss of our capacity to feel with them.
As I prepare for Shabbat in Jerusalem, my heart wells up with love for Israel and my gut, with safek, doubt, about her boundaries, both physical and moral. I worry about the hardening of hearts in the State of Israel and in our Diaspora Jewish communities. I worry that, shouldering the weight of generations of trauma, we have become stuck and frozen. Locking onto narratives of the way things always happen here – between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs – we are losing chances to re-evaluate realities, to hear new stories, to see human beings. I worry that we are obstructing our hearts and damaging our vision irreversibly.
But just as God follows Pharoah’s lead, paralyzing his heart once he has chosen to wall it off on his own, we learn that when we begin to open our hearts, God becomes our partner. In Parshat Netzavim, we are commanded “V’hashevota el’l’vavecha,” that we should take God’s commandments to heart (Deuteronomy, 30:1). If we do this, we are promised:
“Then the Lord your God will open (circumcise) your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
If we make the first move, God will help us tear down the barriers that block us from loving and living. God wills our teshuvah.
And so this Shabbat Va-era, I pray:
Elohei Hashamayim, help us to experience your presence on this earth, but Elohei Ha-aretz, help us to remember that you are more than land.Elohei Rachel, may our hearts peel open to those around us, that we may see what is essential, that we may live.
Annie, thank you for the strong words of prayer.
Filed under: israel, judaism, palestine, politics, war