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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Two matriarchs call for compassion and end to bloodshed: a spiritual commentary and poem on the current conflict in Israel and Gaza

The last blog post I wrote focused on the (then) new war in Gaza to the prophetic reading (Haftarah) from the opening chapters of the book of Jeremiah. Since then, the fighting intensified, as did the death and destruction. Sitting helplessly here in the USA, I truly felt for the first time like I was in galut/exile. But it was not so much that I was in exile from my homeland, but from my people. And I am speaking not only of the Jewish people, but of so many friends and family members about whom I care, but whose words and rhetoric disturbed or even angered me.


What made this exile even stranger was the fact that it was not based on a particular ideology. It was not simply that I felt exiled from those on the “right”or the “left” because I disagreed with them. Rather, I felt exiled from everyone, because I did not know exactly how I felt or what I believed. I could see, and at times agree with, perspectives from all sides, except for the most extreme expressions of hatred or prejudice (which luckily was not espoused by any of my close friends or family). And so I sat here as in the eye of a storm. A strange calm, which is not really calm, surrounded me while I could clearly feel the pressure from all sides getting stronger and stronger swirling around me.


Therefore, I remained publicly silent for the most part. As a rabbi part of me felt guilty about this. After all, part of my job is to challenge people's way of thinking and to urge them to rise up from their complacency. But there was very little complacency to be found. At times I thought I was the one being complacent, since everyone else seemed to have a strong opinion and was not afraid to voice it. Finally, I realized that it was not complacency, but rather the conundrum and the uncertainty described kept me silent.


This past week, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, Tisha B'Av, arrived. This is the day of mourning on the Jewish calendar when we remember the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and later the Romans on or around this day on the calendar. As this day approached I thought for sure I would have something to say. After all, it is technically a Jewish day of intense mourning born of destruction and tragedy. But still I remained silent, except to offer words and prayers of comfort and peace when leading services. But perhaps that was enough, as I implied in my last blog post. After all, a day which mourns the destruction of the two Holy Temples, as well as numerous other tragedies in Jewish history, contains enough sadness. Trying to connect it to the situation in Israel and Gaza seemed unnecessary for me. Besides, there were enough other people making those connections and writing about them all over the Internet. I didn't particularly feel the need for another voice.



Then suddenly today, thoughts and feelings began to arise within me which I wanted to express somehow. I don't know why I started to feel compelled to write, but that is usually true for much of my writing. As I have stated before, I feel that much of my writing, especially my poetry, comes from somewhere beyond me. I am merely a conduit in many ways. This is especially true when I write poetry, which is what I eventually felt drawn to do. And so here I am at my computer and on my blog.



By way of introduction I want to write briefly about the day of mourning and fasting that is Tisha B'Av. On that day we customarily read or chant from the biblical Book of Aicha/Lamentations, which tells of the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE the ancient rabbis wrote midrashim, exegetical stories and legends based on the biblical text, as a response to the destruction they had witnessed. In a number of different midrashim we find the image of the matriarch Rachel weeping for her “children”who pass by her tomb on the road to exile in Babylonia. We read that it is Rachel, not any of the patriarchs (not for lack of trying), who is able to call on God's compassion and extract from God the promise that eventually the people would return from exile. It is not surprising that a matriarch, and not a patriarch, would be able to access God's rachamim/compassion. For the very word rachamim/compassion comes from the same root as rechem/womb. And so compassion is seen as a feminine trait and a feminine aspect of humanity and divinity. But let me make it clear that feminine (I wish I could find a better word) does not mean weak in any way. On the contrary, it often takes more strength to show compassion to someone, especially someone we might view as an “enemy,”rather than to simply reject them or lash out against them. And in the midrash it would have been easy for God to simply continue to condemn the people for their actions. It took more strength and courage to ultimately show compassion and allow them to return in spite of their misdeed.


The image of Rachel's compassion having an impact on God's actions drew me to the image of the two matriarchs one could say are most intimately involved with the Israeli-Arab conflict, Sarah and Hagar *.


There are a handful of Jewish communities who weekly, when praying for peace for all Israel, add a prayer for peace for the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar. So many people trying to make peace urge us to focus on the Jews and Muslims as children of the same father, Abraham. But perhaps it makes more sense at this moment to focus on them as the children of their individual mothers, Sarah and Hagar. For it is their individual mothers who are the source of compassion for each and who would desire to protect each of her sons at all cost. Each mother is concerned solely with the survival and the protection of her own child, which is why I imagine that both Sarah and Hagar, even after all that had transpired between them, would be willing to do anything possible to stop the death of her children.


Were they here today, I believe that both Sarah and Hagar would make whatever compromise necessary to stop the slaughter of her children. As the sources of compassion, they would not seek revenge or destruction of the other, no matter how angry or perhaps even hateful each might still feel. For each knows that any violence directed towards the “other” would ultimately bring more death to her own offspring. And so just as it was Rachel's compassion was able to touch God and bring about a promise to the end of the exile, perhaps it is the compassion of Sarah and Hagar which can bring about the end of the violence which is destroying each of their children, whether it be through actual physical violence and death or the gradual spiritual and emotional death suffered by so many who are still physically alive.




two mothers        one wish


sarah and hagar
two mothers sit     back to back    never looking at one another
  the tips of the fingers touch       ever so slightly
shockwaves of grief   pain   anger    remorse    hatred pleading      crying    compassion     flow from one to the other as it seems they always have 
two mothers     they cannot look at one another 
they can only look at their children down below 
screaming      bleeding       cursing      crying      killing  dying     seeking vengeance    causing destruction
the women's tears flow down their cheeks 
soaking their clothes        making them heavy with grief
dripping down to the ground beneath them
a puddle of tears        of suffering       of hatred       of love         of compassion       of prayers    begins to form


they cannot speak to each other 
 they can speak only to their children       and maybe to god
they cry out to their sons and daughters          it is enough
you may hate    you may scream    you may wish what you will
but do not act      do not speak     of vengeance 
do no kill the other with your  weapons or with your words
for causing the death      physical or spiritual   of the other's children   will only in turn cause your own death


still sitting backs to one another      still in silence 
fingers lightly touching    now become hands grasping       nails digging into palms        as they hold tighter both women feel     physical pain      suffering
beginning to mirror what they have felt      in their hearts      for so many years
still not looking   but sensing      each others presence          they remember how it began
one remembers how the other abused her
one remembers feelings of jealousy    hatred   fear    mistrust
both remember fearing for her own son's life and well being
grasp tightening      their nails dig deeper                                     if they do not stop their blood will soon flow
and mingle with the sea of tears now surrounding them as the blood and tears of their children  soak the earth below


that would be fine for both
let each of their blood be spilled
if only the blood flowing from their children would cease
if only they would stop killing each other with their weapons and using words to kill      when weapons are not enough
if only they could live in peace


no         they both think          as if one mind
we do not need peace       though we may want it        or not
we simply need the end of the violence and killing
all these years have passed and we still sit here back to back
at times hating one another     at times wishing the other gone
at times wishing she had never met him 
          that it had been only me
at times wanting to scream out to God
                                 why did you do this to us

but we have learned to continue on even with these feelings 
eventually to let go of them
we have learned that there are times
                     when we can sit here silently
remembering what was not so painful in life 
                           the times that were actually joyous
        like the births of our sons
sometimes in those moments      we can even find joy together

but too often we only feel only      suffering         anger           hatred      frustration
not because of what happened when we still lived 
                                                      as if that were not enough
but because of what are children are doing to each other             while we sit here helpless


dear God            
master of all worlds        creator of our words        source of all
you brought us together in life         two woman                    from different worlds         to serve one man and to serve you to bring your plan to fruition       or so we have been 
     led to believe
but now we wonder         why
why did you bring us both to him                                              why did you give us each a child 
                if it was only to bring more suffering
why couldn't you have left us alone


if you are indeed ruler of all
source of peace    source of justice and compassion             male and female        light and dark
teach us in this moment how to speak to our children             to let them know that we are suffering
that we do not want them to be killed                                       that nothing is worth bringing death
we must let them know that all we want is for them to find the compassion and the light within that will bring end
to the bloodshed and death 
it does not matter what  they must give up 
they must simply let go        it does not matter
we cannot take it any more


the two women continue to sit there       back to back
suddenly they let go of each other hands 
     each looks at her own palm
each one feels   sees    touches       the marks left by the other the blood dripping from her hands
the pain and suffering each caused herself      and the other


suddenly       still in silence      they rise      they turn
they look into each other's eyes     possibly for the first time 
in each other they see      the mistrust       the hatred               the jealousy       the questions yet unanswered
but looking deeper within     they each see the love                 not for their shared husband       not for their shared god
       and certainly not for each other
but they see the love each feels for her son                                the fierce protectiveness they each showed in life
which they still feel            will always feel                                    as long as their offspring still live

a protectiveness born of deep love
love that is the source of compassion 
compassion    is the feeling which      overpowers all else
it is love born from the womb of compassion   
which is the ultimate gift given to these women by God
a gift which they wish     with all their hearts     
                   to give to their children
for they know      as does God      as do we all    deep down
that it is this gift alone which can bring 
an end to killing and suffering
and may  even lead someday    
to shalom    salaam     a complete and true peace


too many times has each mother tried to deliver this gift
only to be rejected ignored    denied entry 
into their children's world   lives    hearts    and souls
but looking at each other in this moment 
each woman can see and feel     all of these feelings
swirling within each other         each one feeling the same
it is then they realize what they must do   they must not stop
they must continue   doing  all they can 
to bring an end to the death being caused by and inflicted on their children          no matter what
for no sacrifice of any kind is too much
 if it saves a life        ends the bloodshed 

this is the wish of these two mothers   
women  bound together by a man   by a common fate 
  not of their choosing     just like so many others
this is the gift they wish to give their children
and now looking through the eyes into each other's soul
they hold each others hands firmly    with a strength borne of compassion        not anger or hatred 
they then prayer together as one     to the one god they share
that their children will someday soon accept this precious gift
if not for their own sake     then for the sake of their mothers
and for the sake of all their sons and daughters yet to be






* As you may remember, in the biblical book of Bereshit/Genesis, when Sarah and Abraham could not have any children (at that time they were still Abram and Sarai), Sarah gave her servant Hagar to Abraham as a concubine so he could have a child (hopefully a son). Once Hagar became pregnant, suddenly Sarah became jealous and treated her without much compassion. Hagar flees her home, but is told by God to return and to do as she is told, for she will give birth to a son who shall become the father of a great nation. After Ishmael is born, Sarah becomes miraculously pregnant and gives birth to Yitzhak/Isaac. Eventually, Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac (the rabbis interpret this in various negative and disturbing ways) and expressed fear that Isaac might be in danger. And so she commands Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. God tells Abraham to follow her directives, for Ishmael will also be the father of a great nation. But it is Isaac who is to be Abraham's true spiritual heir.


After being exiled, Hagar and Ishmael almost die of thirst and starvation, until they are rescued by an angel who repeats God's promise that Ishmael is to be the father of a great nation. Ishmael and Hagar never again see Sarah and Isaac. However, we do read that Ishmael and Isaac both return to the city of Hebron to bury their father Abraham.




NOTE:  Last week a prayer of two mothers, written by a Jew and Muslim praying for peace was translated and posted online.  I urge you all to view this prayer and to use it every Shabbat eve,  even if the ceasefire continues.  For we must never stop praying for peace.


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