It has been a difficult week in Israel to culminate a challenging several months of violence and murders or attempted murders. Claims that "the Jews" are trying to take over the Temple Mount are groundless, yet they reverberate loudly in the ears of Palestinian Arabs as they hear their leaders offer what amounts to a "call to arms." The tomb of Joseph was set fire last night by demonstrators in Nablus, and one headline simply noted that the tomb "caught fire." Such sites don't catch fire by themselves. Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem have been placed under tightened Israeli security. And while even Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas have been decrying Israeli policies and actions, Palestinian security officials did arrest 19 Hamas members who were planning to stab Israelis today in a declared "Day of Rage."
So it was timely this week that three young women from the Creativity for Peace program appeared at Temple on Wednesday night. "J", 19, is from Kibbutz Harduf in northern Israel. "N", 17, is from the Israeli Arab community in Jaffa. "S", 20, is from the Palestinian community in Nablus. We listened to them tell their stories and offer their views and share their hopes as they had listened to each other in the Creativity for Peace summer camp program held near Santa Fe. It was extremely emotional for them as they spoke on Wednesday night, and also for those of us listening. We concluded that what they had done with one another far exceeded what political leaders have been able to accomplish. They have heard each other's narratives. Rather than judging each other, they formed relationships that are stronger than their differences. They are not enemies, but peers with whom they can maintain a friendship. At the bottom of the map which they display at each presentation, there is a quote which serves as the foundation of the Creativity for Peace approach: "Your enemy is someone whose story you haven't heard." Had the basis of the talk been political, or had someone Jewish been sharing the Palestinian or Israeli Arab narrative, I believe that the reaction would have been much different. In this case, even if we disagreed with their historical summary, we listened so that we could learn how it might be possible to move forward in the midst of this intractable conflict.
For some people, the nature of this conflict is based in dehumanization of "the other" that allows for spontaneous attacks based on the apparent identity of the targeted person. So, there are Jews being stabbed by Arab attackers. There was a report of one Israeli Jew who had dark skin who was attacked by fellow Israeli Jews. In Ra'anana, one Jewish man stopped the crowd from injuring further a young attacker who had already been caught, cornered, hurt and restrained. The man felt that the police should take control of the boy, not the crowd that had gathered.
I had planned to talk about "the blessing of diversity" in light of tonight's Torah reading, the brief tale of the Tower of Babel. The story presents the Torah's explanation of why so many different peoples with so many different languages exist in the world, rather than having one people with one language. In the text itself, the people, these "children of Adam," believed they could "make a name for themselves" if they built a tower reaching to the sky. God knew that if they succeeded, they would lose their humility. The rabbis also believed that the people building the tower in the valley of Shinar lost their sense of human decency. That is why one midrash (included on your handout) is so crucial to understanding this tale. The rabbis said, "As the tower grew in height, it took one year to get bricks from the base to the upper stories. Thus, bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell, the people wept, but when a worker fell and died, no one paid attention."
One people had one language. It was an easy path to unity, but everyone took their possibly enviable togetherness for granted, thinking that they could be greater than God if they combined their efforts. Instead, they devalued each individual human being, losing all empathy and regard for life. Their goal, their ideology, their greatness was all that mattered. In trying to get closer to God, they ended up much further away from God and godliness than they ever could have imagined.
On some levels, that may be what is happening now between Jews and Arabs in that small plot of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. As neighbors, they can choose to see "the other" as a perpetual enemy. Or, they can decide to view one another as potential partners in finally ending active conflict, in moving closer towards a return to quiet and calm, and even in making peace. In this case, I believe that diversity is a blessing because any negotiations that actually accomplish an end to this bloodshed and hatred will be owned by the parties who make peace happen. They will work hard to keep that peace, much as the young women from Creativity for Peace do all they can to sustain their relationships against all odds, even during this very hard week back home. They have learned to see one another as neighbors and partners, and their success can give us faith for even greater triumphs in the future for their friends and acquaintances, and for their two peoples. Still, many people they know still are unable to see each other as if they live in a place of darkness. These young women, and the many organizations doing similar work to bring Arabs and Jews together, sustain my faith that the darkness will ultimately give way to the dawn.
We do live in a world in which people too easily build walls between each other, where only "their kind" can be trusted, befriended or loved as a fellow human being. The Tower of Babel story may seem to indicate that division is what God wanted. Instead, differences among human beings and this story in the Torah can teach us that creating peace and unity within the human family has to be OUR prize, OUR victory, OUR own realization. That way, the resulting harmony totally belongs to us. Only then do the teachings in many faiths that point to finding common ground with others totally emerge from the darkness and see the light of day in our minds and hearts.
A rabbi once asked his students, “How do we know when the night is over and the day has arrived?”
One said: “Rabbi, night is over and day arrives, when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.”
Another student responded: “Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.”
Yet another student offered: “Night is over and day has arrived when you can look at a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.”
“No, no, no,” thundered the Rabbi, “Why must you see only in separations, only in distinctions, in disjunctions? No! Night is over and day arrives when you look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that he is your brother, she is your sister. That you belong to each other. That you are one. Then, and only then, will you know that night has ended and day has arrived.”
May we help that day arrive soon so that God who makes peace in the highest heavens can make peace for all the world.