More Stories of the Land

Every day this sacred and complex land brings rich, new experiences and adventures and constant reminders of how many different stories there are to tell, each with its own perspective.  An infinity of narratives that contradict each other and yet they are all true.  My week has included learning Torah from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis; participating in services that are liberal and fully egalitarian, Modern Orthodox and mincha (afternoon service) in a “Shtieblach” in Mea Shearim where five different halls house rotating services constantly beginning throughout the day from early morning until late into the night. I was conspicuous as the only person not wearing a black hat! I have had individual meetings with rabbis, educators and tour guides from the full spectrum of Jewish life and political opinions, some of whom are profoundly impacting this country in different ways. I am on a quest to deepen my own relationship with Israel and with Palestinians and I am hoping to engage Boulder’s Jewish community with this amazing place with a view to leading an overdue Israel trip in the near future that will include the rich and varied narratives.

On Monday, I spent the day with an Orthodox rabbi educator, Shimon Felix and his tour guide partner, Joe Perlov in the Western Negev, unraveling yet more layers of this evolving story.  We drove south on Root 240, which runs the full length of the border with Gaza, which is very visible.  I learned that 900 Israeli trucks travel this road every single day with full loads that go into Gaza and empty on the way back.  They go to the Ra’afeh border crossing near the Egyptian border where they transfer their loads to Hamas operated Palestinian trucks that take the various goods into Gaza.  Officially, the Israeli government has no relationship with Hamas, but obviously such complicated daily operations have to be coordinated, and Hamas is the administration there.  We drove right to the crossing and saw this all happening, which is significant because one of the many negative narratives against Israel claims that there is virtually a total blockade. Interestingly, nothing goes in to Gaza from Egypt, which is right there too.
Along this border that has seen so much violence and bloodshed, I went to the city of Sederot for the first time, which has received 15,000 Hamas rockets over the years and the traumatized residents have 7-8 seconds from hearing the sirens to heading for the shelters that are in every residential and commercial buildings and, of course, all the schools.  We also visited Netiv Ha’Assarah (Path of the Ten, named after ten soldiers killed in the 1967 war), which is the closest Israeli village to Gaza.  You can see the buildings of Gaza up close and because of its proximity, the rockets that hit here were mostly mortar shells and there have also been about 15,000 of them that have destroyed buildings and killed some residents.  There are two large, grey walls at the edge of the village to shield against the attacks, which have been decorated by an artist resident and many visitors with beautiful peace art, made from colorful tiles and paint. The section of wall most visible from Gaza has Salaam, peace, in huge, multi-colored Arabic letters!  The original occupants here were evacuated from the town of Yamit in the Sinai when it was given back to Egypt under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Ironically, they were offered resettlement in Gaza, but refused and Nativ Ha’Assarah was born. More of Yamit and Sinai later.
As well as seeing the places most hit by and vulnerable to rockets, we also saw up close a couple of the legendary Iron Dome mechanisms that have been so successful in intercepting the rockets, as well as the balloons that monitor potential rocket activity. All along this small strip of land there are centuries of stories spilling out of the ground and crying to be heard.  We went to the site of Kibbutz Be’orot Yitzhak (Isaac’s wells that are coincidentally dug in this week’s parsha); an early Kibbutz that was evacuated on Ben Gurion’s orders in 1948 and many of its members fell in wars.  We saw the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue from the first or second century whose ruins were only discovered by accident by a kibbutznik about 40 years ago and whose presence reminds us how long there has been continuous Jewish life in the region, even after the destruction of the Second Temple.  The most unexpected tale of all is one that no Israelis know and was discovered only recently by Joe, who has lived in the area almost his whole life.  Following Camp David in 1978, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was established in 1979 and included handing back the Sinai Peninsula that had been captured and occupied by Israel during the 1967 war.  The largest settlement there was Yamit with a population of about 2,500, which was evacuated in 1982. Here is the piece of the story that no one knows.  It is documented that Prime Minister Begin was afraid that right wing settlers would try to reoccupy it if the houses were left there, so the whole town was dismantled and put on to trucks.  In a Negev field about 30 kilometers over the border in Israel, Joe has discovered what must surely be the relocated remains of these houses. Whole walls of concrete homes, still with their ’70s kitchen and bathroom tiles lie in the ground waiting for their story to join with the stories of the ancient synagogue, the evacuated kibbutz, the memorials to the fallen, the sites of Hamas tunnels and rockets and a military wall that prays for peace.  Of course there are the stories of the Palestinians on the other side of this terrible border, whose lives could be so different if this conflict could end, if those in power could allow dreams of a better future to be fulfilled.  Occupation is really ugly and really complicated. Sharon had the courage to evacuate Jewish settlements from Gaza, but peace seems distant and who knows when the next rocket will be fired, or the next raid occur?
The Hebrew month of Kislev that heralds Hanukkah has just begun and on Rosh Hodesh, the new moon of this month, I leave Jerusalem for Zichron Yaakov in the Galilee, one of the towns that was badly hit by the raging fires.  Every time I leave Jerusalem, I feel a little heartbroken as my connection here feels deeper than time and space and the holy, broken stories that fill them. What a blessing to have spent this time here, to have prayed the three daily services every day in multiple settings, to have reconnected to dear old friends, to witness the depth and sweetness that hide in the cracks of the pain and suffering and conflict.  On Tuesday, I spent some time in a fascinating and provocative museum called Museum on the Seam, an old house exactly where east and west Jerusalem meet and where Jews, Christians and Muslims dance in and out of shadows, both living and evading the visions of prophets that this City of Peace will be be a house of prayer for all peoples.
In the Torah this week, Isaac digs up the blocked wells of his his father and brings flowing water; healing and regenerative water. We need this water so badly to nourish the parched earth and extinguish the fires of hatred; heal the pain and the fear. Hanukkah promises us hope and light during the darkest nights. For me, the hope comes from the commitment to know and to hear the multiple narratives, to allow the light to shine on the faces of real people so we can see their humanity, whoever they are, whatever they believe. There really is no black and white, just immense complexity and deep nuance and flawed human beings trying to live their lives in a confusing world.
Hodesh Tov – Blessing for the New Moon of the Month of Light
Rabbi Marc