2016-06-30
On the eve of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Shai Held sent this e-mail message to his community at Harvard Hillel, the campus Jewish organization.

Dear Friends,
I am writing to wish you an easy and meaningful fast, and a g'mar chatimah tovah (that you may be inscribed for good).

This past week has been unbearably painful for many of us. Not long ago, we hoped that a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was close at hand; we prayed that finally the shedding of innocent blood would cease, that a new day would perhaps be born in the Middle East.

And then the Land of Israel exploded again last week. To our enormous pain and disappointment, we have realized how far away peace still seems, and we have witnessed excruciating scenes of renewed bloodshed and abiding hatred. At a time of year in which we affirm that forgiveness and human reconciliation are both possible and mandated of us, we have watched violence and hatred escalate to the point where despair of reconciliation hovers not far from our hearts.

I do not wish to enter here into comparative blame and political name-calling. Suffice it to say that there is, sadly, unconscionably, more than enough blame to go around. Ariel Sharon's "stroll" on the Temple Mount was an unacceptable provocation, and Yasser Arafat's refusal to unambiguously condemn and call for an end to the violence is a disgrace. One wonders how many children and teenagers will have to die in order for the madness of the Middle East to finally stop. Enough have undoubtedly died already.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook [one of the major 20th-century rabbinic thinkers] spoke of Zionism as predicated on a world which was "becoming sweeter" (mitbasem, in Hebrew) and which would be devoid of barbarism. And yet here we stand, having witnessed stone-throwing children threatening the lives of soldiers, having seen children killed at the hands of soldiers not much older than they. The violence and death has spilled over into the Green Line, as Israeli Police and Israeli Arabs exchange fire, with mounting casualties as a result. Rocks are thrown, bullets are fired, more and more deadly ammunition is introduced, and "the Had Gadya Machine," as the late Yehudah Amichai so painfully called the seemingly never-ending circle of violence, continues unabated. The world seems no sweeter, and we have witnessed more than enough barbarism for a lifetime.

I want to urge each of us to really pray in the next 24 hours. Judaism teaches us to be thoroughly engaged in the world, to struggle for a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. That kind of commitment is bound to come with abundant disappointment, with the temptation to give up, to succumb to the status quo as the way things have to be. But Torah commands us, despite our exhaustion and our disappointment, not to despair. God continues to dream of peace, and so must we. Tears and fatigue are appropriate; rak lo lehitya'esh--only not to give up hope.

If we read the Akedah (Genesis 22, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the son of Abraham) closely, we note that when all is said and done, only Abraham returns to his servants. Isaac is nowhere to be found. A rabbinic Midrash suggests that Isaac went looking for Ishmael, having understood for the first time the depth of his suffering and alienation. More than 3,000 later, let us pray that Isaac and Ishmael finally find each--other and reconcile.

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Psalm 122) and mourn for all those who have died fighting for her. May we live to see the day when the prophet's dream comes true, when Jerusalem is a "prayer house for all peoples." A prayer house, and no longer a slaughterhouse.

God bless all of you and bring you a year of peace and renewed commitment to a world of justice, love, and compassion. Again, g'mar chatimah tovah.

With every good wish, I am
Sincerely yours,
Rabbi Shai Held

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