As many of you know, my family and I spent the last spring in Israel.
I love Israel and I support Israel. I also believe that we are facing some of the most challenging times in Israel. The challenges relate to both inter-Jewish relations and to our relationship with the Palestinian people.
On Yom Hazikaron — the Israeli memorial day — I went to an alternative ceremony in Tel Aviv organized by organizations of Jewish and Palestinian families who had lost a family member in the conflict. These organizations work tirelessly around the year for dialogue and a path for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This ceremony was criticized by mainstream Israelis, as many believe that the day we weep and remember those who have fallen in war is not a day to get together with “them”, with the enemy. The controversy around this ceremony was a powerful reminder of the painful reality of war in Israel. At the same time the ceremony itself filled me with hope, seeing people, from both sides of the conflict, who desperately want peace and an end to the bloodshed. We heard stories from families who have lost loved ones, Palestinians and Israelis. Powerful stories, told in both Arabic and Hebrew. Renowned author, David Grossman who loss his son Uri spoke about his vision of Israel. His words truly touched my soul (and I encourage you to listen or read his words online). He challenged the gathered Israelis with the notion that after 2000 years of yearning for a home, even in Israel, we are not yet there. He spoke about the successes of Israel at 70, but he reminded us all that the reality of Israel is painful for many, because it is not yet the home we want it to be.
During my time in Israel, I traveled once, with a group of activists to the village of Auja in the Jordan Valley, beyond the Green Line. We were there to accompany and protect The bedouin of the area as they grazed their sheep. These shepherds are regularly threatened with removal orders from the Israeli military initiated by an adjacent illegal outpost. These orders are based only on the settlers’ desire to drive the bedouins away. The presence of volunteers helped the shepherds get a few hours of grazing for their flocks.
The first few hours that morning were calm, until soldiers arrived and ordered the bedouins to leave, despite not having a removal order or any other legal justification for doing so. Our bedouin friend was clearly afraid, and we walked back with him to his village. It was very painful to see the fear in that man’s eyes. He was relieved that we were there and grateful for our presence.
In today’s Torah portion, we read about Hagar’s fear after she is driven out of her home with Abraham and Sarah. Abraham rises early in the morning, gives Hagar and their son Ishmael food and water, and sends them into the wilderness. Soon the water runs out. Hagar cries for her son’s life and weeps, she fears the worst! Hagar then hears the voice of a Godly messenger that says to her, Mah lach, Hagar? Literally, “What’s with you, Hagar?”
“Al tiri” it says — “Do not be afraid.” The messenger instructs her to take the boy’s hand, and her eyes are opened and she sees a well. In this short and powerful story, we are shown the debilitating effects of fear. Presumably, this well of water was there all along, but Hagar’s fear kept her from seeing it.
Now, this story starts earlier, it begins with Itzchak’s birth and his naming. After weaning Itzchak, Sarah becomes worried. Sarah sees Ishmael, the son of Hagar — the maidservant, the woman that she earlier gave as a surrogate to her husband so that he could bring a child into the world, “laughing” and playing with Itzchak. Sarah’s immediate response is to ask Avraham to drive out Hagar and her son: “Garesh et ha-Ama hazot v’et b’na” (Genesis 21:10). Sarah becomes overprotective of her son Itzchak. Though the Torah does not explicitly describe her feelings, it seems that Sarah also experiences fear. She is afraid of sharing her son, sharing his love, sharing Avraham’s love. She feels threatened and jealous. Sarah’s fear defines her treatment of Hagar which makes Hagar fear for her own future.
This story of fear is where it all starts… it is striking that in both Jewish and Muslim traditions Itzchak is considered the ancestor of the Jewish people while Yishmael is the ancestor of the Arab people. Sarah and Hagar have both a story to tell about their fear for survival, but they don’t tell the story to each other.
Their fear creates a rift between them.
In a way, what is so tragic is that this has not changed much. Fear continues to guide the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians and fear continues to guide the policies of the State of Israel and the attacks of those who want Israel to be destroyed. I heard the story of a Jewish student that went to an Encounter program with Palestinians. They told the students: Step into the circle if when you hear someone speaking Arabic you feel afraid, and most of the Jews stepped in. Then they asked: Step into the circle, if when you hear someone speaking Hebrew you are scared, and most of the Palestinians stepped in. The participants on both sides were shocked to hear that the other was afraid of them.
We don’t know from the Torah story if Hagar and Sarah ever connect again. But we know that Ishmael and Itzchak, their sons, who are destined to live apart because of their mothers fears, do come together to bury their father.
Fear is part of our lives, and the challenge is how to embrace fear and to know how to operate within it. We must not give in to our fears, and we must not act based on our fears. Rather, we must hold fast to hope and to vision.
What was so powerful about the Yom Hazikaron ceremony was to see side by side people who had lost loved ones. Loved ones who were killed by the people of the one standing next to them. Their courage to stand together and say, we want to listen to your story and we want to embrace your fear and your pain, and I want you to embrace mine… is perhaps what will change the curse of this conflict. Perhaps it is the only thing that will.
My profound love and commitment to Israel guides my belief that we have to reclaim humanity, hear each others stories, fears and pains and not let fear define and guide our future.
Rabbi Kreiman shared this at High Holiday services at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, MA.