Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Yom Yerushalayim - A Heart of Many Rooms

(to hear a radio recording of IDF troops entering the Old City in 1967 click here )

Last year during Ulpan, we were taken on a guided tour of the Western Wall tunnels. Now I’m not the sort of person that gets excited by seeing the closest point to the Holy of Holies but I was still amazed; after all what we believed was the Temple’s Western wall was actually only 10% of it…and now we've discovered the rest! But at the same time I felt uneasy, after all, the opening of the tunnels in 1996 had resulted in bloodshed and riots. We may have been enjoying a spiritual journey in ancient Jerusalem, but there was a political and security price to pay for it.

It is that mixture of simultaneous amazement and uneasiness that pervades me on Yom Yerushalayim. On the one hand is the joy at the liberation of the Old City, the shiver when I hear the words Har Habayit BeYadeinu, the Temple Mount is in our hands, the emotion of seeing paratroopers dancing by the wall, the memory of unadulterated joy by Israelis of all stripes over the miracle that took place 40 years ago, when our people went from digging mass graves to celebrating the liberation of our historical biblical homeland. In short, the amazement of 'seeing' God's hand in history.

But at the same time, its difficult to divorce all that from the political consequences of the war; The fact that for all the rhetoric to the contrary, no viable regional deal can be reached here without compromising on Jerusalem. Or how we talk about our eternal indivisible capital yet most Jerusalemites would never want to even set foot in the Shuafat Refugee Camp (many are too scared to even walk through the Muslim quarter of the Old City).

It’s a day that through no fault of its own somehow turned from being national to nationalist, from being about our ability to pray at the Western wall to banging on Arabs’ doors in the old city.

I haven’t resolved this yet, but it reminds me of my favourite Tosefta text (it didn’t have much competition) that Rabbi David Hartman mentions in the introduction to one of his books.

The Tosefta explains that a person might ask, ‘Since the House of Shammai declare unclean and the House of Hillel clean, this one prohibits and that one permits, how then can I learn Torah?’ The Rabbis answer by advising someone to create ‘a heart of many rooms' into which they should bring the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.

Similarly today one may ask 'Since Yom Yerushalayim moved from thanking God for saving His people to convincing the police to allow Rabbis onto the Temple Mount how can I celebrate? Since the war marks our liberation yet another people’s occupation how can I take part?'

It’s not easy to hold the idea that our eternal indivisible capital jars with the political and demographic reality that many of our leaders refuse to see. But maybe we all need to build ourselves a heart of many rooms where we can hold all of these things, even if they contradict one another.

Chag Sameach (and don’t forget to say Hallel with a bracha).

and thanks to everyone who spent time voting for this blog in the JIB Blog Awards

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Yom Hazikaron - Of Three or Four in a Room

3 months into my Hachshara, I told my parents I wanted to stay in Israel for another year and do the army. It wasn’t some sort of opening tactical gambit that would ultimately allow me to continue learning in yeshiva. It was a well thought out position from an ideological eighteen year old who felt that his shared commitment and obligation to Israel shouldn’t allow him to return to a life of parties and socializing in Leeds while his friends were hunkering down in the mud of South Lebanon, to be downing Tequilas as they were downing Hezbollah…

Partly due to my parents wishes (how can an only child give his mother a year of sleepless nights?) and partly to do with my own fears (If even my Israeli friends are telling me I am crazy, do I really need to be chasing danger?) I returned to England 9 months later. Most of the time I try not to think that August ’99 to Aug 2000 was the safest year to be in the IDF or how an extra year in Israel at that age would have changed me. I like to feel like I did some sort of service – that I was active on campus, taught youth about Zionism, worked for the Israeli Embassy, that I made my own sacrifices for things I believe are right.

But as all roads in life not taken, the shadow of the decision sometimes weighs on me.

As Yom Hazikaron approaches, I always feel a tinge of regret.
Its not that I mourn the fact that I don’t have someone close to mourn– in fact I’m thankful for it.

It’s not that I don’t find meaning in the ceremonies; I do.

Its not that I don’t have those to remember; Unfortunately I do.

It’s more that I feel that there’s something missing from my experience of living here – like most people are part of a club whose entrance may be prohibitive, but if you’re not in you don’t really belong.

Yehuda Amichai wrote that

‘Of three or four in a room,
there is always one who stands beside the window.
He must see the evil among thorns…
And how people who went out of their houses whole
are given back in the evening like small change.’

I don’t want to be the person who always stands beside the window and sees evil among thorns. Yet for one day a year, when Israelis unite to remember the fallen – like the kid from high school caught up in the cafĂ© bombing or the inspirational madrich heroically killed saving others or the friend’s older brother killed from friendly fire or the neighbor’s first husband shot in the early hours of the Yom Kippur War – people who went out of their houses whole yet never returned, or saw the horrors of war and came back like small change…I remember too – but my memory is not that of someone in the inner circle.

And what does one do when the country you have tied your destiny in with turns into one big room, and you find yourself looking in from the outside?