Everyone told me not to do it. People want to be inspired on Kol Nidre, they all said. They want to hear about profound matters of the spirit; words that touch their souls, give wings to their deepest longings for meaning and purpose. They are even willing to look deeply into their own failings and shortcomings of the past year and let you remind them of the importance of self-examination, of teshuvah – of repentance and the miracle of forgiveness.
But whatever you do, don’t talk about Israel – because you can’t win – no matter what you say you are going to upset part of your congregation. No matter how you do it, you will end up alienating some, irritating others, frustrating even more. Rabbi suicide – don’t go there.
But I can’t get that image out of my mind. That child cowering by the wall with his father one minute – dead the next. That searing image won’t go away.
No, I am not going to point the finger of blame – not at young Israeli soldiers frightened out of their minds, fearful for their lives, feeling perpetually under seige, surrounded by a hostile enemy. And not at young Palestinians either – who grew up with mythic tales of the messianic days to come when the Jews would be no more and their families would return in triumph to long-remembered olive groves and abandoned homes in ancient villages. Growing up under the oppressive thumb of occupation, the constant reminders of their powerlessness, the poverty and the squalor of permanent refugee camps.
No, there is surely enough blame and recriminations to go around – enough “rights,” and enough wrongs to fill volumes – and while politicians posture and bluster and angle for political advantage – children still are throwing rocks, venting rage, and being shot.
This past week in our religious school, one of the teachers had just finished a lesson on teshuvah/forgiveness, and to make sure she had made her point she asked her class, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness for sin?” A little girl’s hand shot up. “You’ve got to sin first,” she said.
Over and over throughout Yom Kippur we read the words, Al het sh’khataynu lefanekha – for the sins we have sinned against you, and the “you” of whom we traditionally speak is God. But the most important sins in our lives are not the sins between us and God, or even us and the “still small voice” of conscience that lives within us – the most destructive sins in our lives, are between us and those who should be the closest to us – our friends, our colleagues, our children, our spouses, our sisters and brothers.
I have watched the news reports all week from Israel and Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank and I have cried as these very words – al het sh’khatanu lefanekha – for the sins we have sinned against you echoed over and over in my heart. What incredible irony it is – this war between Arabs and Jews. The anger, the hatred, the fear, the jealousy, the rage – particularly today – at this High Holy Day season. We just read on Rosh Hashana about Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of our patriarch Abraham. How Abraham himself almost killed first one and then the other. And now this.
Isn’t the irony of it all, almost too much to take? Ishmael and Isaac are brothers – sons of the same father. Palestinians and Jews are cousins – descendents of the same father, members of the same family. Oh yes, the most devastating sins in our lives are between us and those with whom we should be closest.
But isn’t that so often the way it really is in life? That brothers and sisters do fight with one another? Just last week a young woman sat in my study with tears in her eyes, grief in her heart, and guilt in her soul. And her story is so typical it is practically a cliché.
She told me that the last time she had seen her brother, they fought over something stupid, something foolish having to do with their parents and some decision that each of them wanted to be empowered to make. They exchanged heated words; they yelled at each other as siblings often do; they even called each other names. And, of course, as life would have it, shortly after that her brother died suddenly in an accident.
So there she sat in my study with her head in her hands, lamenting the lost opportunity to make it right; to look into his eyes, and tell him she was sorry; to tell him that none of it was really important enough to cause that chasm between them – between them now, forever.
Isaac and Ishmael were brothers. And in the Torah, they never speak to each other – not even once. So I suppose it’s hardly surprising that in real life – they have such a hard time speaking with each other as well. And what a tragedy this loss of one another truly is for both people; for the entire Middle East; for the entire world.
For Isaac and Ishmael, Israelis and Palestinians have so much to give each other – so much they could build together – so much they could create together, if they ever gave each other the chance.
Have you ever stood in the middle of Jerusalem? Well, if you do what you see right in front of your eyes is amazing. You can stand in one spot in the old city of Jerusalem and in the exact same line of sight you will see the Western Wall – the most sacred remnant of Solomon’s Temple and the Dome of the Rock – the Mosque of Omar one of the most sacred sites of Islam. And they share the same wall! They stand practically back to back within yards of each other. Isaac and Ishmael – Palestinians and Israelis – brother against brother.
Every year on Rosh Hashana we read the story of how Abraham takes his beloved son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah to offer him as a human sacrifice. Each year we can’t help but feel a sigh of relief when we get to the part of the story where an angel calls to Abraham and stops him with the slaughtering knife in mid air.
In 1967, speaking against the Vietnam War, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel told the story of a young Polish Hassidic boy who cried when he read the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. “Why are you crying?” said his teacher; “You know that the angel saved Isaac’s life.” “But,” said the boy, “what if the angel had come a moment too late?” Said Heschel: “Angels are never late. But sometimes human beings are.”
This week it felt as if we were all too late. Palestinian youths burned tires and bombarded Israeli soldiers and the police with rocks and firebombs; Israeli troops responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. In the Torah, the only time Isaac and Ishmael stood together, was when they were burying their dead father. This week they buried the peace together. Perhaps sometimes, even the angels arrive too late.
On Rosh Hashana I shared with you some of the lessons I learned during my Sabbatical this year. But I remember one more lesson tonight.
It was just a few hours before sundown last April. Soon we would be gathered around a seder table, feeling once again the power of liberation and freedom. And there we were, aboard a small boat, silently contemplating what we had just experienced for the past few hours on a tiny island just a few short miles out of the harbor of Cape Town, South Africa. It was the infamous Robben Island – a place known the world over for banishment, exile, isolation, imprisonment and institutional brutality. For 400 years, Robben Island played cruel host to unwilling inhabitants from slaves to leprosy sufferers, the sick, the poor, the mentally disturbed, French Vichy prisoners in WWII, common criminals and most recently political opponents of the apartheid regime.
And so the entire ride back to the mainland I kept hearing that famous Passover refrain echoing in my mind, “ma nishtana halaila haze mekol halailot?” “Why is this night different from all others?” And I knew that this Passover night would indeed be different. For after spending the day on Robben Island, I was different.
Never again would freedom seem so commonplace. Never again would I be content with the cliches that come so easily to my lips and my teaching and my sermons. Just a few brief hours before Pesah, and there we were standing in front of the tiny cell in the maximum security prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 difficult years of his life on the long road to freedom. Our guide was Elias Mboto, a former political prisoner who had spent twelve years imprisoned on Robben Island for speaking out against the racism of apartheid. It’s been nearly ten years now since the last political prisoners were released from the Island, but Elias’s words were haunting – “I still can’t sleep at night,” he said, “there are always the nightmares.”
And like prisoners everywhere from Vietnam to Nazi Germany, the simple stories of survival and triumph of the human spirit against all odds became the most powerful symbols of what it ultimately means to be human. He told us that many prisoners came to the island illiterate, but with the help of an underground prisoner system of “each one teach one,” they left with the equivalent of high school diplomas or university degrees.
He told us of secretly tearing small strips of cloth from their blankets, painting them with polish and somehow turning them into small candles by whose light they would read all night, lying on the floor of their cells in the dark with the straw mat and blanket pulled over their heads to hide the candle light.
“My God,” I couldn’t help but think, “look what we take for granted? How precious are the opportunities for study that we squander every single day?”
And then Elias told us this story: “When they finally released me from the Island,” he said, “they transferred me to Kimberly in the North of the country to live, even though my whole life I had lived in Cape Town. I had to report three times a day to a prison official and was forbidden to be in the company of more than two people at any one time.
“One day I was walking down the street and another man was walking past me – our eyes met for a moment and we both stopped and looked at each other. Then he asked, “Are you from Cape Town?” and I said, “Yes.” And he asked, “Were you on the island?” and I said, “Yes.” Then I realized, he had been a guard on the island. And for some inexplicable reason, both of us, at the same moment, reached over and hugged each other, and then silently moved on.
“I walked away shaking my head in wonder – I had just hugged a guard. What made me do that? What was going on? And then I realized this is what life is about – we are all prisoners, we are all guards. And if we are to live in this world together, we must be able to extend the hand in tenderness and not in brutality and fear. We must hug each other. We must.” Elias Mboto and an anonymous guard. Searching for and finding their common humanity. In spite of all the nightmares of the past, still searching for a common dream. Didi and I listened to his story in awe – told so simply, so quietly we had to strain to hear the words. No bravado. No boasting. It was the quiet inner strength of rightness and knowing – forged in the harsh and bitter flames of racism and cruelty.
And if Mboto and the anonymous guard can transcend their fear of one another and the pain of their shared history, so can Isaac and Ishmael – Israeli and Palestinian. And how can we do less? Parents and children; husbands and wives (current and ex); brothers and sisters.
Several years ago a colleague of mine officiated at a funeral. When the service was over, the mourner refused to leave the graveside. The rabbi tried to lead the man away after the coffin had been lowered. He said, “The service is over now. You really should be going home.”
But the man shook him off and said, “You don’t understand, Rabbi…I loved my brother.” The rabbi said, “I’m sure you did, but the service is over now, and it’s time to leave.” The man shook him off again and said, “But you don’t understand…I loved my brother…AND ONCE, I ALMOST TOLD HIM.”
Perhaps every one of you can make this your promise tonight as well – that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, you will speak to your brother, or your sister, your mother or your father, your child or your childhood friend, and tell them that you love them. Tell them that you are sorry. Ask them to forgive – before it’s too late.