Categories
Death Healing Israel

Letter from Jerusalem: Love must win 

Thursday, July 30 was planned as a day of celebration of tolerance and acceptance, a day to embrace difference, a day to lift up diversity and cooperation in Israel’s capital as the municipality hosted Jerusalem’s gay pride parade. I arrived in Jerusalem and was delighted to see rainbow flags lining some of the main streets. Near the American Embassy a huge banner declared, in English letters, “LOVE WINS!” The message was repeated in languages from the region and from across the world.

When evening fell and the heat of the day dissipated, we learned of the twin acts of terror that crushed the hopes with which the day began. Eighteen month old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death in his Duma home by ultra religious Jewish terrorists. One hour away, Shira Banki, walking with friends and classmates in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, was stabbed by a man who had been released weeks earlier after serving ten years in prison for a similar attack on the 2005 Jerusalem parade. Shira died three days later. Ali’s father, Sa’ad died ten days later. Ali’s mother and 4 year old brother are being treated for major burns, and five other marchers are recovering from stab wounds.

The handwritten sign on the Banki’s door announced shiva from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. On Thursday, August 6th, we were the first to enter the shiva house. At first, we did not realize that we had been welcomed by Mika, Shira’s mother, because she seemed so young herself. “We are private people,” she said. “We asked that there be no press at the funeral, and none at the shiva, and they have been very respectful.” We leaned in to hear her as others joined us in the garden, a gracious outdoor space shared by the residents of the apartment building. “We recently celebrated our son’s Bar Mitzvah here. As we sat here, we realized it is a lovely space for a wedding. Perhaps, one day, Shira’s wedding. Here we are, with guests and tables filled with food, but this is not a wedding…”

We came with a gift, a book of 1720 signatures and notes of condolence from across the world, collected by the Israel Religious Action Center. Anat Hoffman, the Center’s director, had written Shira’s name on a stone that Shira’s mom held in her hand as she spoke. “The shiva is allowing me an additional week of not comprehending what has happened. Shira is the eldest of our four children. Our house is always open, always filled with our children and their friends. We raised our children to be open, to find their own voice, to walk their own path.”

We sat with Mika, we, four women who have also raised children, three of us now grandmothers. We came as representatives of thousands of others like ourselves who are stunned by the violence that, in one day, shattered the life of many families.

I have visited many shiva houses In the last fifty plus years. I have sat with many who have lost beloveds, both those who have suffered a sudden loss, and those who have sat for days and months at the bedsides of dear ones and watched helplessly as their lives slipped away.

As we sat in the Banki’s garden, we felt Shira’s absence and her presence. The photos of Shira introduced us to a smiling, engaged young woman, who would have celebrated her sixteenth birthday in three months.

This will be the third Shabbat since these twin attacks. When Shabbat ends, Jews across the world will welcome the month of Elul. Our tradition teaches the power of this last month of the year in which we prepare for Rosh HaShanah. Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, the four letters of the Hebrew name of the month, echo the words of the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs: Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li: I am My Beloved and my Beloved is mine.

How can we love in the shadow of hate? Each new year we are challenged to Choose Life. Our tradition invites us to acknowledge our own fears of death when we sit with the bereaved. This is how we choose life.

Our Judaism urges us, even in the presence of senseless hatred, to affirm love. Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li.We inscribe these words of love on wedding rings and sing them as we celebrate love and commitment. These words direct this month of reviewing our days, reconsidering our choices, reaffirming our commitments.

We choose life when we weave these words into the oft-quoted words attributed to the ancient sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

When love wins, we see that If I am not for myself, I cannot be present for another. When love wins, we understand that when we are only for ourselves, we cannot see even the beloved who is before me. When love wins, we grasp that the time is now. Now is the time to choose life, and love.

Our humanity is absolutely bound up with the humanity of others. There is no room for hate in our fragile, interdependent world. We can transform fear of the other into curiosity, and build respect in the place of ignorance.  There is only one people, one fate, one earth, one destiny. The perpetuation of a fiction of essential otherness is a recipe for annhilation.

Just as Eve and Adam left Eden, we took our leave of the Banki family in their garden. When shiva ended, they, too, left their garden. We must honor the memory of Shira Banki and the memories of Ali and Sa’ad Dawabsheh by choosing life, and love. Love must win.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is scholar in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation. She is also the editor of The Open Door, the CCAR Haggadah (2002).

This blog was originally posted in Washington Jewish Week.

Categories
High Holy Days Israel

Rosh Hodesh Elul at the Western Wall

This was not the first time I spent the night with her. I’ve lost track of the hotels in which we’ve slept. She in her bed and I in mine, I keenly aware of her powerful presence throughout the night.

Yet this was a first for me, and for her. She had been carried into the open plaza hours earlier by another who loves her as I do. Now it was my turn to sit with her, to guard her through the final hours before dawn.

Although we had never met, I located my two sisters in the quiet darkness. They told me how the month before, one of them had accompanied our beloved, but they were forced to leave the plaza at dawn. When our beloved’s followers arrived at the appointed hour to celebrate with her, she sat in a police station, held tightly by a woman who wanted only to protect the beloved. The faithful gathered without her, mourning her absence, determined to find another way to insure her presence next month.

This night and this day would be different. Together, we who love her would return her to the circle of disciples who would arrive in three hours.

We sat close to one another, three women surrounding a scroll that has been carried by our people for thousands of years, over deserts and mountains, across seas, a scroll whose words are inscribed on our hearts. The day before we had begun the portion that includes: “צדק צדק תרדוף you shall, you must pursue justice.” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Every month, my sisters gather at the Western Wall to welcome the new moon. And every month there are new challenges and obstacles to the pursuit of just, equal access to this ancient sacred space.

Elul is the month of preparation for Rosh HaShanah, a month when Jews immerse ourselves in self reflection, when we consider our deeds of the past year. Every morning during the month of Elul, we sound the shofar to wake ourselves up, to look back with clarity so that we can look forward with compassion and determination. We spent a night of watching so that our sisters could welcome the month of Elul with the Torah as our guide; we accompanied her through the night so would she accompany us through this month of searching and beyond.

Soon after I arrived at the plaza, a policeman stood before us and demanded that we unwrap our precious cargo, that we reveal our beloved. When he saw the Torah, he demanded that we, and that she must leave the plaza. My companions were prepared for this challenge. They called — and woke — the Chief of Police, who told the officer to leave us alone.

It is a rare privilege to experience the arrival of a new day. We sat together, flooded with wonder as the night dissolved into light, shielding our precious legacy. The ancient rabbis, driven by a desire to praise the Holy One at every hour of day and night, were keen observers of the changes of light, and air, and atmosphere as the earth circles the sun. Trembling, we waited for the dawn, and for our sisters.

The women began arriving, donning tallitot and tefillin, exchanging glances of appreciation and concern. Some had been stopped as they entered the plaza because they carried shofarot. Yet each who arrived brought with her the conviction that it is her right, and her responsibility, to raise her voice in prayer, in song, to welcome this month.

My night of watching had come to an end; it was time to return the beloved to her followers. “For from Zion will come the Torah, and God’s word from Jerusalem.” With pride and joy, one of my sisters carried the Torah through our group, and each woman reached out to touch her.

When we unrolled the scroll, our hearts opened. On this first day of this new month, we remembered sixteen year old Shira Banki, who was murdered as she walked in the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade two weeks before. As we lifted the Torah, we called upon her as our tree of life, renewing our commitment to remain firmly planted in our pursuit of justice, in paths of peace.

Every day during the month of Elul, we conclude the morning service by sounding the shofar. Thanks to the determination of several women, and the intervention of the Chief of Police, every woman present was invited to take a turn blowing the ram’s horn. For some, it was a first opportunity to bring this ancient instrument to life. One of us held the Torah close to her heart as she lifted a shofar to her lips  She joined the circle of women who welcomed Elul with cacophonous, piercing, haunting blasts that reverberated across the plaza.

May the shofar’s call wake up each of us, renewing our determination to work for justice and peace in this month of Elul and in the new year, 5776.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is scholar in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation. She is also the editor of The Open Door, the CCAR Haggadah (2002).

This blog was originally posted on The Times of Israel.

Categories
General CCAR High Holy Days Machzor Rabbis Reform Judaism

Reading Nitzavim on Yom Kippur

“You stand this day, all of you, before your God, the Holy One of Blessing: you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer … ” (Deuteronomy 29)

The opening of Nitzavim grabs us by our lapels and looks each of us directly in the eye. All of you, each of you, whether you stand at the top or at the bottom of the food chain, whether you command the attention and admiration of many or whether your labor goes almost unnoticed, you stand this day, poised to enter into a relationship with God, a relationship that demands your full attention.

The opening has the urgency of an invitation that’s almost impossible to refuse. Every man, child, woman, outsider and insider is included in this round up. The portion continues as God addresses the people: “I make this covenant … not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day … and with those who are not with us here this day.”

Not only is everyone present included, but those who will come after, children and grandchildren, descendants and heirs are also included. This is a covenant of mythic proportions, a relationship between God and God’s people that transcends time.

Thirty years ago, Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l, and the Liturgy Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis decided that this challenge to the community should not be read solely on Shabbat Nitzavim. These editors of The Gates of Repentance, the High Holiday prayerbook used in Reform congregations, introduced this portion as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning.  As the new CCAR machzor, Mishkan HaNefeshis being developed, the editors are maintaining Nitzavim as an option for the Yom Kippur torah reading.

This innovation insured that many Jews would hear: “You stand this day, all of you … ” and as an invitation to the link between this eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people and the message of teshuvah/return that is at the center of Yom Kippur. The Gates of Repentance concludes the Torah reading with these words from our portion: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you, this day; I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live.”

Entering into covenant is a choice that opens the way to other choices. We are making our way through the month of Elul, the month that leads into the High Holidays and offers rich spiritual opportunities to begin to review, return and repair. Teshuvah is our process of considering how we’ve stumbled and then making amends, asking others to forgive us, and forgiving ourselves.

Every day during Elul, we blow the shofar. Like the opening words of Nitzavim, the shofar grabs us and shakes us awake to the possibilities of living our lives with greater attention, greater intention, and greater joy. The shofar calls us to choose life and blessing, through small acts of kindness, and through discovering the power of patience for ourselves and others.

This portion reminds us that we are in this together, whatever our roles in life. It reminds us that we are connected not only to those with whom we share time and place, but that our circles of responsibility are beyond our own sight.

Nitzavim reminds us that our choices today have consequences for our descendants, and indeed, for many we will never meet. In this New Year, may each of us choose life, blessing and joy.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism.