Instruments of war, instruments of peace

Rabbi Jim Bennett

By Rabbi Jim Bennett

In the United States and in many places around the world, most of us teach our children, from a young age, to be cautious with strangers.  Sadly, for good reason, we teach our children to run from strangers who approach them and to avoid strangers at all cost in most situations.  Instead, we tell them, in an emergency, find someone in authority, like a teacher, the police or the like.

Here in Israel, though, things are a bit different.  This past week, I was reminded of this when a friend whose 10-year-old daughter is in the north of Israel at her first sleep-away camp told me that, despite the rocket attacks from Gaza, she is comfortable knowing that her daughter is with others who will care for her.

“After all,” she told me, “here we teach our kids to find strangers in an emergency.  Here in Israel, everyone is your child’s guardian!”  

Sometimes, this can be annoying.  Total strangers may say something to your kids about their behavior, despite your desire, but on the other hand, parents here teach their kids that this is a community, that in an emergency they can seek out a stranger and know that they will be taken care of, and parents know that there is a sense of communal responsibility and concern that embraces us all.  In these difficult times, this, at least, is some measure of comfort. Israel aspires to truly be a kehillah kedoshah — a sacred community — built on values like this.

But these are, after all, remarkable, difficult, inspiring times in Israel, times that have shattered, for many, the aspiration of sacred community. Tragically, we were reminded in recent weeks that not all strangers can be trusted, that not all children are safe, and once again, parents and families across this region mourned the deaths of young people.  Violence rages once again; fear and anxiety hang thickly in the air.

Last week, my wife and I spent the day with our son, who was on a day off from serving as a counselor for one of the groups of teens traveling with NFTY in Israel.  We walked together through the new and old city of Jerusalem, a city that is at one and the same time on edge with anxiety and fear, yet also striving for normalcy.  Business as usual, everything seemed to say, yet the shops and restau rants are empty, and people are glued to their cellphones and televisions far more than normal.  

Where will the next siren sound?  Where will the rockets hit? Are there any casualties? Children ask their parents whether everything will be OK, and parents look quizzically at each other when they assure their children that everything will be fine. We are safe, but are things fine?  That is a hard question.

Two nights before, about 10 p.m., I experienced a first after 35 years of visiting Israel:  I heard the alarm siren sounding a rocket attack on Jerusalem.  My wife and I frantically looked at each other, wondering what to do, and then searched for a key to the bomb shelter in the basement of our apartment building.  Not finding it, we knocked on a neighbor’s door.  

Our elderly neighbor Ruth assured us that everything would probably be OK, saying, “I’m old, so I won’t go to the shelter, but you probably should.” 

Later, another neighbor assured us that all was safe and that he would take us to the shelter if there was another alarm. 

“But for now, just go to bed. … It will be OK. Yi’h’yeh b’seder – it will be OK.”

Such attitudes are prevalent across the center of the country.  “Don’t give them the victory of forcing us to change our routine,” a friend says. “Then they will win.” The people of Israel show remarkable resiliency, and optimism, hope, stubbornness and fortitude. But it is far more complicated, as the multitude of voices in the op-ed pages and social media and elsewhere point out in ever-changing opinions whose basis in fact is outdated moments after they are written or spoken.  

This is a situation with only losers, no winners.  The Israeli teens murdered by Hamas terrorists, and their grieving families and nation and people, have lost.  The Palestinian teen burned alive by Israeli Jewish thugs in vengeance, along with his family and community and people, have lost.  The innocent civilians in Israel and in Gaza, caught in this terrible struggle, victimized by terrorists and extremists and by an inability to see a just and fair resolution of this conflict, have lost. Two peoples, each seeking self-determination and freedom, have lost.  All those who believe that this corner of the world might actually be restored to its vision of peace and justice for all people, have lost.

Political theories are being tested; talking heads are proclaiming one theory or another, one prediction after another; blame is being cast, moral equivalencies are being thrown around carelessly and recklessly.  Hamas throws rocket after rocket after rocket at the innocent civilians of Israel who seek peace and normalcy, reaping terror with each blast, and Israel ratchets up the military response, justifiably seeking to defend her people and nation against wanton terrorism from Hamas in Gaza, but tragically affecting   innocents there as well.  It feels like a tinderbox ready to explode.

Yet somehow, miraculously and predictably, there remains hope.  Last week, we saw a remarkable series of events.  First, while driving home to Jerusalem, we watched the incredible scene of two rockets in the sky over our heads being intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, a miracle of military technology that is literally saving lives every hour in Israel.  

As the alarm subsided, we returned to our apartment and went to dinner at a sidewalk café in the First Train Station complex in Jerusalem.  The place teemed with people of all ages – couples, families, teens, college kids, children, tourists, Israelis, eating, drinking, dancing to live music in the square, shopping, laughing. Resilience was all around. It was hard to believe that only a couple of hours before we had watched rockets over our heads and, now, life seemed to be good.

Yet life is good only for some, and only with the anxiety and specter of war hovering in the distance.  This region desperately needs peace.  Israel and the Palestinians need reasonable people to come to their senses and feel the pain of the other, listen to each other, learn what the other is thinking, and do what we can do to resolve this conflict once and for all. The leaders must do whatever they can, and even more. 

Is peace likely?  No, but peace is never likely, or easy, or close at hand. Making peace takes hard work. It is the task of each of us to make the vision of the prophets real, and then to go even further.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai famously wrote:

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into ploughshares, don’t stop! 

Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. 

Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into ploughshares first.”

Shabbat will come soon once again to Jerusalem. Hopefully, the instruments of war will be quieted and replaced with the instruments of song and prayer and hope. A siren will sound in Jerusalem, but it will be the siren announcing the arrival of Shabbat, the day of peace and rest. With it will descend a magical spirit, and we will renew our prayers for peace. 

We will pray that the quiet of Shabbat will be truly peaceful, with no fear, no rockets, no conflict, no injuries, no deaths, only the idea of kehillah kedoshah. We will say the magic words “Shabbat Shalom” – and really mean it:  May this be a Shabbat of peace for all people, now, here, everywhere, forever.