On Tuesday morning I woke up in a sleeping bag, as the first rays of sun rose over the Dead Sea, painting the Judean cliffs and the Qumran Caves a perfect pink. All around me, the pilgrims stir, the tea boils and another day of walking begins. It’s Time for Peace.
About 70 idealistic men and women – Palestinians and Israelis, Swiss and German, British and Mexican, have been walking for two weeks,from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, through Palestinian and Israeli territories on a pilgrimage for peace in the Holy Land. Organized by the Peace Research Village Association, the vision for this extraordinary journey brings together activists who blend ecological concerns, personal growth, community building and peace work. Some dear friends of mine are involved and although I couldn’t commit to the entire journey I was honored and thrilled to join them on a couple of stops along the way.
For all involved – and esp. for the Israeli and Palestinian pilgrims and the people that the group has met along the way – this is an exercise in challenging preconceived notions of who the other side is – and what stands in the way of basic human co-existence, even across harsh lines of conflict. As I sit around the fire with them on Monday night, a delegation from a Palestinian village arrives to support and join. One woman rises to speak, in Arabic, telling us that this is the first time in her life that she has entered Israeli territory, afraid – but so excited to be here, as a mother, and as a grandmother, praying with the group for all to wake up. Two nights earlier, I’m told, a group of Israeli soldiers, suspicious at first, then curious, put down their guns and sat in the circle, talking about their fears and hopes. My car got stuck in a ditch, and Mustafa, whom I don’t know, one of the Palestinian pilgrims, comes to help. We sit on the hood of the car later, share a smoke and hear each other’s stories.
By the time I head back to Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, the sun already high up in the sky and the tea all gone, I’ve made new friends, real ones, exchanged phone numbers, hugs, a tear and several tender kisses. Suspicions melt away like fading pillars of smoke. Mustafa warns me to drive more slowly, and we smile and shake hands at first, and then kiss each other on the cheek, three times each.
There’s a famous kiss of peace in this week’s Torah tale, saddled by a surge of deep suspicions that accompany this gesture between two brothers who reunite after twenty years of hostile absence. I’m thinking of this famous kiss today, a loving kiss that so many voices over generations have chosen to interpret as a bite of bitter hatred.
Gen.33:4 tells of the meeting between Jacob and Esau, twenty years after Jacob runs away from home with his brother’s stolen blessing. Jacob is terrified, prepared for the meeting with gifts and prayers and strategic tricks. But when they do finally come face to face, they are simply brothers: “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.”
The Hebrew word ‘Kissed him’ with only one change of letters can be read as ‘Bit him’ and the oral tradition has rendered this moment as a failed attack. Esau meant to bite and hurt his brother, but the bite became a kiss. This is partially because the word is notated differently in classical scribal instructions. It calls for attention.
Esau means harm, according to the generations of readers who fear the Other – the enemy – the Gentile – often for terribly good reasons. They view Esau as the eternal enemy, never to be trusted. We’ve been programed to doubt, to be suspicious, to read this kiss as a bite. I don’t buy it. This is not the simple meaning of the text. They kiss, hug, cry. Later they will part ways. But at this moment they are family, making peace, and love, together. They need each other even if they don’t love each other. Cheek to cheek, three times. Like Mustafa and I kissed. Learning again how to trust. Big week in the UN for next steps for peace. Another day of hopeful steps on sacred paths of this holy land, well worn with war. It’s definitely Time for Peace.
Shabbat Shalom, Zaman El Salaam