Etty’s Legacy: Our One Moral Duty. Word #27

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Monday morning,10am, siren pierces the sky –  Holocaust Commemoration Day and everybody stands still for 2 minutes of honoring the victims’ memory.  Not everybody. I stand on my balcony in Abu Tor, right on the border between East and West Jerusalem, see some neighbors, like me, standing quietly on balconies and in their windows, but on the street, walking up from the Palestinian side, are four women, dressed in chic-Muslim wear, ranging in age from 20-50’s, chatting, giggling, ignoring the siren. One of them looks right at me and walks on. 
Really? I want to ask them, run after them, inquire. This isn’t just about slain Jews, it isn’t about Israel or the occupation – it’s about women, men and children, millions of them, brutally tortured and killed. It’s about people. It’s about my grandparents, aunts and uncles, countless relatives. It’s about empathy. 

If it was the other way around, I wonder, if we were a minority in a Muslim land where a moment was taken to remember a national loss – would all Jews care enough to stand?  Do we care now? Or are the walls that divide us already as thick as the ghetto walls that  split up so many  European cities during WW2? 

There are, I’m pleased to know, exceptions. Walls, at times, dissolve, and caring happens. 

The night before I attended a unique Holocaust Memorial Ritual, held at Tantur, an ecumenical center, on the road to Bethlehem. Led by Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and German Christian peace activists, this ritual was based on the teachings of Etty Hillesum,  a Dutch Jewish artist who died in  Auschwitz, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of art, writings, and spiritual inspiration -dedicated to peace, within and beyond. 

During the ritual, Dina, a Palestinian, read her favorite quote, in English and in Arabic. Anya, from Germany, chose hers – translated into German ‘to redeem that language, my beloved language, here, today.’ Nachum, a settler from nearby Gush Etzion, leader of a movement for peaceful negotiations between the local neighbors, spoke about his vision for forgiveness, reconciliation and Hillesum’s faith in humanity’s triumph, despite it all. Many of us wept as they all spoke. 

I am perfectly aware that the few dozens gathered in Tantur are, for now, a dedicated anomaly. The rest of us living here are trapped in divisions – mine/yours,  friend/enemy, my pain/your loss, real fences and wall divide us. The boundaries of compassion are all too often withdrawn. 

I live  – chose to live – on the border – and as this siren blasted and my neighbors walked on by I felt a wave of rage, hurt, sadness and a growing distance. How can we ever make peace if we ignore each other’s pain? It goes both ways. Few are innocent in this regard. 

But can divisions and separations sometimes be essential to heal the wounds? the way a band aid separates a cut from air for times of quiet mending? 

In the sacred texts I find a possible remedy, a recipe for healing that demands divisions – of space and time.
This week’s Torah, Tazria Metzora is about healing. Physical discharges, skin infections, mold and other mutilations of normal health to one’s body or home are treated with a mixture of sacrificial remedies, priestly procedures and a heavy dose of faith. Not everybody makes it. The treated victims wait for seven days in seclusion, often outside the camp, beyond the boundaries of norm, as a quarantine that should render health and healing – for all. Divide – to heal. 

“For seven days…one  shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall one’s dwelling be. ” 

This notion of ‘outside’, a health provoked ‘time out’ can easily create a society where lepers are outsiders and those inflicted with a pain are perceived as weak and lesser valued. Other becomes threat, enemy, projection of all fears. 

But from the big span of history – it’s a roller coaster. Today I’m outsider and tomorrow it can be you. Victims can take turns on this cycle of venom – or – maybe, sometimes, rarely – get beyond the hate. 

Maybe we’ll rise up for each other’s painful moments when we all remember that we were once the outsiders, lepers out of camp, victims, fleeing, fearful, mad. 

The work begins within our selves – to judge less, and reclaim more moral ground. Etty, a victim of our terrible tragedy, reminds me, us, of what it’s all about: 


shabbat shalom

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

The Rise and Fall of Fences: Noah, Take Two.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

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2. Noah/Divide פלג

The view from my bedroom


My new bedroom opens to a balcony overlooking breathtaking views: the southern edges of Jerusalem – Talpiot and the promenade, Ben Hinom Valley (known also as Gehenna), Bethlehem in the distance, Silwan to the left. Snaking its way through the hillside in cement is the separation wall, clearly visible – security or not – it is a scary scar in the sacred landscape.

I say ‘my bedroom’ and ‘my view’ aware of how absurdly temporary is this rented reality. And yet, attachment and possession take hold so fast. “My hill’, “my homeland”, “my side of the bed   – or the fence”.  This is mine- and beyond the division – it’s not. Many divisions are real and important – sensible privacy laws, actual borders, friendly fences – but many of the walls that divide us are rooted in the illusion that more divides us that unites. Here in Jerusalem it’s much more dramatic. This sense of what is ‘mine’ and what is ‘yours’ and all this either/or and how it’s rarely peacefully ‘ours’ and rarely and/both. Divided we stand.  Bleeding away.

Dividing things up is an old human habit- as old as the flood. The word and action shows up early in our history – right in this week’s Torah text, the second segment of the year. But alongside the sigh  there is also a surprising ray of hope.

First the sigh: We’re post flood, over the rainbow, Noah’s three sons populate the earth, the names of fathers and sons are listed, the nameless women are mere wombs. But the meaning of the men’s names don’t matter that much either – except for one whose name receives an explanation: Noah’s great grandson, Peleg, son of Ever, whose name means ‘Divide’ – ‘for in his lifetime the earth was divided.”  Genesis 25:2

And just like that baby, divisions are born. In Peleg’s lifetime the Tower of Babble will be built and will topple, and all will scatter all over the world, no longer one, divided by walls, translating each other, a world apart.

Here’s the hope: Peleg doesn’t just mean ‘Divide’ – it’s also the word for ‘a brook’ or a ‘small river’. Some borders, like water, are fluid, and some divisions and fences and fears can be erased.

From the balcony (“my” balcony?)  I look down on a long wooden beam that is raised high and tied to a pole – a raised, dormant divide. For 19 years, from 1948-1967 this is where the border between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem divided the city. I wouldn’t know it had someone not pointed it out. The two parts of Abu Tor are still pretty much divided, and prosperity is not symmetrical, and so the tensions – but where there was a once a wire fence now kids play soccer on the road. There is no wall.

And every dawn, at 4am, I wake up  to the sounds of calls to prayer. Muezzins from mosques across the valley and across the fence chant and sing in haunting Arabic, beyond  invisible divisions that do not go higher than the height of homes. I start my days with this intention – fluid boundaries, hopes for streams of kindness, for less fences and fear.

Where are the divisions in my life? what are the fences I can lower, or discard? what can I do to melt at liquidate at least one such wall into a stream of liquid love?



Shabbat Shalom.



Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.