Mirror, Mirror, on the (Western) Wall, who’s the… Word 15

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worship

עבודה

 

 

 

 

 

The Western Wall is almost empty and pretty cold at 6:30 on this Tuesday morning.  A cat slinks away a long crack in one of the huge stones in the men’s section but none of the black-clad men busy praying loudly in small clusters notice. A few women  stand in solitary silent prayer, apart from each other, across the partition. A sanitation cleaner sweeps the floor all the way up to the wall itself, shoos the cat, and adds, along with the discarded tissues, all the carefully folded notes that were tucked into the cracks in the wall but were unlucky enough to fall to the ground during the night. *

I’m here with my family to celebrate my 13 year old nephew’s Bar Mitzvah season- today he’s binding himself in leather straps for the first time. Even my father, in a wheelchair, didn’t want to miss on this almost last grandson’s rite of passage.

We find a Table right alongside the partition, the women peer through the cracks in the fence, and the business as usual morning prayers progress with efficient speed. Cameras click on both sides of the partition, and some laughs, and it’s nice to be with the family, but I find it hard to join them in the prayers. I walk off to the side, close my eyes.

It’s not just that this is not my kind of prayer experience or valued form of contemplation. Too many words. Not a fan of speed read through psalms and pages, not anymore. It doesn’t work for me. And definitely not here.

I’ve come here all my life, as kid and soldier and student, sworn in to defend the homeland and detained for co-ed prayers, and I’ve prayed here and cried here, alone, and with others.

Most memorably and recently with rage.

I’ve been coming to the wall in the past months and years on the new moon, to support the Women of the Wall  in their right fight for dignity and religious expression.

This has become an immensely  important and complex symoblic fight for religious freedom in Israel. and it’s about to get more complicated.

 

As of two months ago the women can’t even enter this area with a prayer shawl, let alone wear one. Nor pray aloud.

 

And here I am today , a privileged Jewish male, free to pray as loudly as I want to, in my (‘It needs to be ironed” says my mother later) own talit worn any way I choose.

I can pray here freely – but actually I can’t.

How can someone pray in a place that is silencing the prayer of another?

I know this fight is right.

And when you think about it, the fight for religious freedom of expression is at the heart of the Jewish story – it’s the core of the Exodus saga and also found in this week’s Torah text – Bo.

From the get-go, Moses’ core demand of Pharaoh – Let My People Go – is not for freedom from labor- it’s for freedom to worship – or labor – for their own God.

let My people go,  So They Will Worship Me Exodus 10:3

 

The Hebrew word for ‘worship’ and ‘labor’ is the same – Avodah. The same word used to describe the slavery is the word used to articulate the demand for time off for religious freedom, a human dignity of choice of how to worship.

 

We always think of Moses as this great national liberator – and that does happen – but the initial fight is for religious freedom.   It isn’t clear if the demand to go worship is a pretense for escaping or a genuine plea for group bonding on religious grounds as  first step to national unity. Or all of the above. Either way Egypt refuses. And then it’s too late.

 

Mirror, Mirror, on the Western Wall: Who’s the Pharaoh here?

It’s also the Pharaoh, btw, past the locusts and down to the last two strikes- that finally relents to the Hebraic call for worship but on condition that only the men go. Moses refuses:  Everybody goes. Together. Ex. 10:11

Pigeons fly above us, someone quotes a poem by Yehuda Amichai about pigeons at the wall, and soon we will go home for bagels and coffee and a simple celebration and maybe one day this will all be something else and no prayers will be thrown into the trash.

And then I close my eyes again and try, and ask, for inner peace, and the courage to hope,  and  for all prayers to be prayed, here and everywhere – freely.  For all.

shabbat shalom

 

 

 

 

(*Now these personal petitions are trash. Do they still matter? Does the magic work if the notes are no longer  tucked in the cracks? does ‘it work’ if they stay?

and what does ‘work’  mean here anyway?

 

It works, we say, when something clicks right. Zeh Oved. And it’s the same, sometimes , with our prayers, true expressions of the soul that come from within, personal poetry, words cross our lips or written out by our fingers and tucked in a wall or talked to the stones or the sky. It’s like hitting SEND on a message you’ve crafted and are ready to send to the world. IT works when you’ve done your best to articulate your needs, request, suggestion, prayer. Regardless of reply, the rest will happen as it will.)

 

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

African Ritual in Jerusalem – the Sacred Day of Seeg’d

For a few hours yesterday I was in Africa, right here in Jerusalem. Seeg’d – the annual holy day of the Ethiopian Jewish Community was celebrated on Wed. Nov 14, the last day of the month of Heshvan, on the Jerusalem Promenade, overlooking the Temple Mount. Seeg’d, which means ‘day of worship and prostration’, marks this community’s version of the historical date on which Ezra and Nehemiah, some 2,500 years ago, gathered the people in Jerusalem for the first public chanting of the Torah. In Ethiopia, the community would gather on the nearest  mountain, fast, pray, and read form the Orita – their version of the Torah. The ceremony always took place on the last day of this month, Heshvan, and was followed by a break-fast and  festive New Moon celebration. Now it’s happening in Jerusalem, and the promenade, right under the home where I’m lucky to be  living begun reverberating with the public prayers from 9am on. Dressed in festive white, traditional garb for some and fancy modern for others, thousands gathered from all over Israel. The Kesim – religious leaders – mounted the stage, one by one, holding elaborate umbrellas hovering over their heads. Some of them carried cloth wrapped bundles on their heads – their personal copy of the Orita,  placed carefully on the table before them. They chanted, in Gez, their sacred tongue, haunting, hypnotic, for hours, as many of the people prayed along, dancing, swaying, hands up in supplication, and many others just milling around, meeting, and taking pictures.

So much dignity in the wrinkled faces. The beauty of the hands raised, cupped and moving in prayer. How much these people went through to get here. So many didn’t make it. The pain was present here alongside the pride.

For just a few moments, for just one day of pilgrimage, forget the poverty and the despair, the tensions and difficulties that this community has endured on its way to, and once in, this hard and holy land.

This was a pilgrimage that reminded me of ancient days, Ezra and beyond, Africa, here and now. It felt exotic and familiar – mine and not – I cried and longed to be part of this tribe, of which I know not enough.

As I walked away, after a few hours of mesmerised chanting, talking with some, exchanging blessings, before the fast was broken, the Muslim Muezzins began wailing and praying from the nearby mosques. The voices blended in the air, chanting in Arabic and Gez, ancient words in contemporary throats celebrating mysteries, transcending, for just a sacred moment, the mundane mess of every day life.

Obama Wins Jerusalem: 4 Years Later + Again

Published by Quartz: www.qz.com

 

When the sun rose over Jerusalem four years ago I sobbed for joy because of the poetic justice of a black man’s triumph. I remember driving on streets named for American icons whose work had led to that triumph—Lincoln Street, then Martin Luther King Rd—as the early morning November fogs lifted, feeling full of praise for Barack Obama’s first presidential victory.

This morning, with the first rays of light, here I was again, as church bells rang out over Zion, driving to the sacred sites in the Old City and crying, this time because of a lesbian’s triumph—Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay woman elected to the US Senate—and because here I was, a gay Jewish man praying hard for four more years of honest human dignity for all. The news of Obama’s re-election broke minutes later.

So much has changed since that hopeful morning in 2008. Back then, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was not yet Israel’s prime minister. The American billionaire Sheldon Adelson was not the owner of Israel’s most popular daily paper, Israel Hayom, a pro-Bibi organ which—thanks to its owner’s deep pockets—is free, and has undercut and undermined the rest of Israel’s print media. The cafes in the German Colony neighborhood were open all night with giant screens and viewing parties. When the news broke, just before dawn, champagne bottles popped open, people were yelling in the streets, and I wasn’t the only one crying with relief. At the American ambassador’s official breakfast at the King David Hotel, strangers hugged. I took home a historic souvenir—an Obama campaign sign with that famous “Hope” logo. There was so much of that then.

Some of it is back today. But last night the German Colony cafes were closed. Israelis—worried about our own upcoming elections that Bibi seems likely to win, fatigued by our internal politics, jaded by the lack of progress with peace and by the prevailing sense, true or not, that Obama hasn’t done enough—just don’t seem to care as much. Americans held house parties through the night, tweets and texts crossing oceans, but the 2008 excitement and follow-up euphoria seemed way more subdued. At 6:17am, the sun just up, I took a picture of the morning sky, cheered with friends on Facebook, then quickly dressed to drive to the ambassadors’ breakfast, yet again, waving on my way to Jerusalem’s ancient walls, which have witnessed so many leaders come and go.

Never mind the silent walls. I drive and cry because this morning it’s about Tammy Baldwin! Elizabeth Warren! and Obama’s second term! I cry knowing that the man who fought for my right to marry a man will care more for the rights of all. I pray—sincerely—to who or whatever is in charge of the winds of history that in this second term he’ll rise up to the challenge of peace in this region, not take no for an answer, and give it all he’s got. The dignity of the Palestinian people and the security of Israel is more at stake then ever.

Four years ago on this day, our oldest daughter, Alice turned two. From Jerusalem I sent her a deliriously happy birthday video. Today, she’s six and proudly wears an Obama T-shirt that says “Forward”. I am hopeful that like so many other children she will go through the first year of elementary school in a country quite divided but heading forward to more days of blazing dawns and hopes for changes, and dignity, and courage. Happy birthday, Alice. And happy new day, Mr. President.

 

The Altars of the Slain Defy Location: The Weekly Word/Lech Lecha

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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3. Altar מזבח/Lech Lecha

Driving through Jerusalem last night with out of town guests I point out landmarks: Here I lived and loved, this is where the bomb went off, see the hidden shrine. For natives and tourists and pilgrims alike some spots are holier than others, some attractions more popular or less. All of Jerusalem is one big sacred site, dotted by plaques and monuments, and in the middle of it all is the holy mount, and on its summit, shining gold, is the ancient altar, covered by layers of faith.  Noah, they say, built an altar here, Abraham almost offered his son.
This week’s Torah text,  Lech Lecha, is full of altars. Abraham, leaving his family’s estate in Mesopotamia to  what will become the Hebraic homeland, pauses on his journey  to mark milestones  – again and again, he builds on altar. Altars are slaughter sites – stone structures where sacrifices are offered to the local deity, food shared and smoke rising – a vertical connection between heaven and earth: the nameless spot becomes a known location: You are here now.
Two altars are on my mind this week, both connected not by space but by time.
This coming Saturday night marks the 70th anniversary of my Grandfather’s murder. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau was gassed to death in Treblinka – that terrible altar of so many sacrifices, along with one of his sons, and his entire congregation. He was the last rabbi of the town, and according to survivors he led his flock to death holding a Torah scroll and chanting the S’hma and Kaddish. This coming Saturday night our extended family will gather in B’nei Brak to welcome a new Torah scroll into my uncle’s Yeshiva.
17 years ago my grandfather’s yahrtzeit was also on Saturday night and in my home in Jerusalem I lit a candle. That was the night on which Yitzchak Rabin was murdered, in the Tel Aviv square now named for him. Spontaneous altars rose all over the country, countless candles lit.
A Rally will take place in Rabin Square this Saturday night – we will vow to never again tolerate this hostile violence. I hope to be able to attend both of these events.
Abraham’s altars lit the fires and the smoke still rises, connecting heaven and earth, private and public, past and present; candles will be lit by that fire and memories ignited: we are here – still here – always, and now.  These altars are not about location – they, like memories, exist beyond.
זכרונם לברכה
shabbat Shalom

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

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. storahtelling.org