What the Pope can Teach Israel’s New President. Perhaps.

June 10, 2014
This past Sunday, Pope Francis invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to pray with him for peace.
The day before, His Holiness tweeted: Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world. 
I wasn’t invited to Rome, but I wanted to be privy to this ritual, so I watched it online,  pausing, here and there (it was over two hours long), to actually feel moved enough to pray.
But most of the time I struggled to be moved. Judging by the faces of the fidgeting delegates in attendance, representing three religions, splendid religious garb, and at least three versions of God, I was not the only struggler. It was very serious, solemn, and, well, long.
There were highlights: The Palestinian delegation chose the only participating woman (other than the MC) to read aloud a few sacred texts. A rabbi and an Imam, respectively, sang out loud  – with what seemed like real intention of prayers and verses.  Strings and harp played in between the lofty words, with some melodies quite pretty. An olive tree was planted at the end by all three leaders. No tears were visibly shed.
So I watched, hoping to see  – to feel – something ‘real’ happen – despite the general buzz about how politically insignificant and possibly empty this papal gesture was.
I wanted – and still insist on wanting – to believe that such gestures have actual meaning, impact and the ability to somehow crack or even shatter the  stubborn walls of refusal to change.
I want to believe that prayer can help where other forms of communications fail. Not necessarily because prayers are addressed to the Creator one does or does not believe in but because prayers open up the ones who pray to be more vulnerable, more open, more fully human, fragile, and sincere.
I’m told that this was the first time Muslim prayers were publicly recited at the Vatican. And that although not for the first time – this was a big moment for these three religions to come and pray together in such prominent display of faith and yearning for progress.  I am a big believe in the power of interfaith gatherings to dispel the centuries of malice and suspicion, turning to a brave new page.
If anything is going to get the Middle East out of the rut it is in – it’s likely the role of gutsy faith leaders able to re-imagine the sacred narratives that have become so often tools for hostility instead of vehicles for compassion.
Perhaps this prayer summit will help encourage more religious leaders to reach out to others across the lines, and to delve deep into our wisdom shared by all our traditions, beyond the borders and the hyperbole, to retrieve the spirit of unity and shared values.
There’s blood on all hands here. Let’s not forget. The pope’s bright white mantle is sprinkled with ancient drops of bloody crusades. Abbas and Peres, two old war horses, one on his way out, the other soon to follow – are no innocents either, representing complicated and brutal attempts to make one country work for two nations at terrible costs.
But here they sat, stiff in big chairs, admitting by their mere presence that the truth is bigger than them all, and the fact that the only way out of this mess is to appeal, together, publicly, to the mystery residing way above and way below and deep within each and every one of us.
They did what prayers do – admit, out loud: We are vulnerable. And we need help.
Because of our collective failures to make the world a better place where peace pulsates like mightily rivers – we appeal to God or Allah or Hashem or Mother Earth or the Power that Calls for Salvation or whatever, in a humble plea for strength to do the work.
An affirmation of the possible, against the odds. In today’s cynical, sorta-secular society where eyes roll at the role of religion in the civic sphere, often for good reasons – this was a big deal.
This morning, a new president was voted in Israel. Rivlin is a vegetarian, Likkud member – secular Jew, and I’m not holding my breath for news of his peace making – among Israelis, Jews or residents of the Middle East. A few years ago he famously labeled my form of Judaism “idol worship” and it’s unclear whether he will recognize me as a rabbi once I am ordained. Perhaps he’ll change his views.
But I will take a moment now to quietly recite a prayer, that he, too, blessed by the mantle of leadership, will be humble enough to see beyond the here and now, reach out to other leaders of region and religion and beyond, submit his will to greater forces of good, make history happen, make sense,  make love between all people, and yes, dare I say it, help make real peace.
Thank you Mr. Peres. May your prayers be heard too.
And may the Mysterious One  making peace possible above and below, help us make more peace within and everywhere, right here, right now, for all of us, somehow, together.



Is This Blowout 90th Birthday Bash a Blessing?? Ask Babs. Word 37.

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Naphatli Lau-Lavie (Israeli Counsel General in NY) and Shimon Peres (Prime Minister), plotting, 1984

Happy birthday Mr. President!

JFK got Marilyn to sing to him and blow out the candles (and then some.)

Peres got Barbara Streisand, Bill Clinton and a bunch of other VIP’s to come celebrate his 90th birthday with him in Israel this week . Babs will sing.  Jerusalem is yet again a traffic nightmare.

Look,he’s great and all, deserving love and praise and blessings, cakes and songs and adoration of the public, including Sharon Stone, but more and more Israelis are looking at this blowout with some suspicion. This feels more monarchic than ever, with an obvious national agenda/propaganda. This old man’s birthday, all over billboards and TV ads, has become the talk of the town. Is it Peres we are celebrating or some nostalgic vision of an Israel that no longer actually exists? The line up of guests is impressive, but not a single Arab leader is expected to attend – and what does THAT say about us? So much for the Noble Prize winner for Peace’s talk about the New Middle East.

Some grumble about the cost of this affair. the 11 Million NIS celebration is funded by private Jewish funders, we’re told. Great. It’s not like income tax didn’t just go up, again, and next year’s government budget, up this week for vote, preserves most of the wrongs that got us into the streets in protest, just last summer. is this expense really the right way to mark this milestone?

I heard a man on the radio yesterday suggest that instead of a celeb-glitz Peres should have invited every 90 year old person – and older – to his mansion for a dinner and a medal. Share the blessings – esp. with so many seniors in bad financial health, among them many struggling Holocaust survivors.  A little more humility and a lot less media buzz.

I like that idea. Let Streisand sing to the ones who built this country, not just those who can fork up a minimum $350 for her sold out shows. (I was really really tempted, btw.)

But I got other birthdays to deal with.

Peres isn’t the only senior celebrating  this week. My father, Naftali, an old friend and colleague of Peres ( I have memories of Peres calling our home phone and asking for my father at odd hours. He’s always say ‘ It’s Shimon’ in his heavy smokers voice and Id know to go find my father..), a brave Holocaust survivor and builder of this state, turns 87, and this week’s Torah portion, Balak, is his old Bar Mitzvah chant.

Balak is all about a curse that turned to blessing  , and, perhaps, about how blessings can sometimes be found in disguise. And vice versa.

Balak is a king that is an enemy of Israel, sending Balaam, a one-eyed wizard, to curse the nomads on their journey to their promised land.

God intervenes, through dreams and a talking donkey, and instead of cursing, Balaam spews forth poetry that has become the gist of prayers and songs, with one of them a daily prayer (Does Streisand have a cover?): Ma Tovu “How beautiful are the tents of Israel. “

The word ‘blessing’ shows up over and over in this week’s text, competing with the toasts and wishes that at least two elder statesmen that I know of will receive this week.

Turning curses into blessings is an ancient alchemy of hope, a persistent attempt at going beyond the negative to honor the good in everything, and strive for more.

My father’s autobiography, from the ashes of the camps to his peace work at Camp David is focused on this theme and aptly named “Balaam’s Prophecy” – a compelling and highly recommended read.

So in that spirit.

Let’s bless our elders:

Mr. Peres. May your vision of peace in this promised land survive and be your lasting legacy, and grow, and nourish many dreamers and become reality for many many more. May you enjoy the love you’ve always wanted from so many adoring fans.

And to my beloved father: Days of kindness, little smiles of simple joys, as healthy as possible and protected from all worry and all harm.  You are the blessing for us all, a source of inspiration, pride and purpose.

Got blessings for these gentlemen? please share.

Mazal Tov and 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