In Arabic and Hebrew the word for ‘womb’ is the same – ‘rahem’. In Aramaic this word means ‘love’. In Arabic and in Hebrew this word also mean ‘compassion’. I’m writing today, with thanksgiving on the table and a ceasefire in the streets, grateful for what is and hopeful what will be – the flowering of real peace between our people. It all begins with the womb – and what it stands for.
Hiba al-Masharawi was 19 years old and six-months pregnant when she became one of the first victims of this latest bloody battle between Israel and the Hamas. Never mind right now who started and who’s to blame and whether she was just an innocent bystander or the mother to be of the next general of war or prophet of peace. Her death, and that of her unborn child, like all violent deaths on all sides of this border, women, men and children, is a crime against humanity’s most cherished resource:the courage for compassion.
I find compassion, the lack of it, along with 11 pregnant bellies in this week’s sacred story, where I turn for solace and for distraction during these long days and nights, glued to the news. (From where I am in Jerusalem, now seemingly safe from rockets, six days into this war – is it an official war yet?- no pillars of smoke are visible, but nothing is as it was – friends and relatives still sitting in shelters down South, my nephews and some friends called up to reserve duty, friends of friends in Gaza reporting horrible conditions and fear, all plans on hold, trying to avoid the media blitz and propoganda and praying – literally – praying – for a ceasefire and no ground troops. )
But in this week’s Torah I find not just solaceechoes of the news: Jacob runs away from home, and dreams of success and falls in love and raises a family with four wives. Eleven times in just one chapter, one womb after another fills with new life. Rachel the beautiful is the last to become pregnant in Genesis30-22, and her barren bitter rage as her sister pops em out is reminiscent of the bitter barrenness of all great matriarchs before her, offering perhaps a bit of hope for all those waiting since, and now, for this miracle to happen within.
Rachel is jealous of Leah’s fertility and Leah is angry that Rachel is the one more loved. But they, the mothers of the future nation somehow managed, perhaps, to put away those rages for the sake of a united home where children can grow healthy and peace can nourish life.
They didn’t know her, but there is one role model from whom they may have learned this lesson of compassion and co-existence, as we all need to, urgently, today.
Rebbecca, their mother in law, gave birth to twins in last week’s Torah – Jacob and Esau. Confused with the opposing forces in her swelling womb she went to challenge God for answers – how can one person hold such polar opposites as she was doing? The reply she gets echoes today: There are two within you, there will be struggle, and one will prevail.
Later in the story it’s written that Rebbecca loved Jacob and Isaac loved Esau.
But I don’t buy it. I don’t think the Bible is telling us the whole story here. The agenda of the editor is choosing a side, the winner. I’d rather not. I think Rebbecca, who carried both boys in her belly loved them both, each in her own way. And even if she favored Jacob’s claim to the blessing and the will, Esau too came from within her, and was worthy of her care, compassion, love. When Jacob ran away to sire a family – Esau stayed behind. Who was there when she closed her eyes?
I want to aspire to this version of Rebbecca, proud and pregnant, Mother Earth. I aspire to hold within my soul the love for both opposing forces, and within my mind the care for all sides and battling brothers, no matter the rage.
In Arabic and Hebrew the word for ‘womb’ is the same – ‘rahem’. In Aramaic this word means ‘love’. In Arabic and in Hebrew this word also mean ‘compassion’.
I pray today for Rebecca’s blessing of a pregnant belly full of compassion and hope for all babies to come, in Gaza and Jerusalem, Ashdod and Jenin. I hope that Hiba’s mourning family will not be seduced by the venom of revenge and hate and that all Israeli friends and family will likewise take a moment to simply pause in painful recognition and compassion for the hurts of both sides. May the great mothers teach us how to give birth to peace.
Shabbat Shalom. Sabbath, Peace.
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org