Sharing our Grief, Burying our Fears

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

(This Dvar Torah appeared in the December 2000 special issue of Sh'ma, focused on the Israel-Palestine explosion.)

Now these are the days and the years of Avraham, which he lived:
A hundrd years and seventy years and five years, then he expired Yitzchak
and Yishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Makhpela in the field that
Avraham had acquired There were buried Avraham and Sara his wife. Now it
was after Avraham's death, that God blessed Yitzhak his son. And Yitzhak
settled by the Well of the Living-One Who-Sees-Me.
(Gen. 25: 7-8a, 9-11.)

On the eighth day, I was named "Avraham Yitzchak" &151; "Abraham Isaac." On Rosh Hashanah 1975, when we read about the near-deaths of Abraham's two sons, it came to me to add "Yishmael" &151; Ishmael &151; and thus to complete the troubled triangle.

Ever since, when the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac tear at each other, I feel myself being torn apart.

So I take joy in the passage of Torah where these two come together to bury Abraham, and then live together at the same "well of seeing" that had saved Ishmael's life. For years, I have urged that we read it on Yom Kippur as a tikkun, a tshuvah, on the deadly Rosh Hashanah stories.

And not merely read. Today, all Israelis and Palestinians, all Jews and Arabs, might mourn together, not separately, the deaths of our children. If we see each other's tears, we may water a wellspring of seeing, a wellspring at which we can learn to live together.

And perhaps we learn not only to share our tears but to bury our fears. Perhaps the brothers had projected onto each other the fear they felt toward Abraham &151; but could not say aloud. So perhaps his death released them both to see each other's faces, rather than his frightening frown.

Today, what fears would have to die, to release Israelis and Palestinians to see each other?

The passage mentions two places: a tomb and a well. What land does Abraham "acquire"? A grave. Only the dead can "own" land; the living simply sojourn on God's land, as Leviticus 25: 23 reminds us. If we the living give up our attachment to acquiring, we can sit calmly ("vayeshev" in Gen. 25: 11) to drink at wells of vision.

What about those sacred places of today whose "ownership" has sparked so many deaths?

For Jews to claim to "own" the Temple Mount is a travesty. During the past 1800 years, we have become wise enough to decree it not a place we are supposed to physically inhabit, but a place we are supposed to physically avoid. We taught that the most sacred place is one we do not "own" and cannot even put our foot on.

Why? Because we might inadvertently step into the Holy of Holies. Why not do this? Because the Holy of Holies itself was a place to be entered only by one person for one moment every year.

Our NON-ownership was holy. This was a radical critique of idolatry. It teaches in space what Shabbat teaches in time.

What Rabbinic Judaism did was in effect to expand the Holy of Holies, defining the entire Temple Mount as the Holy of Holies and Mashiach as the one high priest who could enter it.

Yet we are creatures of body, who at our healthiest must have a Land to "sit" in, a well to drink from, a brother or sister to see. How is this done without "acquiring" the Land? By treating the land with loving respect, living not on its back but as part of its web of life, avoiding such mistakes as draining the Huleh wetlands, building the Trans-Israel Highway, using scarce water for settler swimming pools instead of Palestinian kitchens.

Zionism had within it both the strand of healing the Land and the strand of dominating it, the strand of befriending Abraham's other family and the strand of controlling it. In recent years, the second of these strands has been elevated to a dominant role.

But exile, alienation, cannot be solved by possessiveness. It can only be eased by acknowledging that possessiveness is itself a form of exile.

* Since 1969, Rabbi Arthur Waskow has been one of the leading creators of theory, practice, and institutions for the movement for Jewish renewal. He is a Pathfinder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

In 1983 he founded and continues to direct The Shalom Center, a division of ALEPH that focuses on Jewish thought and practice to protect and heal the earth and society. To join The Shalom center, send $49 or more to The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA 19119.

Among his seminal works in Jewish renewal are The Freedom Seder; Godwrestling ; Seasons of Our Joy ; Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life; and Godwrestling - Round Two (recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award in 1996).

With his wife Phyllis Ocean Berman, he is the co-author of Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World. He is the co-editor of Trees, Earth, & Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology, a major new volume in the classic series of Festival Anthologies from the Jewish Publication Society and the editor of Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought (Jewish Lights, 2000).

In 1996, Rabbi Waskow was named by the United Nations one of forty "Wisdom Keepers" — forty religious and intellectual leaders from all over the world who met in connection with the Habitat II conference in Istanbul.

During this past year, The Shalom Center has initiated a multi-religious project called FREE TIME/ FREE PEOPLE, on issues of overwork and disemployment in American society. See Freeing Our Time.