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Toward Shabbat: Ki Tissa

“Said God: I will not enter heavenly Jerusalem until I enter earthly Jerusalem.” (Midrash Tehillim, 122)

“Heavenly Jerusalem, earthly Jerusalem. Never has a city been so beautiful and so blemished, so revered and so reviled, so easy to love and so hard to live in,” said my dear Jerusalemite friend Rabbi Rani Jaeger.  

I have always felt the duality of Jerusalem—its earthly conflicts and iniquities in permanent battle with its heavenly radiance—but I recently returned from a six-week visit there and have never before experienced Jerusalem so torn, so dejected, so joyless. 

I was in Israel on a short sabbatical leave in order to complete a project that I started a couple of years ago with my friend Yair Harel: a book of 70 piyutim (liturgical songs) from Jewish traditions around the world. The book contains songs for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays as well as for life-cycle celebrations. These sacred songs were written, composed, and sung in different lands from the 3rd- or 4th-century CE to the present and represent the cultural diversity of the global Jewish community, past and present—Israel and the Middle East, Europe, America, North Africa, and all the way to India and Afghanistan. Each piyut will appear in Hebrew, English translation, and transliteration, and will include musical notation and a brief introduction. The finish line is already in sight; we hope to publish the book in a few months.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to focus on this work and to be immersed in these beautiful poems that speak of yearning for spiritual connection, of celebration, love, and hope.  And I am grateful also for having spent time, especially Shabbat, with dear friends, and attending spiritually uplifting synagogues and inspiring concerts.

All around, however, the feeling was eerie: the mounting cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, including a recent Jewish settlers’ pogrom on a Palestinian town; the hateful discourse and constant incitement of the Jewish supremacists, ultranationalists, and religious extremists in the governing coalition; the serious threats to democracy; the fury on both sides of a society that seems hopelessly divided and irreconcilable. More than once I heard about the real possibility of political violence and the terrifying words “civil war.”

But through the ominous clouds I saw some rays of hope:

  • The persistence of hundreds of thousands of protesters from all walks of life who, week after week, take to the streets to oppose the government’s anti-democratic measures.
  • The formation of a new group of observant Jews, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic—from Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) to Dati (national-religious Jews) to Masorti (traditional Jews)who call themselves HaSmol Ha-Emuni – “The Faithful Left.” I went to their first gathering at which there were 600 people and an impressive roster of presenters who spoke about feminism, religion and state, fighting poverty, distributive justice and the occupation, all through the prism of Torah and Jewish values. They are now laying the groundwork for political and social action. 
  • Many people now understand the relationship between the struggle for democracy and the struggle against the occupation: a state that denies basic rights to millions of people and systematically discriminates against a fifth of its citizens can hardly be called a democracy. 

Frankly, I don’t know if these positive signs will grow and, if they do, whether they will suffice to prevent something dreadful from happening. Israel is coming close to a very dangerous precipice. Like so many others, I am deeply afraid. I fervently pray for God’s help in this fateful and vulnerable hour:

Pray for peace in Jerusalem,
contentment for all who love you.

May there be peace in your ramparts,
tranquility in your sanctuaries.

For the sake of my brothers and sisters,
I will speak words of peace to you, 

for the sake of your holy dwelling, God,
I will pursue good for the sake of all.

(Translation of Psalm 122  by Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms)