Rabbi Conover’s Message from Shabbat


Shabbat Devarim 5774
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover-August 1, 2014/6 Av 5774

On Monday morning, I departed from Ben Gurion airport. Late Monday night, our plane landed at O’hare.

In other words, on Monday, I left home…and on Monday, I came home.

I came home during the week when our people open a new book in the Torah called Devarim which literally translates as “words”. I often tell students that this book is the swan song of Moses. For 36 days, before the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Land of Israel, Moses interpreted the events and laws of three books in our Torah in front of a standing multitude hanging on his every word. (A rabbi’s dream…) This, all done by a man who had stated in the Book of Exodus: Lo ish devarim anochi—”I am not a man of words.” The midrash explains that the receiving of Torah at Sinai healed Moses so he could become the man of devarim.

I, of course, am no Moses. In fact, I, usually a person who loves playing in the realm of words, find that the experiences of the past few weeks have produced so many emotional layers in my spirit that lately I must admit that I am not a woman of words.

Yet, two words keep welling up in me:
Eicha- how?
Ayeka- where are you?

They are actually the same word—as Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out—they have the same Hebrew root, only the vowels change.

Eicha- how? and Ayeka- where are you?

One, Eicha, is the Hebrew title of the book from which Jews the world over will read next week on Tisha b’Av. On that Hebrew date, Jews will mark the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by fasting, singing dirges and reading Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. The other, Ayeka, is the first question asked in the Torah—where are you? God asks this of Adam and Eve after they ate from the forbidden tree and sealed their fate of banishment from Eden. Each of these words evoke a longing for a simpler, more peaceful time—and a yearning to find a way back to that time.

In a more primal sense, for me they represent a guttural wail at the present situation. Eicha… Ayeka….

I begin with Eicha—How? How could I leave our beloved homeland in such pain?

I was supposed to leave last Thursday until my flight was cancelled. That Wednesday, our Hartman rabbinic cohort was gathered for our last lunch together in Jerusalem. Yehuda Kurtzer, head of Hartman Institute of North America said:

I am going to give you a gift. For those of you who are beating yourself up, asking yourselves how can you leave Israel now when Israel needs you most, I need to tell you: stop beating yourselves up. Israel needs you to go home and share your Zionism there and much as she needs you here.

Tears flowed.

I continue with Ayeka- Where are you?
Where am I?

How do I best stand with Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael?

The month that I was in Israel had many distinct phases:
– hope that our kidnapped boys–Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach– would be brought home…
– the discovery of their bodies, their funerals, their families’ shiva minyans
– the gruesome murder of Muhammed Abu Khder
– his family’s reception of guests during their mourning
– missiles reining on Israel from Gaza– many intercepted by the Iron Dome
– counter strategic air strikes by Israel
– 40,000 soldiers and reservists called to the ready
– a country waiting on edge to see whether they would go to war
– the commencement of Operation Protective Edge- to destroy Hamas’s missile firing capabilities, tunnel networks, and ability to harm civilians
– more missiles, more civilian deaths
– the day when the entire country held their breath waiting for the bad news that didn’t officially come out until evening: 13 soldiers from the Golani Brigade had been killed
– the funeral of Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier in the Golani Bridage from a small town in Texas where 20,000 were in attendance– everyone worried that people in his family would not be able to attend in large numbers, so they assured him: Israel is your family
– word about Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic demonstrations in Europe
– disheartening and dehumanizing coverage of the war by news outlets, blogs and the twittersphere worldwide
– horrific discoveries in Gaza of schools with stockpiles of missiles and weaponry– sad confirmations of what we already knew about Hamas’s deliberate targeting of Gaza’s civilians– forcing Israel to do the unthinkable
– more shiva minyans for lone soldiers
– too many ceasefires violated
– too many deaths of Israeli soldiers
– too many deaths of innocents in Gaza
– too many human stories lost
– too much distance between reality and perceptions of reality

Coming home, there have been more phases:
– Israel rallies around the country—thousands in attendance at each
– A peaceful pro-Israel rally in Paris
– The birth of baby girl Tal-Or ten days after her father was killed by Hamas gunmen inside the Israeli border
– The latest humanitarian ceasefire supposed to endure for 72-hours lasting less than 2 hours after Hamas resumed launching rockets at Israel.

Then this morning, through tears, I read about the latest from JUF’s man in Israel Ofer Bavly:

The most serious incident took place in the Rafah region as a number of terrorists came up through an attack tunnel. One of them was a suicide bomber who exploded himself near an IDF force. Under the cover of this diversion, other terrorists apparently abducted an IDF soldier and took him back to Gaza. His medical condition is unknown.

His name is Hadar Goldin. We have added him to our growing list of people in our hearts and in our prayers.

Right now, no mother or father with an IDF soldier in Gaza, no brother or sister with a brother in Gaza, no cousin, no aunt, no uncle (as Melanie and Rabbi Goldberg can attest), no friend, and certainly no grandparent who has a grandchild in Gaza is sleeping at night, is focused on their work during the day, can read a book, can decipher the news… They have only one dominant thought:

Bring my boy home.

Eicha—How can I sleep while my boy stays up rooting out terror?

And a corollary prayer:

Please, please bring him home intact. If he suffers bruises– even ones we cannot see that lie heavy on his spirit– spare his soul, let his goodness, his love of life and his respect for other human beings remain. Do not let his spirit be broken.

Ayeka?—Where are you? Are you still whole?

During my last Shabbat in Jerusalem, I went to Tzion, an extraordinary community led by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum. Everyone was in white and sweaty as we packed a small basement room of a JCC. The Kabbalat Shabbat service opened with some piyutim (musical prayer poems) accompanied by an oud and flute. People sang and swayed with eyes closed. Just before the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, Tamar invited us to dream. She began:
Bechutz, yeish milchamah.
Outside there is a war.
Inside, in this sacred space, this a place for dreams. And about what will we dream? We will dream dreams of peace, of course.

And so we did. Shiru l’Adonai shir chadash—we sang these psalms as if we never had heard them before—they became new as we sang these tehilim to familiar melodies by Shlomo Carlebach, popular mizrachi tunes and even one by the great chazzan Leonard Cohen.
Adonai oz l’amo yitein
God, give your people strength.
Adonai yevarech et amo vashalom
God, bless your people with peace.

Eicha- How the children of tzion are as precious as gold… How the entire human race is precious in your eyes, O God.

Ayeka- Where are you? Can you hear our prayers?

That night with Tzion, we dreamt, and prayed and sang and cried for peace with the soulful sureness that God was indeed listening.

The following Shabbat was much different. With our flight cancelled, we decided to go to my favorite part of the country—up north, where the hills teem with fig, carob, pomegranate and avocado trees…Where grape vines abound and the hillsides sing of the sages who walked their paths and hid in their caves. We stayed on a moshav called Amirim. As Shabbat approached, we walked to the little synagogue tucked in the hills. While I was expecting a sacred space fitted for the kabbalists of yore, instead we found a tiny shul reminiscent of schtettels in the old country. We had heard about a concert on the moshav of songs for peace sung by some famous Israeli folk singers. It seemed that their songs might serve as important tefilot on this Shabbat. But we did not know the location of the concert. As we began to descend down the hills, we could hear voices in song echoing through the hillsides. We tried to follow their voices, wandering through backyards and sculpture gardens, up and down roads—some paved, some gravel, along narrow paths through bushes and trees. We searched and searched…

Ayeka—Where are you?

Eicha—How will we find a path toward peace?

While I don’t know the path, I know the people with whom I will walk. I will walk with anyone and everyone who still dares to dream of peace. Who finds the strength to cry over the situation, to pray for the welfare of our soldiers and their parents and their children—born and not yet born… Who yearns to be with Israel and the innocent in Gaza who are caught in HaGadya machine of destruction and violence. I will walk and walk without ceasing. I hope you will join me. I will find words again to speak my Zionist truth… to sing my Zionist songs, songs of hope, songs of peace. And when asked: Ayeka, where are you? I will answer honestly that wherever I am physically, my heart is in the east, in the Land of Israel and in my heart is a prayer.

Shabbat shalom.