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Cross That Line (Yom Kippur Sermon)

09/21/2018 08:09:54 PM


Hannah Orden

B’reishit bara Elohim et hashamain v’et ha’aretz.  V’ha’aretz haitah tohu va’vohu.  These are the opening words of the Torah.  “In the beginning Heaven and Earth were created by God, and the earth was unformed and void.” 

The Hebrew phrase Tohu va’vohu has been translated in many ways – unformed and void, formless and empty, wild and waste are a few of examples.  You get the idea – the earth was a disorderly mess!

It is a great phrase, but it’s not exactly something we mention in daily conversation. English has adopted plenty of Yiddish words – (think: mensh, shmuck, shlep, shmata) and everyone knows the Hebrew word Hallelujah, which comes straight from the Hebrew Bible. But tohu va’vohu? Not so much.  Raise your hand if you have ever used tohu va’vohu in daily conversation…I didn’t think so!  Even in Israel where Hebrew has been revived as a spoken language, and quite a few biblical words have found their way into the vernacular, tohu va’vohu is not one of them.

So, imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that tohu va’vohu has been adopted in Austria, Germany, Bavaria, and Switzerland!  When asked to use it in a sentence, the example was: This room is completely tohu va’vohu.  Go clean it up.  Tohu va’vohu has simply entered the German language and is used in the sense of a chaotic mess or hullabaloo (another fantastic word by the way).  There was even a comedy show that ran on Austrian television for eight years called Tohu Va’Vohu.

This melding of languages and borrowing from other cultures happens everywhere.  Israelis often part from each other with the words Az – yallah – bye.  The Forward magazine’s language columnist Aviya Kushner says: “Az yallah bye captures contemporary Israel.  With one end, it holds onto Hebrew with a word that appears in the Torah: Az means “so.”  With the other end of the expression, it borrows from English, from the lingua franca of the West, and the language that technology makes everyone’s neighbor.  And in the middle, it’s Arabic, a nod to all the immediate physical neighbors of Israel, as well as to Arab Israelis living within Israel.”

English, of course, is the greatest example of linguistic borrowing.  The Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea points out a few of the influences in the English Language: Skunk is Native American; waltz is German; adolescent is Latin; feckless is Scottish.  He says: “People daily speak a quilt work of words. And continents, and nations and tribes, and even enemies dance all over your mouth when you speak.”

I love this idea – that enemies dance all over our mouths when we speak.  We create all kinds of walls and separations, but our language binds us together.  The quote came from a longer interview called “What Borders Are Really About.”  Luis Alberto Urrea knows a few things about borders. His father was Mexican; his mother Anglo-American. He says that "the border goes right down the middle of my heart." And maybe because of that experience, Urrea can see that really there is no "them, there is only us." It’s a beautiful sentiment, yet we live in a time when walls and barriers and separations loom large in our country and in the world.  We live in a time when we seem to be focused more on our differences than on what we have in common.

When Congregation Beth Hatikvah chose the theme “Breaking Down Barriers” to focus on this year, I thought it was great because there are so many ways to interpret this idea.  There are internal and external barriers that prevent people from achieving their goals and following their dreams; there are barriers that prevent understanding between different groups of people; there are barriers when groups of people are not given equal opportunities. There are so many ways to think about this theme that I feared we might be here all day if I tried to address them all.  But my wise husband pointed out that this is the theme Congregation Beth Hatikvah has chosen for the whole year, so I will have many more opportunities to talk about the ways we can break down barriers in our lives and in our community.

The stories of breaking down barriers that spoke to me most powerfully this summer were about literal, physical walls and borders.  For example, one of the stories Luis Alberto Urrea tells is about discovering the humanity of the Border Patrol Agents. He explains that he really didn't mean to. He wanted to write about the border, and he was pretty sure the Border Patrol were "bad guys." But then he went out to the desert with a Border Patrol Agent, and the agent said, "I know what you think of me. You think I'm a jackbooted thug." And of course, Urrea was thinking, "Well, yes, I do.” But he was alone in the desert with this guy, and he thought he better not say that, so he said nothing. And then the agent said: "I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor." He tells Urrea: "My job is to save innocent civilians dying a terrible death. My job is also to arrest those same civilians.”  

In the desert there are light towers that can be seen from miles away, and when you get to the light tower, you find a comfort station with a call button and a sign that says "You will die. You will not make it to the highway. If you push this button, we will be here in half an hour." Urrea is not naïve. He understands this allows the Border Patrol to arrest more people.  But he also learns that the comfort stations and light towers in the desert are built and paid for out of their own pockets by what he describes as "those bleeding heart liberals – the Border Patrol agents themselves."  He says: “The person who is arresting people and the person who is saving their lives, it's the same person.”

Part of breaking down barriers is recognizing the humanity and complexity of other people.   The minute we think people are all one way, we are in trouble.  Urrea says: "Putting away the pointy finger is really hard. ‘What do you mean that there are wonderful people in that religion? What do you mean that there are good people that I am going to love doing that sexuality? What about those people with that way of voting?' Guess what,” he says.  “Everybody has dreams. Everybody has people they love. Everybody has pain." Urrea believes that as much as we put up walls, we also “miss each other.”

I believe he means that even though we are really good at erecting barriers of separation, physical and metaphorical, we also yearn to connect, to understand and be understood, to love and be loved. The American-born Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi lives in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood. From his window he looks out at the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. His most recent book Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor begins with an acknowledgment that he does not know the name of his neighbor. They have never met because there is a wall between them – an actual physical wall, and also a wall of misunderstanding. Halevi believes that one of the biggest barriers to understanding is that Muslims see Judaism as a religion. If it is a religion, why do we need a country? Many Muslims don't understand that Jews are also a People with a right to self-determination, like other people.

Halevi started out as a right-wing supporter of the settler movement; someone who believed that Jews had a right to the entire biblical Land of Israel, which includes the West Bank. Over time, his views have evolved. He asks his unknown neighbor: "Can we see each other as two traumatized peoples, each clinging to the same sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither of whom will find peace or justice until we make peace with the other's claim to justice?"

[Add quote about what Jews and Muslims can learn from each other.]

Don and I went to hear Yossi Klein Halevi and Imam Abdullah Antepli this spring when they were interviewed at the Jewish Federation of MetroWest.  Halevi and Antepli are co-directors of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, which runs programs for Muslim leaders to learn about Israel. Antepli said that most Muslims only talk to Jews who are apologetic about Israel's occupation. They don't talk to proud Zionists who can explain the Jewish story and the longing for and connection to this land. He said: "Each community only talks to those who agree with their narrative."

The most powerful story they told was about how the whole project nearly fell apart during a recent conflict in Gaza when Israel's army retaliated against missile attacks by Hamas and many civilians were killed. They described how the group met for three days. The leaders designed a program where for one entire day the Muslims talked, and the Jews listened without responding. The next day the Jews talked for an entire day and the Muslims listened without responding. Only then, on the third day, after they had shared their thoughts and feelings and perspective without debate or argument, were they able to have a constructive dialogue with each other.

I had my own experience of crossing the barrier between Israel and the West Bank. When I was in rabbinical school, I made friends with a Palestinian man who was studying at Hebrew College. He was in a Master’s Degree Program in Jewish studies because he wanted to understand the Jewish story; he wanted to break down barriers between his people and ours.  When he finished his degree, Muhammed returned to his home in Ramallah. We kept in touch by email, and when I was studying in Jerusalem we made plans to see each other.  We met first in the Arab quarter of the Old City, because this man who had spent two years studying in America to learn about Judaism, was not allowed into the part of the city where I lived.  Later, Muhammed invited me to visit him in Ramallah. He met me at the bus station because he didn't think it was safe for me to be alone on the other side of the wall, and together we went to his apartment where his wife had prepared a feast in the shared Jewish-Arab tradition of hospitality to strangers. As we climbed the stairs to his apartment, Muhammed pointed out bullet holes in the hallway of his apartment building where Israeli soldiers had shot at people who lived there.

My visit to Ramallah was uncomfortable. As soon as we crossed the checkpoint, I was in a different world. The other side of the separation wall is covered with graffiti in Arabic and English protesting the occupation. In Ramallah there are posters and billboards of Yassar Arafat everywhere. At that time, Arafat had been dead for several years, and I did not expect to see his picture plastered on the sides of buildings. As Jews, we think of Arafat as a terrorist, a man not to be trusted, a man who consistently rejected Israeli offers for peace. In Ramallah, he is a hero, a man who fought for the liberation of his people.

After lunch, Muhammed asked if I wanted to go to Arafat's tomb. His wife objected – "Why would she want to go there?" But I was curious. I wanted to understand as much as I could about what things look like on the other side of the wall. The structure housing the tomb was small, with a guard on either side. People stopped to pay their respects; most read a few verses of the Quran. That was all.

Muhammed accompanied me back to the bus.  It was a Friday afternoon, and I had to return before public transit in Jerusalem shut down for Shabbat. I remember the relief I felt to be back in West Jerusalem, among my own people – people buying flowers and challah, hurrying home for the Sabbath. But I also could not forget my glimpse on the other side of the barrier, the kindness of my friends, their longing for safety and freedom and opportunity. As Luis Alberto Urrea says: "Everybody has dreams.  Everybody has people they love. Everybody has pain."

Of course, the barriers between people are not only physical walls, and they are not only between people of different religions, races, or nationalities. Playing on Yossi Klein Halevi's idea of a letter to an unknown neighbor, Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward magazine, published a "Letter to an Israeli-Jewish Friend." In her letter, she writes that the two largest, most important Jewish populations – Israel and America – are drifting dangerously apart, and she believes that is because we "don't really know each other." American Jews learn about Israel in Hebrew school and in the news, and Israelis are certainly exposed to popular American culture. But our knowledge of each other is superficial. We do not understand each other's values. Eisner touches on disagreements about the Iran nuclear deal and moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, but she writes: "Please understand, friend: I'm not talking about partisan liberal values. I'm talking about American values – what we are taught to believe from an early age. The essential value of truth and open debate. The protection of dissent. A free market to ensure prosperity for as many as possible. An independent judiciary… Decency. Respect. Tolerance. These are American values, and, in a fundamental way, Jewish values.”

The barriers that have grown up between Israelis and American Jews are not only about security, occupation, and civil rights for minorities.  They are also about religious freedom, pluralism, and inclusion of women. Many Jews in America were shocked and horrified when a Conservative rabbi in Israel was arrested early one morning this summer. Rabbi Dubi Haiyun was taken from his home in handcuffs. His crime? Officiating at a non-orthodox wedding, which is illegal in the Jewish state. 

Around the same time Rabbi Haiyun was arrested, I came across a verse from the Prophet Isaiah: "Build up, build up a highway. Clear a road. Remove all obstacles from the road of My People." (Isaiah 57:14) I couldn't help thinking that if we are truly a people – Am Yisrael – we are going to need to start building roads to connect us instead of walls that separate us. We are going to have to try to understand and respect each other, despite our differences.

When I have talked informally with congregants about the theme of breaking down barriers, several people told me that they don't think it is about making individual relationships as much as it is about educating ourselves and learning more about people from other cultures and backgrounds. I disagree. I believe the most powerful way to break down barriers is to develop real relationships, true friendships, with people from different backgrounds and with different beliefs.

Last year on Rosh Hashanah Cherie Brown, Director of the National Coalition Building Institute in Washington DC, challenged fellow members of her congregation to “build one authentic, deeper-than-you-think-you-can go relationship with a person targeted by racism or Islamophobia.”  The idea is to get close enough that your friend will trust you with the truth of what his or her life is really like.  She calls these “Kitchen Relationships.”  Living room relationships are polite and formal.  Kitchen relationships are messy. They force us to look at things we would rather not see.

This afternoon at the Mincha service we will share stories about times when people were able to break down barriers. Whether or not you come back this afternoon, I hope you will spend some time on this holy day of introspection thinking about what barriers you need to break down in your life.  There are many kinds of barriers – internal and external – that prevent us from having the life we dream of, the world we dream of.  Think about your relationships.  Who are your friends? Do you have a living room relationship that you could deepen into a kitchen relationship?  When you break the fast, consider sharing stories of times when you have reached past differences and made connections.  Many of us have bought into the idea that our country is hopelessly divided.  Remember the words of Luis Alberto Urrea – we miss each other, we long for connection and understanding. We must never give up hope that we can find our way to real human connections.  Remember that when we speak continents, nations, tribes and even enemies dance on our tongues and bind us together.

As we think about the ways that we can reach across the barriers that divide us, I want to leave you with a beautiful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. The poet admired the singer Paul Robeson. She learned that the United States government took away his passport because he was a communist, but he had fans all over the world who wanted to hear him sing. The poem describes a time when he sang from the United States side of the Canadian border with his audience gathered on the Canadian side. The poem is called "Cross That Line."

Paul Robeson stood

on the northern border

of the USA

and sang into Canada

where a vast audience

sat on folding chairs

waiting to hear him.

He sang into Canada.

His voice left the USA

when his body was

not allowed to cross

that line.

Remind us again,

brave friend.

What countries may we

sing into?

What lines should we all

be crossing?

What songs travel toward us

from far away

to deepen our days?





Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780