Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah -B’midbar

Karen Armstrong was a Catholic nun as she began her deeply passionate inter-religious studies. She was emotionally and physically abused at the convent and understood that God could not be found in the violence. After 7 years in the order, she left and embarked on a journey that has placed her amongst the greatest religious scholars of these generations.

She has authored a series of bestselling books on religion and God, and she is an amazing speaker and teacher. Among her books that I love is “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. She gives the reader the city’s history through the lenses of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (which for thousands of years was the same lens).

Okay, the city grew in importance as the center of all ancient trade routes. Cultures from every direction met there as they made their way from place to place. Perhaps the city is sacred because it was the meeting place of all of the known world. Did God bring them there, or, in melding their stories, did they bring God? Whichever, each of the main religious traditions lays claim to sacred time and space within the city. The three traditions share many of the stories. Some understand those stories differently. Jesus’ stories are stories about a Jew, and Jesus is the second most important prophet in Islam. Obviously, the stories impact the three religions in different ways, but for each, what happens in Jerusalem matters.

For me, every time I enter the city, I cry. The emotional pulls can be overwhelming. I feel a kindred tie to thousands of years of faith – not just Judaism, but faith – as I walk the city streets. I lead tours through the synagogues, the churches, and even atop the Temple Mount, where two of the holiest sights in Islam reside. I am in awe in each of the holy places. At the same time, my heart wrenches as I see the sacredness defiled over the insecure-based need to own “God’s City” to the exclusion of all others. If Jerusalem is holy, it is holy for all. The Rabbis teach us this most important lesson when, thousands of years ago, they wrote that God gave Torah at Sinai because no one owned it – “ownership” of the land and the Torah vested in the entire world. Everyone matters.

It is precisely in the light of this truth that I ache over the current and ongoing violence between Israel and Palestine. If it is God’s place, then no one gets to own God, and the politics that would govern the city should be egalitarian, ensuring the rights, access, and dignity of all people of faith. I understand that violence begets violence. I understand the need to keep people secure. I understand the need for freedom. I also understand that when you try to accomplish either, at someone else’s expense, you will fail at both.
We start a new book of Torah this week. In English, we call it Numbers. In Hebrew, it is Bamidbar – wilderness. The Hebrew is the original (we use the first significant word of the book as its title), while the English speaks to its theme (the census). The census counts the men of military age, not the whole population of the people. More than ever, I find myself stuck in the interrelationship of the two names. Quite simply, anytime you count people and don’t count all the people, we cannot live in a civilized world – we are in the wilderness. We are stuck wandering for a place to call home. However secure we think we are in the ones in which we currently dwell when you legislate people out of relevancy: whether it is the Israeli desire to own the land, the Palestinian drive to rid every Jew from the land, or even the voter suppression laws enacted across our own country, it is only myopic to think that a victory that denies another person’s humanity can stand up against the holy and inalienable rights of human dignity.

If our first goal is to destroy or demean each other for our own power (which we will rationalize as security), we sew the seeds of our own demise. If we want real security, we have to work to end violence, not to posture for power. My reality check is that this answer must be universal and not unilateral. Hence, until brave people decide that it is better to live with our neighbors than bury our children trying to own the other, we (as tbe human race) will continue as we are. The screams of violence will continue finding their way to our doorsteps. I pray for the day when I can walk through Jerusalem only in awe.

Shabbat Shalom.