Cross-posted from my Facebook note.
In my Peace and Conflict class today we wrote what is called a “Third Story” regarding Amalek (the nation whose descendants have plagued Israel with wars and attempted exterminations). Here is what a Third Story is, and then I will share my “Third Story” of the conflict between Haman and Mordechai, which is at the very center of the story of Purim:
“In addition to your story and the other person’s story, every difficult conversation includes an invisible Third Story. The Third Story is the one a keen observer would tell, someone with no stake in your particular problem… One of the most helpful tools a mediator has is the ability to identify the invisible Third Story. This means describing the problem between the parties in a way that rings true for both sides simultaneously. It’s easy to describe the problem so that only one of the disputants would agree with it–in fact, that’s what each of us does when we begin inside our own story. The trick is being able to get two people with different stories to sign on to the same description of what is going on.”
And now, here is my Third Story between Haman and Mordechai:
Haman: Always cheated out of the respect I deserve! My family is always cheated out of getting our just due, and it always comes from one side–Jacob’s descendants! It’s not fair. Why do they get the Lord’s favor when simple folk like me don’t even ask for much! Finally, FINALLY, I am noticed, recognized and promoted, and what does Mordechai do? He will not acknowledge me! This is not right, in my eyes. I deserve this position, and I deserve respect!
Mordechai: Who does Haman think he is that I will bow down before him? In the tradition of my forefathers of which I am well aware I know it is a grave sin to bow down before this proud man who would not have me bow just to him, but to that wretched idol upon his chest as well! I respect tradition, and most of all I respect myself, which is why I will not bow in worship to anyone other than Adonai. What I have been asked to do is not right in my eyes and the eyes of my G-d, so I will not stand for it, no matter what the cost may be.
Haman to Mordechai: Mordechai! Why will you not bow before me, like your King has ordered?
Mordechai to Haman: It is not you I will not bow to, but what you represent! You see, I am a learned man steeped in the tradition of my fathers, and part of that tradition is not bowing before other gods. I see it in your eyes and on your chest–You seek to make yourself a god among us, and I cannot oblige. My tradition forbids it.
After this, proud Haman becomes angry and resentful, and he storms off to plot Mordechai’s destruction.
To the consternation of many around the world, there has been heightened tension around talk of some sort of war starting between Israel/US and Iran. With Parshat Zachor only a few days from being read in shuls (synagogues) around the world, it would behoove all of us to consider what kind of relationship we wish to have, as Jews, with the Amalek of our times. Amalek is portrayed in Jewish texts as our absolute enemy, to the extent that Jews are positively commanded to commit genocide against this people (though the Tanach claims that this has been accomplished; see Chronicles I 4:41-3). A more modern reading of this aspect of Jewish identity is to see Amalek not as a distinct people, of whom the guilty and the innocent must all be killed, but rather as the embodiment of the closest any people can come to absolute evil throughout the generations. On this reading, the common understanding that Haman, the villain of the upcoming holiday of Purim, as well as Hitler, Stalin, and now (as argued by many) Ahmadinejad, are all ‘descendents’ of Amalek, makes more sense.
But do we really want to keep as a core part of our Jewish identity the idea that we must constantly remember our hatred of other people, even if they perpetrated terrible crimes against us or other people? Daniel Roth, in Peace and Conflict, made the point that the reason tensions – at least in the media – are escalating at the moment between Israel and Iran is because each sees the Other as their Amalek, and this means that both are of the opinion that ‘we do not really want to know your story; you are just pure evil.’ Violence, or at least deep hatred, seem almost inevitable when parties to an intrenched conflict do not even make an effort to understand the other. I think that an important starting point to changing the worrying direction of recent developments is to try to understand that both (major) parties to this conflict see each other as their Amalek, as a live example of (near-)pure evil in the world. From that realization, the educational goals seem clear – instead of speaking about a commandment to hate Amalek, why not encourage shuls to broadcast the message that if we want to avoid the first war where nuclear weapons on both sides seems to be the major focus of the war, we ought to direct our energies towards understanding why a group of people can hate us so much?
Of course, hatred of Jews is an extremely touchy subject, with Iran being simply the most recent example. Admitting communally that Jews and Jewish values can be hated without that hatred automatically being equated with antisemitism would take a herculean effort. I present for your consideration a potential slogan of sorts in trying to think about these complex, hyper-modern concerns:
“The hatred of Jews and the Jewish national home by people whom history has adjudged to be comprehensively evil suggests a couple of obvious political lessons, leaving the theological lessons for another day: Good people should take the hatred directed at Israel by evil people as a sign that maybe Israel’s basic cause is just. Israel and its supporters should understand that such enmity reflects well on their cause, and they should do whatever possible to guarantee their behavior could never be seen as analogous to the behavior of their enemies.”
This semester I am taking a course in Peace and Conflict. Recently we have been talking about the power of narrative to color, and help resolve conflict. The challenge is always to understand the narrative of both sides so well that you see them in their highest light. In order to begin this work, we have been reading narratives from Jewish and Islamic traditions about Sarah and Hagar.
Although it has been fascinating for me to see the different ways both traditions present our forefathers and mothers, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the narrative of my tradition. I am angry at the way Sarah behaves and angry with the way the Torah and the Rabbis have colored Ishmael and the people that will come from him. I challenged myself to rewrite the biblical story in a way that presents all characters in their highest light. I wanted to see how Sarai, and Abram, and Hagar could all be acting out of love and respect for each other. I wanted to see if I could understand what exists in the Torah in a way that would be spiritually meaningful to me. This is part one. The rest, I am sure, will follow.
And so it was that in Abram’s absence, Sarai and Hagar grew close. The two women would laugh together as they worked about the camp, and it wasn’t long before both were sharing their deepest secrets with one another. Sarai wanted a child; Hagar dreamed of true love. Time passed.
Abram returned from his journey to find the two women sitting together at the tent’s opening. Sarai was telling Hagar about the antics of a small child in the camp, when she noticed her friend’s gaze shift. She turned to see Abram approaching. His eyes shifted almost immediately to her, but she had seen the connection between her friend and her husband. Hagar looked away, blushing. A seed of pain planted itself in Sarai’s heart.
Later that night, Sarai approached Hagar. The words tumbled out of her mouth, “did I see you looking at Abram today? Are you attracted to my husband?” Hagar rushed to quell Sarai’s suspicions, but Sarai interrupted her suddenly: “I have an idea.”
Sarai had been thinking about it all day. She had seen the look of attraction between her friend and her husband. Her heart ached as she watched Abram reluctantly shift his gaze from Hagar to her, and even more so as she saw the look of determination and obligation in his eyes. She knew they were in love. And yet, she knew with equal certitude that neither had acted on their feelings. Abram would never do anything to hurt her. Her distress at her inability to to conceive was obvious, and Abram did his best to comfort her. She knew he would never ask to consort with her handmaid. And, Hagar was limited by social hierarchy. She could not ask. But maybe that was the solution for them all. If she gave Hagar to Abram, and Hagar conceived, she could have a child, and Abram and Hagar could have each other. Maybe that would be enough. A child was all she wanted, right?
Sarai approached Abram. “You know I want a child more than anything in the world; and yet God has kept me barren all these many years. Will you consort with Hagar, so that I might have a chance at motherhood?” She tried to ignore the look of happiness and desire that crossed Abram’s face. He agreed appropriately. The pain sprouted.
Hagar quickly became pregnant. She began to glow with joy and health and motherhood, and became fat with new life. As her belly grew, emptiness began to swell within Sarai’s womb. The sight of Hagar so ripe with life brought tears to her eyes and more ache to her heart. Soon she began to avoid her all together. That was best, she found. In privacy, she could remember the logic that had motivated her decision. In privacy she could convince herself to smile. With Hagar, it was all she could do not to cry.
Hagar was also at the point of tears. At first she had been overjoyed. Going to Abram’s tent as his wife was more than she had ever dreamed possible. But as the months passed, it became clear that Sarai was avoiding her. Before the little one sprouted in her belly, Abram would console her and compliment her and make her feel so special the worry faded away. But now Abram was avoiding her too. He had told her not to come to his tent any more: he did not want to hurt Sarai any more than they already had. Tears of anger and betrayal prickled at the back of her eyes and Hagar was resolved to take action.
She sought out Sarai, and cried out to her, “Have I done something to offend you? Please tell me, because as far as I can recollect I have done nothing beyond your instructions. I did not ask for this baby, or to be with your husband, and I certainly did not ask to have you treat me in this way!” Sarai looked away and did not respond. Tears streamed down Hagar’s face. In utter despair she choked out, “you think Abram does not love you because he took me to wife; and yet, because of you he will not see me again!” Sarai turned and walked away.
That evening, Sarai went to Abram’s tent. The look of relief that passed over his features as she neared him threatened to rip the tears from her heart. She looked away remembering what it was she had come to say:
“Abram, Hagar came to me today crying because she says you refuse to lie with her out of consideration for my feelings. How many times must I tell you? I am happy for you to lie with Hagar and wish for nothing but your happiness and well-being. And yet,…” emotion weighed on her voice, “ And yet you have set me up. Now she comes to me whining and crying because of your ignorant assumptions about my emotional reality. It is all your fault! I myself offered her to you when I saw the attraction in your eyes and in hers. I sacrificed my status as your only wife to make sure that you would have a heir. And do you know why?!? BECAUSE I DO NOT CARE! And yet you have the gall to set me up! You waited until she was emotionally incontinent with pregnancy, and then you told her that because of my feelings she must stay away from you?!? Now it is all I can do to avoid her crying and her screaming. I see the judgement and hatred in her eyes. And what have I done to deserve this?!? This is all your fault!”
Abram looked at her tenderly, and with great sadness. He spoke softly, “Sarai, I am truly sorry for hurting you in this way. I had no idea. I thought you gave Hagar to me because you wanted a child. I only wanted to make you happy. You thought I was attracted to her? I love you! I cannot bear to see you unhappy like this.”
His eyes sought out hers. Sarai made no response. She stared intently at the wall of the tent, biting her bottom lip so hard it seemed about to burst.
Abram continued, “Sarai, I do not wish to hurt you. My heart breaks at the realization that I have. I wish to cause no more pain. Please do as you see fit. She is your friend…I leave this in your hands.”
There was silence. Without a glance in Abram’s direction, Sarai turned and walked numbly from the tent and straight into Hagar. Without warning, tears began to stream from her eyes, and hateful screams ripped from her throat. Hagar’s shoulders caved, and tears blurred her vision. It was all she could do to run away.
She ran blindly until she reached a quiet stream. There she collapsed and began to sob in earnest. After some time, her tears began to come more slowly, and her moans and sobs quieted until they were no more than hiccups. And, as the creek trickled by and the soothing sounds of nature embraced her, she found her inner strength. She felt the small being within her, and resolved to do everything in her power to protect and love this dear child.
At that moment, a voice echoed in the clearing. “Hagar, maid of Sarai, where are you coming from and where are you going?” She responded hoarsely, “I am coming from the tents of my mistress and master and I am going as far away from them as I can.” The voice echoed once more with compassion, “Sarai is blinded by her own pain, and cannot understand your plight. But you must make things right with her. Go back. Listen to her cries and feel her pain as I have heard and felt yours. Your empathy and compassion will bring forth much goodness on the planet. I will fill your womb, and make you the source of countless generations. See now the child that blossoms there? Call him Ishmael and know that God hears your pain. Call him Ishmael and remember that you are created in the image of a compassionate God, in the image of a God who listens. This child that you carry will make his voice heard. He will speak and force people to hear him. He will have no patience for silence. He will even fight to make them listen, and they will rise against him in anger. Still, he belongs amongst them, amongst his brothers. He will remind them to speak up. You must remind him to listen.”
Hagar’s voice echoed to match the voice in the clearing. “My God, you are a God of Vision. I know that you see beyond my reality, and through my pain, and envision my future. I will trust in your vision and will call you El-Roi. You have spoken to me on this day. I heard your voice, and your vision opened my eyes to see your truth.”
And so it was, Hagar went back to the tents of Abram and Sarai and gave birth to a son, who she called Ishmael. With patience, she waited until Sarai was ready to speak. Then, she listened. And so did God.
The shift from first semester to second semester started during our week off when half of Pardes went on a tiyul to the Arava desert. I’m not a hiking fan, but I love the desert in Israel and have always felt connected to it. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to reflect on my time so far at Pardes and my goals for second semester. The second day of the trip, I stayed on the kibbutz and enjoyed the amazing surroundings in the warm sun and towards the late afternoon, went with a friend out of the kibbutz borders to a little gazebo in the desert. There, we silently watched the sunset over the ancient, stoic mountains. After these three days in the desert, I was more ready than ever to return to Pardes, this semester as a full time student.
But then on the afternoon of our first day back at Pardes, I came down with strep throat. Being sick away from home and family continues to be a difficult experience. I spent the first week of second semester sick in bed and definitely felt it as a setback from the previous week of clarity in the desert. Luckily, my strep was cured (thank scientists for anti-biotics) the day before my mom came for her eight-day visit.
Having my mom, Carol, here to visit was such a wonderful experience that I know will continue to resonate throughout my life. My mom has her own personal relationship with Israel as she made aaliyah in 1973, six months before the Yom Kippur War. She volunteered during the war helping women pack First Aid kits for the soldiers and doctors. She lived on a secular kibbutz in the Negev called Kibbutz Ruchama for 4 years and then finished her BA at Hebrew University where she met my dad, Stephen, who was there on his college junior year abroad. After six years of living in Israel, my mother returned to America to be with my dad but her love never diminished.
Every time she comes back, she falls in love with the land, the history and the people all over again. She traveled all around the country and saw almost every one of our friends and family from Jerusalem to Haifa to Rosh Ha’ayin to Kibbutz Ein Tzurim near Ashkelon.
While she was here, it was my saba’s second yahrzeit, which was a special opportunity for us to remember him together in Jerusalem. My saba, Charles Swartz z”l, was a passionate Zionist who took his first trip to Israel (a 50th birthday gift to himself) in 1961. On that trip he found a distant relative of my savta’s who survived the Holocaust, Esther Ramiel, living on a religious kibbutz, Ein Tzurim. We constantly thank my Saba for finding Esther and her beautiful family of four grown children and ten grand children. Saba returned to Israel a total of twelve times including a long term stay in Bat Yam. Throughout my life I remember getting letters (yes, paper, snail-mail letters) from my Saba about how important it was that I visit Israel and understand that we are part of a bigger story.
This important day of memory for my Saba was made even more beautiful by the participation of the Pardes community. Not only was everybody open, warm and welcoming to my mom, but also created the comfortable space for her to say kaddish. For a special egalitarian Ma’ariv minyan the evening his yartzeit started, eleven people stayed after school, davened with us and listened to some short stories about my Saba’s amazing life. Honoring his memory at Pardes with my chevre, and with my mom, was such a blessing that he would have loved.
Having my mom come to my classes at Pardes for two days added a different perspective to my experience. After having been here for five months at Pardes, I have gotten complacent about living in Jerusalem and I thank my mom for reminding me how amazing it is. This was also her first visit to Pardes and she got to sit in on all of my classes, which was very special for us both. We worked as chevruta in all of my classes and she got a taste of how the system works here.
In “Relationships” with Tova Leah, my mother and I got to speak about how we listen to the different aspects of our souls… what a wonderful opportunity. In “Peace and Conflict,” my mom’s passion for current events and politics came out in a new light. Studying Shemot with her in Levi’s class, she came up with interesting insights and relevant stories. In Meesh’s Talmud class we were able to catch-up on our lives, and our perspectives on Israel and Judaism. This experience of being chevruta with my mom opened a new kind of dialogue between us, and added a new level to our relationship.
Seeing Israel through her eyes reminded me what a blessing it is to be living in Jerusalem, studying at Pardes and having such a beautiful community at this very time in Jewish history. After this amazing week with my mother in Israel, I felt reinvigorated to really get as much as I can out of this amazing opportunity.
Rabbi Melchior visited us at Pardes today, hosted by the Peace & Conflict Track. The students present for his talk ended up arriving a bit late to their afternoon classes because none of us wanted him to leave
The subject of his talk was whether or not religion could/should play a role in conflict resolution. Here’s my favorite quote:
“If you want to make peace, you cannot deal only with those who want to make peace.”
Working with Rabbi Daniel Roth on the Peace & Conflict Track has been a wonderful component of my Fellows Project this year, and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Melchior – he’s such a mentsch!
Samahra (Spring ’11) first found the words to describe her passion for ‘bridging communities’ as a York University student upon receiving the annual ‘Partnership and Outreach’ award from UJA and Hillel of Greater Toronto for activism as Hillel ‘Tzedek’ Chair.
After completing her B.A. Honors in theater and B.Ed. in education, Samahra continued to pursue cross-cultural education as the Education and Outreach Coordinator of the Ashkenaz Foundation. She developed the ‘Ashkenaz in The Schools’ program, as well as the ‘Campus Representative’ program, striving to create exciting community education opportunities, even as she began to plan the next leg of her own education: a semester of Torah study in Israel.
While planning her journey, Samahra came with Pardes alumna Deb Cole (’09-’10) to hear Yaffa Epstein teach at ‘The House’ in Toronto. Afterwards, they stood in the chilly evening air, speaking about her yearning for Torah study, and Samahra made mention of her interest in cross-cultural dialogue and education.
“My dream is to ‘bridge communities’ through the arts so when Yaffa told me about the ‘Peace & Conflict Track’, I knew I had to come! It was hard to leave ‘Ashkenaz’, but I wanted to ground my vision in Jewish tradition, and Pardes is davka the place for bridging complicated worldviews!”
Now at Pardes, Samahra’s fascination with Rabbi Daniel Roth’s ‘Peace & Conflict Track’ grows, even as she finds herself being drawn into intense, interdenominational discussions of theology in Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield’s ‘Critical Issues in Jewish Thought’ class. Not one for labels, Samahra is continuously discovering that various faith statements of different Jewish denominations speak to her.
A humanistic Zionist at heart, Samahra has now visited Israel four times on educational and volunteer programs, and she is particularly excited to maintain her commitment to social action as a Pardes volunteer for the Sulha Peace Project – working at the grassroots level to ‘bridge communities’ here in Israel.
“I think my exploration and learning at Pardes will deepen my understanding of Jewish tradition, and empower me to better understand others – I’m always keeping in mind the ‘rodef shalom’ concept – always ‘bridging communities’!”