The Light of Prophecy, My People's Shadow, and the Living Stones: An American Jew's Journey to The Holy Land
Sermon Offered on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2006
First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, CT.
Mark Braverman, Ph.D.
Thank you so much for inviting me into your Church. I have just come from a series of lectures by Walter Brueggemann on the Prophetic Imagination, and he speaks about the church as being a place where the Truth is Spoken. Having met your Minister, David Good, and learned about the long-time commitment of your congregation to the causes of justice, first in South Africa and now in Palestine, it is eminently clear to me that the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme is a place where, indeed, the truth is spoken, and with courage and steadfastness.
We are in the first Sunday of Advent. As a Jew growing up in post-war America, I must tell you, Christmas was a difficult time for me. I didn’t envy the presents so much (they gave me Chanukah as a consolation prize), I didn’t envy the Christmas Trees – well maybe a little. But the lights -- I wanted the lights -- in those days to be found in magical, multicolored profusion on every home, up and down every street. It was the lights that made me want Christmas. And it is about light that I want to talk with you today, as we begin Advent and I describe my journey to Israel and Palestine this past summer with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. A journey, as you know if you have taken it, which is very much an encounter with the self.
The quintessential Advent scripture is found in Isaiah, chapter 2, verse 1:
It shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the Lord’s House shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And the many peoples shall go and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us in his ways, and that we may walk in his ways; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Surely, this is a vision of a great, eschatological time, when the world as we know it will change. But what does the prophet mean by this vision? “The end of days,” as the translation goes in the King James, is a big concept, and open to many understandings.
The Hebrew acharit hayamim is open to many meanings. It can mean, simply, “in the future.” In the Hebrew it can also refer to a person’s descendants, those that come after you. It can also refer to a good, sought-after future You could say, “it came out well in the end, or even, “he came to a good end.” So the “end of days” is not some far off, revolutionary event – it really begins now, it is in reach. It’s about the “end” or outcome of each of our days, it is about our confrontation with ourselves, our destinies, our consciences, our individual potentials and choices. The end of days starts now, with you and with me.
Our eye is next caught by “Mountain of the Lord’s House:” a strange turn of phrase, is it not? Climbing a mountain is a metaphor for personal journey, a struggle, the achievement of personal goal. God’s House does not simply appear, set down, as it were, from on high. You don’t just walk into it, like visiting your neighbor or going to the grocery store. It can be a climb -- each of us, on our own two feet, has to get there. When you climb your mountain, you discover God’s House – and, like the Psalmist, once there, you can dwell forever.
Finally, the beautiful phrase, “all nations shall flow unto it.” In the Hebrew, naharu eilav can also mean look upon, gaze upon. And the Hebrew has another meaning: to be full of light, luminance, to shine with light, brightness. The resonance of the passage then, is that all the nations will be illuminated with this light.
This brings us to our second Advent scripture, this also from Isaiah, chapter 9:
The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of shadows, upon them light has shined.
What is this light? And what is this journey that takes us to it? I want to talk to you about the journey I took this past summer - I want to tell you how I walked through the land of shadows, and my discovery of the nature and the source of this light.
I am a Jewish American, the grandson of a fifth-generation Palestinian Jew. My grandfather was the direct descendant of one of the great Hasidic Rabbis of Europe, a family that later settled in Safed and then Jerusalem in the mid 19th century. As a young man he left the Holy Land for America – but the heart of the family remains in Jerusalem. Zionism was mother’s milk to me, a Zionism framed in religion. I was born in 1948 – a month before the State of Israel; I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation. The State of Israel was not a mere historical event – it was redemption. In every generation, so said we every year at Passover, tyrants rose up to oppress us, and the Lord God stretched out his hand to redeem us; Pharoah, Chmelnistsky, Hitler – and, of course, let us not forget, Gamal Nasser. All of Jewish History was a story of struggle, exile, oppression and slaughter that had culminated in a Homeland, again, and at last.
I first visited Israel as a boy of 17, and I fell in love with the young state. I was proud of the miracle of modern Israel – of what my people had done, creating this vibrant country out of the ashes of Auschwitz. I spoke Hebrew with the shopkeeper in the town and the plowman in the field. My Israeli family – religious Jews -- warmly embraced the grandson of the renegade who had left. But even as I embraced them in return, I realized that they were racists –they talked about “the Arabs” in the same way that whites talked about black people in the pre-Civil Rights Philadelphia of my birth. I knew then that something was fundamentally wrong with the Zionist project, but my love for the Land stayed strong. After college, I lived for a year on a kibbutz, ignoring the implications of the pre-1948 Palestinian houses still in use and the ancient olive trees standing at the edges of its grounds. Returning to the USA, my concerns about Israel increased in direct proportion to the pace of illegal settlement-building. Still, I held to the Jewish narrative: the Occupation, although lamentably abusive of human rights, was the price of security. Then I went to the West Bank.
Traveling in Israel and the Occupied Territories this past summer, my defenses against the reality of Israel’s crime crumbled. Witnessing the Separation Wall, the checkpoints, the network of restricted roads, the assassinations, midnight raids and collective punishment, the massive, continuing construction of illegal Jewish settlements and towns, the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers, words like apartheid and ethnic cleansing sprang to my mind, unbidden and undeniable. I used to chafe at the word Nakba, Arabic for the Catastrophe of 1948 -- we Jews call it the War of Liberation. I bristled not because I rejected the idea of a catastrophe for Palestine, but because it discounted the Jewish reality: was not 1948 a war of self-defense, a war to prevent yet another extermination? Didn’t they attack us? Didn’t they reject the 1947 UN Partition Plan and by so doing bring the Catastrophe upon them themselves? I now see that responsibility for denial and distortion lies equally, if not more, with us. What they didn’t teach us in Hebrew School is that we started the cycle of violence. We arrived on their shores, took their land, played geopolitics to establish our political presence, and have worked steadily to achieve dominance – political, economic and demographic. The 1948 War, although undoubtedly protecting the Jewish population of Palestine from hostile Arabs, morphed into ethnic cleansing, a campaign to banish the indigenous Palestinians from their homes in historic Palestine. Israel’s actions since 1948 have been a clear continuation of this plan. This is being documented by Israeli historians and a growing chorus of Israeli journalists and writers. The truth is slowly, inexorably surfacing.
This summer, 40 years after my first encounter with the Land, I saw all that, and my relationship to Israel changed forever. My witness began. I met the Living Stones of the Land.
Daoud Nassar sits on a hilltop in the fertile hill country just south of Bethlehem, the grandson of a farmer who bought this land during the time of the Ottomans. His farm stands, alone, ringed by Jewish settlements and the encroaching Separation Wall, the last holdout in a region earmarked for taking by the Jewish State. The government has offered millions for the land and safe passage out of Palestine, but the family remains steadfast. Daoud told us: “We are not allowed to give up. This land is my mother. My mother is not for sale.” He has taken his case to the Supreme Court of Israel. And while he does this, he holds youth camps called “The Tent of Nations” providing arts, drama, and education to the children of the villages and refugee camps of the region. “Peace is like a tree,” Daoud says, “first you have to nurture it, give it lots of water until the roots are established, and then it can grow on its own.”
Sabeel is an organization of Christian Palestinians committed to “Liberation Theology.” Nora Carmi is a Jerusalemite, a refugee in her own land. In 1948 she lost her family home in West Jerusalem. Yet she does not lose her faith and her commitment to the true meaning of Jesus’ life and message. “Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who lived under Roman occupation,” Nora pointed out to us. Faced with this situation, Jesus did not turn to hatred of his oppressors, nor to fomenting violent rebellion—in contrast, he taught love of humankind, commitment to God’s requirement to pursue social justice, and persistent, stubborn nonviolent resistance to oppression. The people of Sabeel—the Arabic word means “the way,” and also “source of life-giving water”—confront the challenges of life in Palestine today by emulating the mission and life of Jesus. They do this collaborating with nonviolent activist groups of all three Abrahamic faiths, disseminating educational materials, organizing local conferences, and working with youth.
Nora said, “I feel sorrow and compassion for the Jews of Israel, as I do for all of us suffering through this particular period of history.” Nora had shown us, reminded us, of how to Stand Firm—how to know yourself and your faith, so surely and with such conviction, clarity, commitment and love, that nothing can knock you down—not from outside yourself, and not from inside yourself. I had come to East Jerusalem that day in pieces –brokenhearted at what I saw had become of the Zionist dream, and utterly lost as to what to do with all of this as a Jew. It took Sabeel, the Christians of Palestine, faced themselves with extinction, to show me how to bear witness, as did Jesus, in clear continuity with the Prophets, to the requirement for universal Justice. It took the writings of a Palestinian Anglican Canon to show me the way to my Jewishness in confronting the evil that I was seeing.
I came face to face with the shadow psyche of my own people when I visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust outside Jerusalem. The Holocaust was sacred ground to me as a boy growing up – the ultimate chapter in our history of persecution, and the ashes out of which rose the modern State of Israel. This is our uniquely Jewish “Liturgy of Destruction,” the way Jews have over the ages have made sense of their suffering by turning to the broader context of Jewish history. Out of this comes the sacred Zionist cry, “Never again!” But the modern State in its policies, carried out purportedly to preserve our people, and using the Holocaust as justification for unjust actions, is betraying the meaning of Jewish history. You cannot achieve your own deliverance, even from the most unspeakable evil, by the oppression of another people.
It is a powerful shadow, however, not easily exposed, not easily illuminated. Thankfully, we have people in Israel who have taken up the mantle of the Prophets, and are bearing witness. There is Rami Elhanan, a Jewish man whose daughter was killed by a suicide bomber, who refuses to hate, who tells how as an Israeli soldier he was sent into battle bearing Jewish History on one shoulder, and the Holocaust on the other. He tells how, after the death of his daughter, he realized that he could not go on living that way, hating that way, fearing that way. Rami, who joined the Bereaved Parents Circle for Israelis and Palestinians who had lost children to the conflict, Rami, who says that there is nothing Jewish about the systematic humiliation and oppression of the Palestinian people. There is Amira Hass, Israeli Peace activist and journalist, child of Holocaust survivors, who tells the story of her mother on a day in 1944, herded from a cattle car into the Bergen-Belsen death camp, when she saw a group of German women on bicycles slow down to watch with indifferent curiosity on their faces. “For me,” writes Hass, “these women became a loathsome symbol of watching from the sidelines, and at an early age I decided that my place was not with the bystanders.” Hass now lives in Ramallah in the West Bank, publishing weekly dispatches to the Israeli press to tell her fellow Jews the true story of the occupation.
My last night in Palestine this summer fell on the ninth of Av, a day of fasting and mourning for Jews, the traditional date of the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and the beginning of the exile of the Jews 2,000 years ago. The book of Lamentations, a source text for our liturgy of destruction, by tradition attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah, is chanted that night. It is a harrowing description of a people fallen and traumatized:.
Jerusalem has greatly sinned
Therefore has she been made a mockery.
All who admired her despise her
For they have seen her disgraced.
Panic and pitfall are our lot,
Death and destruction.
My eyes shed streams of water
Over the brokenness of my poor people.
On that night, I sat on a hill overlooking the Old City, in the company of congregations of praying Jews – mostly American émigrés worshiping, I felt, at the shrine of their Jerusalem, a Jerusalem “reclaimed” at the expense of the Palestinian people. A Jerusalem that for Palestinians is also a spiritual and political center, a Jerusalem which is being taken from them – street by street, village by village, farm by farm. I stood on that hill and chanted the words as I had every year on this day, descriptions of starvation, slaughter, destruction of homes and banishment from the land, and for the life of me, could apply the words only to the Palestinians. In these words now I felt their suffering. And my eyes shed streams of water for them, my Palestinian brothers and sisters, and yes, over the brokenness of my own people.
As we approach Christmas we are put in mind of Isaiah’s searing image of the suffering servant, an image which figures prominently in the Gospels as a description and indeed a foretelling of Jesus Christ. To Jewish interpreters, the servant is the people of Israel.
Isaiah 42: 1-4.
Behold, this is my servant, whom I hold up, my chosen one, who my soul yearns for, I have put my spirit upon him; he shall bring forth judgment to the nations. I the Lord have called upon you in the name of Justice, I have seized you by the arm, I have appointed you a covenanted people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free the captives from their prisons, and from the dungeon they that sit in darkness.
Isaiah’s imagery speaks powerfully to us today. This is the meaning of the light that shines on us at this time of year, and indeed at this time in our history – it is the prophetic vision of the universality of suffering and the divine imperative to address it. There is a choice. Faced with suffering and with tragedy, what happens to faith, to values? It is clear to me that Israel has lost its way. We brought to the world the teaching of a Universal God, a God who seizes us by the arm, binds us to his covenant, demands Justice – and we are now enacting the creed of a tribal God who commands conquest. We have preserved a liturgy of destruction, but we have left the Palestinians out of it – it is only about our suffering. We have created not a cradle of freedom, but, in Jeff Halper’s phrase, a matrix of control. We have unleashed dark forces, exemplified not only by criminal government actions but by the vicious acts of fanatics. Blessedly, there are those among us – many – who shine light upon this shadow, this darkness, who are taking on the mantle of prophecy, who are bearing witness. These are the living stones, these are the people who gaze upon the mountain of the house of God and shine the light of redemption upon all who come near.
In his magisterial Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, Marc Ellis writes eloquently about Christian liberation movements and their relation to Christian history: Christian movements, he writes, “are authentic only insofar as they carry the memory of their Jewish victims with them.” For today’s Israel, he writes, empowerment has overshadowed the prophetic – the suffering servant has become the oppressor, because Israel has failed to witness the suffering of Palestine. It was Roberta Feuerlicht, the Jewish ethicist who famously wrote, “Judaism survived centuries of persecution without a state; it must now learn how to survive despite a state.” Redemption and comfort is coming, says Isaiah, but only when the people acknowledge the divine meaning of their suffering, truly understand how their suffering makes them part of humankind, and responsible for suffering wherever and whenever it happens. At this fundamental level, there is no difference or theological conflict between the Christian and the Jewish understandings of these passages about this Man of Sorrows. For he came to enact the overpowering prophetic message about Social Justice, freedom and dignity, and the joy and redemption of the fullness of this witness.
I close with our final scripture: From the Gospel of Luke, describing the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem:
As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out."
I find how Jesus expresses himself at that moment so powerful – whether praise or protest, you cannot suppress the cry of strong feeling. And what was the praise about, after all? It was the spontaneous response of an oppressed, occupied people – a cry of love, adoration, and sheer joy for the miracle of Jesus’ ministry – his power to heal, to inspire, to lead. It’s a wonderful moment, and so captures Jesus in his idiom, his unstoppable response to the stifling, spirit-killing, life-denying voice of established authority. “You can’t stop this!” he is saying. “Nature itself, even these seeming inert stones, resonate with the joy and life force emanating from these people.”
The end of days begins now. Today. With us. Here at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, in our mosques, our synagogues, our conversations at the dinner table, our places of work, our classrooms. So that we may fulfill the vision of the prophet Isaiah: to be a people of the covenant, a light to the nations. Let us rejoice as this light shines upon us here, today, in this place.
Mark Braverman lives in Bethesda, MD. M_braverman@yahoo.com