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Sitting in the Center

Rabbi Joy Amy Small, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ‘87
July 24, 2014

When the sirens first sounded in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I was alone and afraid. I knew the Code Red alert was not frivolous—this was dangerous. As I sought out shelters everywhere I went, finding life repeatedly disrupted by the frightening sound of the siren, I admit to feeling angry. I could have stayed in that place of anger, but I fought it. My many experiences with dialogue, peace-making and coexistence projects taught me that any one emotion or analysis would be insufficient. It’s a mess—a complicated mess on many different levels.

My personal challenge of the past few weeks in Israel was to hold the complexity. These days in Israel are very painful and tense. It is not easy to remain mindful, feeling swirling emotions, attitudes, and hearing conflicting narratives. I am wary of extreme reactions and decisive (fast-fix) analyses. Wisdom results from thoughtful, well-informed and considered perspectives.

Through many encounters in Israel I heard knee-jerk “right wing” reactions to the current situation with painful expressions of hatred for Arabs. I also heard knee-jerk “left-wing” reactions that are harshly critical of the motives and actions of the Israeli government. Both extremes express a decisive “truth” about cause and reaction, and “right” paths to resolution of the conflict. Certainty can act like a magnet—it’s inviting to be on the side of a confident “truth.” But as I encountered hatred and blame on both sides, I pulled back from that magnet. In my view, there are multiple elements of truth colliding with each other. Uncomfortable as it is, my certainty was in the grey zone between conflicting “truths.”

In times of conflict, fear can so easily feed anger and vengeance. I felt it seeping out all around—fear and hatred. After all, how many times can you run to a shelter for safety and still remain open-hearted—it’s challenging. This moment calls for pragmatic realism that rejects the motivation of hatred.  It dares us to keep our hearts open and compassionate. I pray that justice and mercy can meet in the center toward a peaceful end to this conflict -- so that no one will live in fear.

I spent nearly a month in Israel learning with colleagues, including eight days with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association’s study mission.  With anxiety in the air—anxiety for the next siren, anxiety for the people of Israel, for all the children, for the soldiers in harm’s way and for the innocent people in Gaza—we remained present and open to learning. If you listen past the arguments from extremes, there is also a deep undercurrent of compassion and concern among many Israelis.

Amidst all of the intense reactions on both sides of the extremes, I want to sit in the center. I am desperately trying to hold onto the complexity. The suffering on both sides and the multiple narratives crisscrossing the cultural, ethnic, religious and national divides makes peacemaking challenging. But it also makes peacemaking a more urgent imperative.

Resolution of this conflict will require the calm, patient presence of wise, courageous leaders. In the meantime, we have a job to do: to live “as if” we are pursuing peace. What are the values that define our discourse, our attitudes, our choices and our reactions?  How can Jewish values inform and unify us? The prophet Micah wisely taught us to: "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God."

Our Talmudic sages modeled openness to conflicting views, often concluding a disagreement saying: “Makhloket hi.” “It is a disagreement.” They taught us to sit in the center, to live with multiple truths, and to find our path through them.

Many times I heard Israelis express this wish: We hope it will be quiet tonight, or maybe tomorrow. Peace—that is a future wish. For now, we can live "as if” peace is at hand, thoughtfully, openly, guided by abiding Jewish values.  Our hearts go out to all who are suffering, and we pray for all violence to end, lighting pathways to peace.

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