UTS Address

I had the great honor of giving the sermon during the services today at Union Theological Seminary. I was asked to speak on Isaiah 65.....here goes:

"I create Jerusalem a rejoicing" - Isaiah 65

If there is peace in Pittsburgh, the residents of Squirrel Hill will rejoice – as will residents all around the three rivers, the suburbs, and much of Western Pennsylvania.

If there is peace in Belfast, not only Northern Ireland, but all of Ireland, indeed all of Great Britain will be able to breath a little easier.

No I do not wish to belittle Pittsburgh or Belfast…I wish them well.

But if there is peace in Jerusalem…if any person, from any nation could walk through the cobblestone paths of the shuk – offer prayers at the ancient churches, mosques, or synagogues and not once fear for their life – if never again would blood shed by bullet, rock or bomb have to be cleaned off those stones then this is a new earth. And if this is a new earth, when we gaze into the theological mirror we will see that there is also a new heavens.

In Isaiah’s words: I create Yerushalayim a rejoicing and all her inhabitants a joy – and the voice of weeping shall be heard no more, the voice of crying.

How is it that the restoration of Jerusalem will bring about a new earth?

Isaiah’s vision rests on an ancient idea about God and furniture. Like in Archie Bunker’s living room The heavens are God’s favorite chair, and one spot on earth where God’s feet touch the ground is Jerusalem. God’s footstool is the Holy City – and the giant Temple that once stood was like a big Ottoman. No wonder God is upset when the Temple is crushed by the Romans and the Jews are exiled to Iraq.

But why obsess about this one ancient walled city in a world with hundreds of ancient walled cities? What is so vital about this place built around a rock and some underground caves? If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all overlooked it when building their altars, why should we be so concerned about this spot now? Tongues cleaving to the roofs our mouths like eating peanut butter from the jar with a spoon.

A local legend concerning Jerusalem, first recorded by the French ethnographer Alphonse de Lamartine in 1832 teaches us about the origin of the city.

It is said that a story of two brothers who lived on separate sides of a mountain. One was blessed with a large family, but was poor; the other was blessed with wealth, but had no family.
They became partners in a farm and split its produce evenly. Since they loved each other dearly, each felt the other’s plight. The wealthy brother thought, “My brother has a large family. He needs this more than I,” and he would secretly move some of his produce to his brother’s section in the middle of the night. The brother with the family thought, “My brother is all alone, with no one to take care of him. He needs this more than I,” and he would secretly move some of his produce to his brother’s section.

Each was amazed that, no matter how much he gave away, his produce did not diminish. Knowing that G-d works in mysterious ways, they didn’t question too much. Then late one night, they inadvertently ran into each other at the top of the mountain. Both were carrying some produce. They fell into each other’s arms and cried.

Their actions, so pure and selfless, affected the very mountain upon which they stood. G-d vowed that the divine presence would never leave this place. This farm later became a village, then a city, and eventually the capital of the Jewish nation under David.
So Jerusalem is, mythically, symbolic of the way in which we are to live with one another. As Ibn Ezra taught – Friendship is one heart in two bodies. Spiritually, looking toward’s Jerusalem’s walls we are to envision an ideal city – a city of God

If only we could look towards Jerusalem and think of it in this way today. Sadly, voices are calling from all sides that are undermining this message. Voices from within my own tradition that see in Jerusalem the restoration of an ancient theocracy, voices within Christian circles that see the blood in Jerusalem’s streets as fuel for a purifying global fire that will separate believers from heathens, and voices in the Islamic world which see it as a sacred land defiled and polluted by Jews and Christians alike. All of us, Christian, Jews, and Muslim, who envision Jerusalem as a city of coexistence – a city where all can worship in peace, have our work cut out for us.

From whence will help come from?

I want to make a radical suggestion. Perhaps the help will come from Tel Aviv. I say this after reading an e-mail from my friend Amos. He writes:

Yesterday we were at a beach north of Tel Aviv with a group of Israeli families. Soft waves, gentle breeze, a campfire, and an idyllic moonlit Mediterranean night. After dinner Maia 9his seven year old), and her friend — also named Maia — entered the water for a twilight swim. Perhaps 20 seconds later I followed them into the sea with Lea in my arms. By the time I was waist deep, a riptide had pulled the two Maias about 30 yards from the shore. They screamed for help as the rough sea wrestled them further and further out. Thinking I could stand as the girls were only 10 yards from me, I stepped out and extended my hand. But the riptide was fierce and sucked Lea and me right out with them. Out here the waves were choppy and tumultuous, and the three girls shrieked in panic. With Lea clinging to my neck screaming “I’m scared! I’m scared!” I tried calmly — and to no avail — to push each of the Maias alternately toward the beach. A dark man, roughly my age, appeared seemingly from nowhere. I could tell he wasn’t a strong swimmer, but together — both grunting and gasping — we tried pushing the three girls ashore. As we pushed one girl, one of the other two would submerge gagging under the vicious tide. I have lived through many things (including the mayhem of 9/11) and no fear in my life has come close to the thought of one of these three girls (and/or myself) dying just yards from the beach. Close to three excruciating minutes later, the stranger and I managed to push the two older girls to the safety of the shallow water. The two Maias sprinted to the beach, screaming for help, as the riptide continued pulling the stranger, Lea, and me back out to sea. I tried in both Hebrew and English to summon help from my friends on the beach. The sea was deafening and no one heard. Suddenly the stranger began waving his hands and shouting for help — in Arabic. Within 20 seconds a line of seven or eight men formed a human chain on the beach. A dark-skinned teenager scurried out on a boogie board. A proprietor from a nearby falafel stand darted into the waves with a lifesaver in hand. With the total coordination of the entire assembly, the falafel stand guy grabbed Lea, now hoarse with terror, and pushed her onto the lifesaver, and the human chain dragged the three of us back to the shallow water. After the trauma there were slaps on the back, thank-yous, and hugs. It was only then, after I finished heaving my guts out onto the nearby dunes, that I learned that the stranger was not only an Arab from a nearby village but also that he didn’t know how to swim. I learned, too, that the human chain that brought the five of us back to the shore comprised almost equally Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. The Arab stranger and I both agreed that the situation could have ended up much worse. He said, “Baruch Hashem!” — Hebrew, not Arabic, for “Thank God.” Such events can evoke sweeping sentimental statements and oversimplified metaphors about how there will be peace “if only” this and “when only” that. I will try to refrain. Sometimes, though, we are given a glimpse. Sometimes we are not Arabs or Israelis or Americans or Muslims or Jews. Sometimes we are just two tiny men, sea-choked with fear, pushing three little girls toward the calm shore and the warm fires of their particular tribes.

When I first read Amos' story it hit me that it was a great metaphor for all of the holy land's people -- while some are actors in the violence, most have felt pulled out by a rip tide. And they all look for a human chain to remind them of Isaiah’s vision:

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain – says Adonai.

Amos Oz, one of Israel’s greatest writers and a tireless advocate for peace, wrote recently that “it is deadly enemies, swearing to cheat and betray who sign peace treaties. This would be a divorce that results not in a honeymoon, but in an emotional de-escalation that will take generations. Look at the Europeans. It took them a thousand years to make peace. Even as they wag their fingers at us like a Victorian governess, they have a history of rivers of blood. I will risk a prophecy: It will not take the Middle East as long to make peace as it did Europe. And we’ll shed less blood.”

To quote a Yiddish saying on contemporary prophets: From his mouth to God’s ears.