Dvar Torah by Niki Landau
Delivered Sept. 12, 1999 (2nd day of Rosh Hashanah)
When Rabbi Bielfeld asked me to do the Dvar Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I was surprised. First of all, I had no idea what a Dvar Torah was. I am not exactly what you would call a devout Jew. I would call myself a confused Jew. I am one of those people the Rabbi was speaking about on Friday night. The congregants who only come once a year to shul and don’t even know why. So how does a confused Jew come to stand before all of you today and deliver the Dvar Torah? Good question.
I think the answer, strangely enough, lies in the Torah portion — Genesis, Chapter 1, Creation. The Rabbi told me that I should be able to at least mention the Torah portion in my speech because, and I quote, “it’s an easy one”. So I pulled out my personal Torah, dusted it off, and looked up Genesis, Chapter 1. It begins in a familiar way: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
The Torah talks about Creation. I would like to talk about Re-Creation. Only once in my life did I get the chance to start from the very beginning, and I was too young to make much of the opportunity. But here we are, standing on the edge of another year, on the very edge of a New Millenium, and still it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. So I think it’s a good time to talk about Re-Creation.
Re-Creation means that we aren’t starting fresh. Whether we like it or not, when we step into the future, our past will tag along. We Jews know something about Re-Creation. We’ve re-created ourselves over and over, leaving old unfriendly countries, starting new again in promising lands. And still our past catches up with us. New situations seem to bring the same old issues — anti-semitism, spiritual divisions, moral dilemmas. And maybe it’s like that for us as individuals, too. No matter how promising the new year looks, somehow the old issues resurface again and again.
So if our past is going to keep walking with us, maybe it’s time to embrace it as a friend.
With this in mind, I turned back to the Torah, to the opening sentence of Genesis, Chapter 1, “In the beginning…”. The first image that strikes me is the image of the void. I can relate to that. I’ve had sadness in my life, I’ve had lonliness, but there is only one time that I have felt such a profound emptiness, such a sudden darkness in my life, that I knew I’d found my version of the void.
Nine years ago, I lost a friend, Marnie Kimelman, in a terrorist attack on a Tel Aviv beach. I’m sure many of you have heard of Marnie. She lived just a few streets away from here, on my street, Truman Rd. I was also in Israel that summer. We were both seventeen years old.
Suffice it to say that nothing in my childhood prepared me for what happened in Israel that summer. It was as if my entire world had exploded and all that was left were hollowed-out old beliefs — belief in humankind as being essentially good; belief in Israel as being safe and noble; belief in God, and the concept that life was, in the end, fair.
My father said that, sooner or later, I was probably going to have to come to terms with some of the realities of the world — what is commonly termed “growing up” — but that it was usually a slow erosion over time, not a sudden explosion. I think that, regardless of how you lose your faith in the world, whether it comes from the sudden loss of a loved one, or whether it comes slowly, as a gradual compromise you make with Life — regardless, it is hard to live in this world without faith. And I don’t necessarily mean religious faith, I mean any faith, faith in humans, in our institutions, our governments, our leaders. Faith in our relationships, in the promise of commitment. Faith that the world is getting better and not worse, faith in the potential of change, faith in ourselves.
Sometimes in life we lose faith in one area, say a business venture doesn’t succeed or someone we believed in disappoints us, and we hold on tighter to our other areas — our family, our religion, our friends — to get us through the re-building time. And sometimes, we lose faith in something so fundamental that everything else just seems to come crashing down. Then we are alone, and we face such a great emptiness, such a void, that the thought of re-building seems like an impossible task. How do you fill such an emptiness?
I met an Israeli man named Dr. Yitzhak Mendolson. He’s a psychologist who specializes in working with Holocaust survivors and victims of terrorist attacks. A few years ago, Yitzhak was himself a victim of what he calls “a very mild terrorist attack”. He was shot while sitting in an outdoor cafe. What’s interesting to me about Dr. Mendolson is that, after the attack, he became even more actively involved in creating peace. He began regularly meeting and talking with Palestinians in order to listen to their stories and further mutual understanding. It would make sense to me, after being shot, if Dr. Mendolson was more interested in security and less trustful of peace.
But Dr. Mendolson, or Yitzhak, didn’t see it that way. He decided that the best way to beat terrorism was to refuse to become, as he puts it, a self-terrorist. Rather than live in fear, he would make a conscious effort to “humanize” the enemy. He would use the opportunity of re-creation to widen his understanding of the world and achieve an even greater inner strength.
Someone said to me once that “you can’t change what other people do but you can change your response to it”. It took me nine years to change my response of grief and anger and emptiness. But this year I decided that I was ready, and not only ready but responsible for the re-creation of my world. And this realization, for me, was the real growing up, and it can happen at any age.
This year, I returned to Israel to help make peace. My parents and I joined a delegation of Jews, Muslims, and Christians as part of an organization called Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy. Our purpose was to listen. To listen to Palestinians and Israelies on all sides of the conflict, from extremists to peace activists and everyone in between. And not only was our purpose to listen, but to listen compassionately. Which means listening without judgement, without deciding whether someone is right or wrong — listening only for the person’s story.
One particularly hard day, in Hebron, we met with a man who was a member of the militant group Hamas. I couldn’t listen compassionately. I was too frightened, too angry, I could barely stay in the room. Afterwards, when I was recovering in the hallway, I was approached by Hisham, our Palestinian guide in Hebron, a journalist and human rights worker. Hisham approached me, handed me a tissue and said: “I lost a friend.” “I lost a friend too,” I said. And there we were, facing each other, Palestinian and Jew, each of us trapped in our own tragedy. And Hisham said, “Then you and I have to make peace. Because if we can’t make peace, how can we expect others to?”
Small steps. Small steps in faith. Small steps in re-building. It helped me to discover that the world is filled with people who have experienced a void in their lives and are trying desperately to re-create, any way they can. Some are using anger, or bitterness, or violence, because these are the tools they believe are necessary to survive in this world. And some are using faith because, like it or not, that is what it takes to believe in the possibilities of this world.
I’ve decided to use compassion. It seems to me that compassion is the only human response to a world that is more and more dehumanizing. And in being compassionate, I was greeted with compassion. And that changed the way I saw the world. When I hear the term “Palestinian terrorists”, I now know that I have met many Palestinians who not only were not terrorists, but who welcomed me — despite their own history of suffering — welcomed me, a Jew, into their homes and called me family. When the newspapers say, “Four boatloads of Chinese migrants” — I imagine boarding one of those boats and sitting down with one of those people, and hearing his or her own story. That is my new way of understanding my world and re-creating my beliefs. That is the way I’m filling my void.