OK, I admit that it wasn’t bar; it was a coffee shop near Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel. And it wasn’t the opening line in a racist joke; it is what happened to me today.
I have known S. (we’ll call him that for short) for about seven years, ever since he started working at the pharmaceutical company for which I used to work. We hit it off from the beginning, even though I was a settler from a hilltop near Shechem (Nablus), and he was a Muslim Israeli Arab. We had a great working relationship and would occasionally have lunch together. We never really talked politics, but occasionally would speak about religion.
So I left the company, but we stayed in touch. We would talk before the holidays, like around Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Eid al-Fitr. Last week I called him to ask him a question in his field of expertise; today we met because he wanted my help, and I was happy to meet with him after about six months of not seeing one another in person.
When I saw him, I saw a look of surprise on his face after he noticed that I wasn’t my normal clean-shaven self (I was carrying an unkempt beard consisting of five days of stubble). The conversation ensued as follows:
S: Why are you growing a beard?
AH: It’s the Three Weeks, a period when we mourn the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
S (with an expression of remembering previous summers): Oh, yes, the month of Av, and the fast day.
AH: Right, the ninth of Av was the day that the temple was destroyed. The three-week period leading up to the fast is a time of mourning.
S: Do you really feel the mourning?
AH (after thinking for a moment): I guess, sometimes. Not all the time, but when I think about it, I feel that we’re missing something. I don’t necessarily think that what I miss is the physical temple, or the fact that sheep and cows were sacrificed there. It’s more of the idea that the temple represents. The belief in one God and the focus and the unity of the Jewish people around one common goal. I believe that my moving to Israel from the US is a part of the same idea that the temple represents: unity of Jews around one common goal.
S: So the temple is only for the Jewish people?
AH: No. The Bible [Kings I 8:41] states that when the first temple was standing, people of all religions would come from all over the world, be in awe and pray to one God, and that their prayers would be answered. They would sacrifice animals, representing self-sacrifice for the cause of belief in God and in morality. People all over the world lead lives that are focused on giving and helping. The temple in Jerusalem was for everyone to come and experience an inspiring spiritual experience and bring that experience back with them to their homes and to their everyday lives. The world would become a better place because of this spirituality that the temple brought. That is what I miss, and that is what we are mourning for.
S: Islam teaches something similar. The word “Muslim” comes from the word that means “dedication” or “surrender.” The Quran says that anyone, no matter his religion, is considered a Muslim, as long as he dedicates himself to the one God. The word “Islam” also stems from the word “Salaam,” meaning “peace.”
Our dialog then proceeded to professional topics, only returning to the spiritual plane toward the end of the meeting.
I am glad that I have the opportunity to be friends with and learn from someone who is so different from me. Despite our religious, cultural and political differences, we are able to find the common ground where we agree and build a relationship based on that common ground.
I hope that this type of dialog continues, not only between S. and me, but on a larger scale, among people with differences. Once we agree to find the common ground, we can work together to make the world a better place.