Terrorism seeks to instill fear. Its goal is to terrorize. The danger of terrorism is that it makes us question doing the most ordinary of things.
On Tuesday, in Jerusalem, four Jews were brutally murdered while standing and beginning to pray the Amidah. One brave Druze policeman was killed while saving the lives of his fellow countrymen. In that moment preceding the chanting of the words “Blessed are You Adonai our God; God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob…” our thoughts are supposed to be focused on God, all distractions are to be pushed aside. We focus on God and God alone. It was in this moment that terrorists burst into the synagogue with their murderous intent. On this occasion their bloodied shouts of “God is great” silenced our “Blessed are You Adonai shield of Abraham.”
And yet, we will return to our prayers.
Rabbi Akiva, among the greatest of rabbinic sages, found hope where others saw despair. Once, The Talmud recounts, he was walking with Rabbis Gamliel, Eleazar and Yehoshua, and they heard the sounds of Romans celebrating. So great were the shouts of their enemies that they could be heard 120 miles away. On another occasion the four rabbis saw a fox wandering about the ruins of the Temple’s Holy of Holies, which the Romans had only recently destroyed. In both instances Akiva’s colleagues fell into mourning. Akiva, on the other hand, became merry. His friends questioned him.
He offered an intriguing interpretation of the Bible and its words. Rabbi Akiva argued that since the tragedies of which the Bible prophesy had come to pass then most certainly the redemption of which the Bible also speaks, and in particular those of the prophet Zechariah, will one day come to be. If we witness the words of our sacred work come to life, even if they be tragic occurrences, then our faith in God’s revealed word is thereby restored. His answer placated his colleagues. (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 24a) It confounds me.
We read this week of our patriarch, Isaac. He wanders about the land of Israel. His neighbors, in particular the Philistines, stop up the wells his father Abraham had dug and named. He then journeys to a new place, in search of a place where he might find peace and quiet. He settles in the Wadi of Gerar, in today’s Negev desert. “The herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” (Genesis 26:20) So Isaac travels to yet another location, finally discovering ample space for his family. The people of Gerar leave him alone. He calls his new home, Rehovot.
His prayers are answered. He is granted the peace and quiet that still alludes us.
We continue to pray for peace. I wonder. How can our neighbors’ prayers be different?
Where is the greatness of God about which we both sing?
My prayers become my bewilderments.
My neighbors’ celebrations have become my tears. Let not my victories become their travails.
The water that sustains us is the same.
Pray in your mosques. Offer prayers in our synagogues.
We are destined to drink from the same well.
Isaac, unlike his father Abraham and his son Jacob, never lives outside the land of Israel.
The prophet Zechariah declares: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares….” (Zechariah 8:4)
Would that I had the audacity and strength of Rabbi Akiva’s faith. Would that I had the courage to see in the tragedies of today hope for tomorrow.
We will return to our prayers!
And we will sing again: “The great, mighty and awesome God.”