Fred Rogers’ sweetly childlike words, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” (and the film by the same name) keep running through my mind, particularly now as I am thinking about neighborhoods and the rough neighborhood where Israel resides. And especially now, as the three week period mourning the historic destruction of that neighborhood climaxes with Tisha B’Av this week.
Mister Rogers’ simplistic message, and his genial, yet insistent, reminder of all that is good and right in the world, and in each of us, was captured in the recent PBS documentary. It illuminated Rogers’ ability to intuit the purity and innocence of childhood and create a space where it could flourish between real life and make believe. Using a worn, furry puppet and a squeaky, high pitched voice he found ways to talk about those things that make us different, and those that make us the same, those things that make us sad or scared or lonely, and those that make us happy and brave and trusting. He gently prodded us to see the wonder of a beautiful day, to stave off the darkness of a fearful night, to see God’s hand at work, and the power of the work of our own.
It is a message that we need more of now, that resonates beyond his neighborhood into ours and into our beloved Israel’s.
So I was drawn to pick up Yossi Klein Halevi’s latest book, its title also playing on neighbors and neighborhoods. It’s a gift, an offering ostensibly to his Palestinian neighbors, but to all of us, who bear Halevi’s anguish, so achingly rendered, who too mouth his plaintive plea for peace and justice. The slim book, both spiritual text and political treatise, deftly uses pairs of words to create a space between the real and the imagined, where Halevi, like Rogers, plants the seeds for understanding. Toggling between longing and need, destiny and fate, return and redemption, Halevi retells the Jewish story of destruction and dispersion, of exile and return, the dream of Zion, and its ultimate realization in the land of Israel. He quickly summarizes the history of hatred and persecution that has plagued the Jewish people and the refuge a Jewish homeland promises, then details the realities of returning to a land where others also reside and the conflict that ensues.
The tortuous history of the strife between neighbors, its failed attempts at resolution, its dashed hopes, its chilling terror, its deadening occupation, are cause for despair even now, especially now, when we as Jews recall the devastation of our own dispersion, the depths of our own longing for a place to call home.
So Halevi reminds us that there are two peoples and two narratives, two claims on the land, two olive trees rooted in the arid desert terrain. And that just as the exiles from Zion were like dreamers, so, too, the Palestinians yearn for the land, and so, too, does their longing have both a political urgency and a spiritual resonance. And, so too do we need to seek God’s presence, to seek God’s hand, in creating a space between the real and the imagined where both peoples can realize their aspirations for peace and coexistence.
So as Tisha B’Av arrives, as Jews sit on the floor and chant prayers of mourning, recalling the magnitude of loss, so, too, do we recall all that is hard won and all that is still left to do, in God’s time, and in God’s way, to make the land home for two peoples.