Split Screen

This has been the week of the split screen. Jubilant celebration pit against desperate agitation. Pictures of smiling, well-dressed politicians inaugurating a sparkling new American Embassy in Jerusalem juxtaposed with shots of Palestinians in Gaza wielding slingshots, silhouetted against the backdrop of burning tires, acrid smoke, and barbed wire. Split screen. Two pictures snapped at the same time, 40 miles apart. Two pictures that could not be more different.

As painful as it has been for us to see these two images juxtaposed in the news, it has been doubly painful to feel those images juxtaposed in our hearts and in our communities.

For some, the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was an answer to fervent prayers and to decades of hard work. They say Jerusalem has always been our holy city. The heartbeat of the Jewish world. Jerusalem is where our Temples were built, where our ancestors offered sacrifices, where our people have lived and prayed and wrestled with God for more than three thousand years. Jerusalem is and will always be the capital of Israel. This move is about recognizing a reality on the ground, a reality which does not preclude the resolution of conflict, but which does acknowledge that Jews will not abandon the city of Jerusalem. Any future peace agreement will include the acknowledgement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people. Why not move the embassy now?

Besides, they say, this move is not a sudden reversal in policy. Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995. In 1995, the House and Senate voted to acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and set aside funds to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For the last 23 years, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have ignored the stipulations of the Jerusalem Embassy Act and refused to move the Embassy (even though Congress has since passed additional legislation to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel). By moving the Embassy, President Trump was not just carrying out a campaign promise, he was also responding to and actualizing a decision made through the democratic process. A promise which our government has reneged for more than two decades.

It is high time, they say, to celebrate Israel. 70 years of surviving and thriving against the odds. 70 years of struggling to resolve the conflict, 70 years of compromises, negotiations, and diplomacy. 70 years filled with terrorism and two intifadas. Even today, Hamas urges its people to run at the fence, to destroy Israel. We cannot allow their blatant disregard for human life to hold us hostage, we cannot allow their violent tactics to dictate the course of Israel’s future.

While this group celebrates, for others, the relocation of the US Embassy was too much, too soon. They say that while the Embassy Act has been on the books, our presidents have been prudent to delay. It’s too volatile, too dangerous. Just look at the protests that have been happening in Gaza for the past many weeks. 60 dead. Thousands injured. Among them children and bystanders. Is moving the Embassy worth so much pain and loss of life?

The embassy move was meant to be a celebration of conflict resolved. An incentive for Israel to work hard for peace. Instead, by rushing to move the embassy now, precisely on Israel’s anniversary of independence and Palestinian’s Naqba day, we have made peace in Israel even more unlikely. For Palestinians, the move was a slap in the face, proof that the United States has chosen sides and is no longer an impartial mediator. And, they say, we worry that moving the embassy will further radicalize the hard-right groups in Israel and make them less likely to negotiate with Palestinians.

Furthermore, they say, the fate of Jerusalem has yet to be decided. The international community sees Jerusalem as an occupied city. The international community does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Acting unilaterally to move the Embassy, without the approval and agreement of the international community, risks not only Israel and our interests in the Middle East, but also threatens our safety at home. Now the United States will be a target for all those countries who hate Israel.

Oy. What do we do in the face of split screens?

After the destruction of the Temple, our ancestors dispersed around the world. Their experiences were varied. Some found hardship, others opportunity. But no matter what they encountered in their travels and in their lives, they were looking at the world through the split screen of experience. On the one side, they saw the picture of their trauma: destruction of the Temple and displacement. On the other side, they saw the opportunity and challenge of the moment. Two screens.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that we are in our ancestors’ shoes. We’re grappling with trauma. Living in a new place where we don’t quite fit in. Trying to maintain our connection with our spiritual home. In the place of sacrifice, we have to find something that will make us feel instantly connected and loved, safe and hopeful for the future. We have to devise a new ritual to start the day.

If I were an ancestor, I would create a ritual filled with sunshine and warm fuzzy feelings. My morning ritual would be as follows—wake up with the sun shining without an alarm, watch 10-15 minutes of cute baby animal videos on YouTube, write out 10 gratitudes, remember all of the miracles God has performed and praise God for all the blessings in the world, and then listen to joyful music while getting ready for the day.

Our ancestors could have devised a spiritual practice of sunshine and cute animals, but instead they chose to start our day with a split screen. Light and darkness. Blessing and challenge. Every morning we say a verse from Isaiah יוצר אור ובורא חושך God forms light and creates darkness.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Though our ancestors lifted the verse from Isaiah, they edited it to fit their spiritual needs. The original verse reads יוצר אור ובורא חושך, עושה שלום ובורא רע God forms light and creates darkness, God makes peace and creates evil. But our rabbis didn’t want the focus to be on fragments of light emerging in a dark world, they didn’t want there to be total balance between good and bad. Instead, they wrote the words יוצר אור ובורא חושך, עושה שלום ובורא את הכל God forms light and creates darkness, God makes peace and creates the whole. In other words, there may be light and darkness in the world, but the balance tips towards light.

Let me share a story with you that I learned at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference.  The year was 1948. Israel was struggling to fend of armies from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Things were not looking good and the United Nations had just ordered Israel to withdraw from Beersheba.

During this time, famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was travelling around Israel with an ensemble of incredible musicians. They would stop at military bases and perform to improve morale and help with the war. Just as the order to vacate Beersheba came through, Leonard Bernstein and his Israel Philharmonic Orchestra arrived to perform.

In the midst of a dark and uncertain future, it was a moment of sheer joy. Thousands of Israelis, including patients from nearby hospitals, schlepped out to hear the gorgeous notes of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 15 in B-flat Major, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

And while they listened, Egyptian armies saw thousands of Israelis assembling and became afraid. They were convinced that Israeli armies were gathering in Beersheba to attack Egypt. So, they pulled their armies from Jerusalem and sent them south. That redeployment changed the course of the war and enabled Israel to defeat her adversaries.

In 1948, our people did not allow their bleak reality to prevent them from seeing light. Though we may be living in a moment of split screens, in a moment of darkness, we can turn our eyes towards the fullness of the future. We can look towards the light.

[Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od] *sung