“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” These words from the great prophet Isaiah in chapter 40 express the deep yearnings of all peoples but especially those now living in fear and sorrow in the Middle East. And we too yearn for comfort, comfort from the reality of the horrors that continue to unfold in Israel and Gaza, comfort from our own private sorrows or challenges. I have thought a lot about this idea of ‘compassion fatigue’ which we have heard more and more in recent years. I don’t know about you but I’m actually beyond fatigue; I am at the point of compassion overwhelmed. It has been far too painful to see the images that have been shared about the Hamas invasion in Israel two weeks ago and the subsequent bombings and loss of life in Gaza. I could not look at the news coverage; the photos were just too brutal; the suffering was more than I could take in. I have spoken to many others who feel the same way, struggling with the tragic events of those early days, sympathizing with families who have lost so much or are desperately awaiting news on loved ones. At the same time, we grieve the suffering of the Palestinian civilians who have been living in desperation in Gaza for years and are now the ‘collateral’ damage of this tragic war. Several of us joined the Shabbat Service with our neighbors from Congregation Etz Chaim a week ago Friday evening. They spoke of the loneliness and fear they had been feeling and were grateful when friends and neighbors reached out in compassion. They prayed beautiful words of hope, stating that they believe peace is possible between Israelis and Arabs, between Jews and Palestinians. Can we believe that too? Can we embrace that belief? Let us pray, O God of compassion, comfort us, comfort our neighbors and friends; comfort your people yearning for peace here and in the Holy Land. Be with us this day. Amen.
We have made our way through the events of recent years, which just seemed to become increasingly painful and difficult to take in. Who among us is not overwhelmed at times, wondering if we can just reach a point where we may pause and feel some measure of internal peace. And what we feel is nothing compared to those living in the middle of the devastation in Ukraine and now in Israel and Gaza. How do we pray in times like these? Can our minds even begin to comprehend the magnitude of it all?
We have heard the expression, both things are true…and so for us. We can feel hope and we can feel despair. We can feel sorrow and joy. We can show compassion for the Israelis and our Jewish brothers and sisters and also grieve at the conditions in which the Palestinians have been enduring for far too long. We are pained at the suffering of the children, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Our hearts ache at the senseless violence, the trauma of the brutal attacks and the horror of bombings.
I heard one mother whose teenage daughter was taken hostage say, “I feel ashamed to be a human being; I cannot believe what one human can do to another.” She went on to say that she had long wanted peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Sadly, I don’t think she is the only one who is horrified at what suffering humans can inflict on others. I think the only way that can happen is essentially when people dehumanize their enemies. Despite the best efforts of many to put human faces on the ‘other’, too many involved in this conflict refuse to see that.
In Jewish teachings, there is a beautiful concept called tikkun olam, which literally means “repairing the world”. The origin of this expression goes back to Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), who was regarded as the father of Kabbalah, a term used to describe Jewish mystical activity or school of thought. Luria, who was leader of a community of mystics in Safed, Galilee, in northern Israel during the 16th century, created his own distinctive form of Kabbalah. In this form of Kabbalah, the Hebrew word tikkun first had a spiritual meaning, but in a different context. According to Luria, the idea of tikkun olam was based on the notion that during creation, G-d created 10 vessels, which contained the divine “sparks of holiness” or perceptible world of divinity. These sparks were God’s light in the world. Sin caused the vessels to shatter, scattering the sparks all over the world and bringing evil into the world. It was the task of Jews to wander and gather the scattered sparks. In The Biblical Source for Tikkun Olam, Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote: “The broken vessels required repair, and this would become the greatest mission of humanity.”
The writer Robert Fulghum once asked a Greek philosopher named Dr. Papaderos, “What is the meaning of life?” as they concluded a class taught by the professor. Papaderos could see that Fulghum was serious. He took a small mirror out of his wallet, and told this story. “During WWII, I was a child in a poor remote village. One day, on the road, I found several broken pieces of a mirror from a wrecked German motorcycle. And by scratching it on a stone, I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would not shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light—truth, understanding, knowledge—is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”
Fulghum continues: “And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.”
We are here to bear the beams of light, reflect God’s light out into the world. Jesus is the light of the world as we hear in John 8:12 “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” The light of Christ guides us to what is good and loving, to what is of God. Light can signify wisdom and hope. Darkness brings its own beauty; however, daylight allows us to see and look forward to the hope of a new day.
The poet Amanda Gorman wrote, “There is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” Light is a indeed a symbol of hope; it is a symbol of new beginnings…when morning comes after the night, the hope of the future.
How may we reflect the light of the Divine out into the world? Can we nurture the sparks within us and boldly send them out to repair the damage that has been done? How do we pray in such times and yet, how do we not pray? We are called to listen and to learn, to try to piece through the competing histories and pray that we can hold the stories of suffering and sorrow in our hearts with hope for a path to peace. At times, we may feel that it is impossible, that there will never be a way forward. This is generational pain and trauma passed from grandparents to their young and on and on…but when do the voices of peace overcome the voices of hate? Our Easter story teaches us that love is stronger than hate. And so, even in the midst of feeling overwhelmed, we each have a part to play in the unfolding events of our world. We must speak on behalf of truth; we must follow the path of peace. We must love boldly and courageously. We must help to repair the scattered light so that we may reflect that Divine light back to one another. As we conclude, I will share a prayer by the Rev.
Steven Charleston, (Episcopal bishop and citizen of the Choctaw Nation), who wrote, “I pray for your peace in troubled lands, in places where people fear each day, in cities or villages under threat of danger. I pray your peace into the hearts of those who hate, into the minds of those who live in anger, of those who long for revenge. The hot winds of war sweep over so many lives, dear God, terror and cruelty following in their wake, I do not know what else to do, but stand here making my appeal to heaven. Peace I pray. Peace against all the odds, peace without compromise, peace strong and enduring, peace so children never worry as they go to sleep.” May the church say, Amen.