April 14, 2008
There are moments when things just come together. Decades of prayer, meditation and personal work converge in some miraculous way, by the grace of God, and for once, we find that we know just what to do.
I had such a moment recently. Some years ago I was called to turn my time and attention to the work of peace and reconciliation. I prayed to be of service in the cause of peace, prayed to be shown how I might contribute in some small way to the creation of a more peaceful world. The call had come in the context of my impassioned prayer for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but how was I to serve this cause from my home in St. Paul, Minnesota?
The door that opened to me was the work of interfaith dialogue. It became clear that I was being invited to serve the cause of peace by creating relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The job appeared, even the paycheck was provided, and I began to create structures that would invite Jews, Christians and Muslims to cross the usual boundaries in order to know one another more deeply, to explore one another's faith and humanity, to learn to hear truths different from our own.
One of my most faithful partners has been a Muslim leader originally from Pakistan. During the first year of our work together, I heard him say over and over again that this work was not about geo-politics. What happens "over there" is a million miles away, he would say; our task is to learn about our neighbors, about their families, their communities and their faith lives, not to talk about political struggles beyond our control or influence. We both knew where "over there" was, and were well aware of the significance of a Muslim leader and rabbi working together, seeking to draw our people into more peaceful relationship with one another.
One day, over a year after we began to work together, we sat at a planning committee meeting, creating a program on Justice in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When our planning was nearly complete, in a temperate and matter-of-fact tone, my Muslim colleague asked my colleague, the rabbi at the table who would be presenting the Jewish view of justice work, "Have you thought about how you will respond if someone asks, given the Jewish passion for justice, how you understand Israel's treatment of the Palestinians?"
The Jews at the table suddenly grew tense and frightened; the Muslim was confused – he thought he had asked a simple question. After the group meeting ended, he asked me honestly, "Why did my question create so much tension in the room?"
Days later we went out to dinner to explore his question. We chatted until we had gotten settled, then it was time to dive in to the conversation we needed to have. Like many rabbis, I am normally a person of many words. I have a lot to say about most things, especially those political and religious issues about which I feel most passionately. So it could only have been by the grace of God that, when the moment came for me to respond to his question, "Why was the Israel-Palestine question so sensitive for the Jewish members of the committee?" I responded briefly and from the heart.
It took about a minute for me to respond to the question. I can't honestly say that I intentionally did anything. I did not choose to drop into prayer; I did not even choose to take a long conscious breath. Somehow, beyond my control, my attention dropped into the heart and I spoke what was for me the simple truth. I said that the Jewish people, my people, has suffered greatly throughout history, and that while we – and our brothers and sisters in Israel – may look strong and powerful, inside we are still very frightened.
Miraculously, I did not need to say anything else, and I stopped talking. My friend began to talk to me about how Muslims in Pakistan see the world, and I was aware that I was being blessed with a glimpse of reality I might never have encountered, but for my relationship with this man. In that graced, quiet space of heartful communication, it became clear that our relationship had changed. We were both moved, and we were having a conversation that was utterly new for both of us. In subsequent encounters, it became clear that something altogether different had happened in our relationship.
Truly, nothing very dramatic had happened. We did not make peace in the Middle East that evening. We did not even fall into one another's arms, professing lifelong friendship despite the ways in which culture and religion divided us. But I knew that God had guided my words that evening, and I had been able to follow the direction I had been given.
The rabbis of the Talmud taught that God's name is peace. Having called God's name so many times throughout my adult life, having uttered so many fervent prayers for peace, that evening I was given a small taste of what it is to be a peace-maker, a follower of God in search for peace. I pray that I will remember what I learned that evening, and that God will use me again to bring a moment of peace to our war-torn world.