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Toledot 5775 (Violence in Our Sacred Space)

This one hits very close to home. I doubt that if I had ever met my colleagues who were murdered on Tuesday in Jerusalem. I doubt, too, that we would have had much in common or to agree upon if we had the chance to know one another. (I must admit, I have been wrong on such assumptions in the past.) And yet, the fact that the violence occurred in a such a sacred space and time; while the victims were doing something that I do so frequently – in a synagogue participating in communal prayer – feels like a cosmic punch to the gut.

This tragic act of violence occurs during the week that Jews around the world read the Torah portion, Toledot. Toledot is the story of the conflicted brothers – Jacob and Esau. These twins begin their conflict – in a sacred space – in the womb of their mother, Rebecca. Rebecca feels the physical discomfort and pain of two fetuses wrestling in her belly. She also feels the spiritual discomfort and pain – a cosmic punch to the gut – as these two brothers engage in this conflict in a setting that protects and nourishes them. In a moment of existential angst and fatigue – responding to this conflict and its physical and spiritual impact on her, Rebecca cries out to God: Why? – Why does it have to be this way? Why does it have to be my burden?
Many of us can identify with Rebecca’s angst — her outrage, her frustration … even her sense of violation of a respected order of things. We, too, want to cry out – to the perpetrators of such pain, to the enablers of such a violation – but also to a broader and deeper Facilitator of our cosmos and cry out: Why? Why does it have to be this way? Why is this our continual burden?
I find it compelling to consider an etymological point of interest about the conflict within Rebecca’s womb. The Hebrew word for this place where life is given and protected is Rechem. It is within her Rechem where the violating conflict occurs. In our tradition when we speak of Mercy, we use the word Rachamim. It looks familiar because the root of the word for ‘womb’ is the same root for the word for ‘Mercy.’  I wonder, what is this profound interplay between the conflict within Rebecca’s Rechem (womb) and the value of Rachamim (Mercy)? How does such conflict exist because of a lack of Rachamim? In what way would Rachamim mitigate the impact of this conflict? How does one end conflict without the presence of some modicum of Rachamim?
The violation of such a sacred space in Jerusalem this week angers, worries and frightens us. It does not give us cause to forget why we construct such sacred spaces and times and what we endeavor to realize within them. No matter the pain, plight or the suffering one faces and no matter how one’s actions might be cloaked in fighting tyranny and seeking justice – perpetrating such acts in such a vulnerable space is reprehensible. Ironically, it should be within the context of such a space and time, that one would hope to bridge the abyss between people – collectively and individually. We must look beyond the willingness by a tortured few to desecrate such spaces, to our own willingness to continually open those spaces – and in turn ourselves – to the realization of our highest ideals and values.

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