9-11 Shalom Alechem/Salaam Alekum
Shalom Alechem/Salaam Alekum
Peace be upon you
Rabbi Debra Kolodny
On September 11, 2011 I lived right outside of Washington DC near Takoma Park, Maryland. I was riding my bicycle that morning. At exactly the moment the first World Trade Center Tower was felled I took a spill on my bike. Nothing caused it. I just lost my balance and fell. I had raced in triathlons, ridden centuries (100 mile rides), regularly cycled for 18 years, and had never had an unprovoked spill. It was minor. I was not hurt. But when I found out about the Tower I realized that the crash’s reverberation had reached me hundreds of miles down Interstate 95. Later that day I sat in my home, overwhelmed by military jets and helicopters filling the air space. Living so close to the Pentagon I too was at Ground Zero. The attack’s reverberations now raged around me.
Forty four days later I made pilgrimage to New York and visited the rubble of the Twin Towers. A poem came through me, inspired by the site, by those mourning all around me and by Torah.
Pilgrimage, October 25, 2001
Have you been to 911?
Made pilgrimage to place undone,
Seen plumes of smoke rise to the sun,
Felt heat from crematorium?
Tasted ash and rancid air,
Read poster board, “New York: We care.”
Smelled flowers pushed through leaning fences,
There to block heartbroken entrance,
Deeper into gaping wound,
Where heroes toil, where lives were ruined.
Have you heard our anthem sung?
By ministering angels, 5 voices strong?
Breathtaking harmony they are gifting
To New York’s finest: eyes soft, hearts lifting
At makeshift alters have you prayed?
Seen candles, photos, pain displayed
And there, beneath the lily’s glory…
A baby shoe. What is her story?
Is it parent or her own life
Stolen ‘way by aerial knife?
Have you seen the tall crossed bars?
Found comfort in this sign of G-d?
Or do you see midst rubbled ground
To stir your faith, what I have found?
There’s Jacob’s ladder, stairs and all
Steel beamed tower, skeletal
Reaching upward, grounded deep
The path from there to here is steep
Yet, in this place, I did not know
G-d’s calling card, it just said, ‘YO!’*
You know what’s next, the story’s clear
We’ve had our dream, may time be near,
To wrestle angels, one and all,
Then limp, transform, and live G-d’s call.
Embrace our siblings, long estranged,
Share our wealth, with gift exchange,
Build an altar, pitch our tents
Make peace our lasting covenant.
“Yo” is a greeting found in Philadelphia and New York City. It can mean “Hello”, “Hey” or just be a term of familiar connection saying “Pay attention!”
Before 9-11, I had done a considerable amount of interfaith activism and peace-building, teaching, advocating and partnering with Muslim activists and friends. After 9-11 and that October visit to New York, I began to devote my personal teaching and prayers to peace-building. My divrei Torah (sermons) on Shabbat more frequently looked to inspire a shift in global consciousness towards love, compassion, healing, wholeness. I devoted my meditation practice to opening hearts and inspiring love between Israelis and Palestinians. I organized a meditation group to work on this collectively.
In 2011, I partnered with a dear friend, a Sufi Sheikh, Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje, to teach a week-long course filled with Sufi and Kabbalistic text, prayer and practice, a week designed to help open gates of understanding, heart connection and love, not just for those who attended, but for all who could feel the resonant vibration of our prayers. We hoped to help create a different reality on the planet—one that would reverberate for peace, that would clear the pain and strife away, that would open gates for a new way.
In January of 2015 I created and co-led an Abrahamic prayer, practice and learning community in Portland, Oregon for several months called “Bosom of Abraham.” Sufi Teacher Arifa Byron, Pastor Jennifer Brownell and I invited people to: Open gates to Oneness through a song drenched glorious evening of chanting, prayer, zikr, whirling and dance. Join us as merge into the Beloved and become Peace. Short teachings will spice and deepen our holy adventure.
I am convinced that gates to wholeness and peace that are unavailable through activism, conversation or other change technologies can open through shared prayer and practice.
Below is an example of a teaching I have given on this theme. To all who read this, Shalom Alechem, Salaam Alekum: Peace be upon you. Bimherah v’yameinu. Speedily and in our day.
Many scholars say that the word Ivrit, or Hebrew, comes from the root of the word avar, to cross over. Imbedded in the core identity of the Jewish people is the invitation, the expectation or perhaps even the mandate, to cross over – to always be heading some place better. An invitation to transcend our current status and seek something deeper, something higher, to find the bridge between here and there, to BE the bridge between here and there. To be brave enough to cross boundaries that might seem impossible to pass through. To be faithful enough to recreate the kind of world imagined at the beginning of Creation – a world we once had, and we can have again. Whether that gorgeously balanced, lushly landscaped, Spirit drenched place called Gan Eden is mythological does not even matter, because the state of wholeness, the experience of the intra-connectivity of ‘all that is’ is NOT mythological. It is in fact the truest thing that is.
Our Torah calls us to cross the boundary between what our broken hearts settle for and what our essential consciousness feels and yearns for: Heaven here on earth.
What does it mean to be a boundary crosser? To answer that question it helps to enter a liminal space, a place between what is and what could be. A space where we can see the light of the Divine in ourselves, in one another and in all of Creation. If we take that invitation, crossing over the boundary between what is now and what is possible, we can change the world.
Faithful Jews look for guidance on how to do this, and frankly, on all matters, to our Torah. I have always looked for Torah to provide teachings on peace, but in the wake of 9/11, all the more so. In the wake of 9/11, I feel an imperative, an unshakeable deployment to be a spiritual healer for the planet, a spiritual warrior for peace.
One place I find guidance is with our third of patriarch: Yaacov or Jacob. The Torah teaches that Yaacov left Beer Sheva, and went towards Charan to find a wife. Rashi calculates his age as 63, when he did this. Sixty-three. Yaacov was already a mature man.
On this journey Yaacov dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. YHVH (G-D) stands above declaring, “Ani Adonai, Elohei Avraham avicha, v’Elohei Yitzchok” (“I am Adonai, the G-d of Abraham, your father, and the G-d of Isaac”). And then G-d promises Yaacov the land upon which he lays his head. And what’s more, Torah tells us: V’hinei anochi imach, ushmarticha bchol asher telech…And behold, G-d said to Yaacov, “I am with you, and will guard you wherever you go…”
Yaacov awoke from his dream and he said: “Yesh HaShem b’makom haze, v’anochi lo yadati.” (“There is G-d in this place and I did not know it.”)
We are told in this moment: Ayn ze ki im bet Elohim, This is none other than the house of Elohim, v’ze sha’ar hashamayim, and this is the gate of heaven.
So let’s unpack this.
First, we are taught that the gate to heaven is the place where one dreams. How do we cross over from our current chaotic, often unhealthy, weather weirding, violent material world into a world in balance, in right relationship with the precious earth and all of her Creatures, a world of justice and fairness and beauty, where all can be safe and healthy and educated and honored and whole?
We dream. Being a boundary crosser means being a dreamer. And through those dreams we enter the gate to heaven. And when we enter the gate of heaven, we are promised safety. But no promises before we dream. First, we must have the courage to let go of control and allow inspiration to come in. Even when we have no idea that G-d is with us, G-d is still here in this place. Yesh HaShem b’makom haze. When we take the first step, when we dare to dream, we are rewarded. A glimpse of heaven is given and safety is ours. So being a boundary crosser means being brave, taking the initiative, letting go and opening to possibility.
At 63, already an age when one might expect wisdom and spiritual development, Yaacov knows enough to be brave and let go. But he still has more waking up to do before he can fully manifest his boundary-crossing role. What else has to happen to Yaacov? What else has to happen to us before WE can become spiritual warriors for peace, the spiritual planet healers that we are called to be?
When Yaacov was 99-years old, he had another encounter with G-d. This is one where Yaacov gets his name, Yisrael. He wrestles with a man or an angel and he prevails. And what happens after that wrestling? Yaacov reconciles with his long-estranged brother, Esav, with whom he’s had enormous enmity. Yisrael fears violence might erupt at this meeting. Instead love and peace emerges.
From this we learn that with sufficient spiritual development the potential for violence, even war can be averted and peace can prevail. From boundary-crosser to peacemaker. How did that happen?
Let’s explore the story and see!
There is a period of 36 years between Yaacov’s two Divine encounters. Thirty-six years. In gematria, Jewish numerology, 36 is twice chai. Chai means life. So 2 lives were lived between the time when Yaacov first leaned into G-d consciousness and his actual wrestling with Source. Two lifetimes since he left home fearful that his brother Esav would kill him because he had stolen his birthright. Two lifetimes since deceit and theft prompted him leaving his birth home. Two lifetimes during which midrash tells us that he studied Torah, developed a relationship with many wells of water, wells which are the gateway to Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, bursting forth from within the earth. Two lifetimes during which he married, parented, learned what it meant to provide for a family, and so perhaps, with all of this living, Yaacov had fully experienced the Divine law of midah c’neged midah, which means, ‘like begets like’, or what you might call Karma. Perhaps during those 36 years Yaacov’s debt toward his brother was paid back. Perhaps it was balanced by Laban’s deceit towards Yaacov. Perhaps those years rendered Esav able to receive Yaacov with kindness.
But more than just the spiritual growth took place during those 36 years. Also pivotal to the story of how Yaacov encountered Esav are the choices Yaacov made upon that meeting. He sends his two wives and two concubines along with their retinue and gifts ahead of himself, hoping to appease Esav before he even sets eyes upon Yaacov. Yaacov remains alone in the rear. Is this a sign of his fear, sending others ahead of him? Some say yes, he is a coward.
But is that what was really going on? Was he cowardly or was he wise in the ways of reconciliation, so wise that he knew that he needed another encounter with the Holy before he was ready to greet his fear.
Perhaps Yaacov knew that he had to be his highest self for the most terrifying moment of his life. After all, the future of the Israelite people was at stake. Was Yaacov wise enough to know that two lifetimes might have made him a different man, but not man enough to heal the breach that his own deceit had created?
Lets say that this is what happened, that Yaacov sent his family ahead out of Divine wisdom or intuition, and not cowardice. What happens next in this story? Yaacov does not sleep that night. This was not a night for dreaming, but for awakening. Yaacov had matured from being able to see the Divine to being able to dive into an actual physical encounter with Mystery. He throws his whole being into hand-to-hand engagement for hours with this man, or is it an angel of G-d?
And just what IS that engagement with this man/G-d representative? Vaye’avek is the verb that is used. It is almost always translated as ‘he wrestled.’ But that verb, aleph, bet, kuf, also means embrace. Yaacov engaged in the most intimate struggle possible-embracing that which challenged him instead of casting it away. Embracing instead of attacking. Embracing instead of trying to change. Embracing and wrestling at the same time.
When the experience is over, the ish, the man that Yaacov embraces, wrestles, dances with says: Yaacov, ki sarita im Elohim v’im anashim vatuchal, “You have contended with G-dly beings and with men and you have won.”
Ha Rav Aharon Solevechik, has a gorgeous analysis of Yaacov’s struggle. He says that the being that renames Yaacov doesn’t use the word nilchamta, you have fought, when he describes Yaacov’s engagement. He uses the term sarisa – you have striven.
Nilchamta is from the same root as milchama, war. It implies violence and struggle in order to defeat and control or destroy.
Sarisa, on the other hand, suggests a striving towards authority and influence, followed by efforts to inspire good, noble and spiritual qualities inherent in one’s adversary.
Yaacov, he says, struggled with that man/angel in a way that maintained his own personal integrity and at the same time did not diminish the integrity of his adversary.
And then what happens? What I noticed is that Yaacov leaves this striving with a limp, with the name Yisrael and a blessing. Yaakov names the place Peniel, G-d’s face, and declares, Ki raiti elohim panim el panim vatinatzel nafshi, Because I have seen G-d face to face and my soul has survived. And then the sun shines on him. Yaacov sees the face of G-d and then he literally sees the Light. Yaacov experiences enlightenment.
What I love so much about Rav Solevechik’s teaching is that it foreshadows EXACTLY the way I see Yaacov behaving on his way to reconcile with Esav. Yaacov strives with Esav in the same exact way that he strove with that angel/man. Yaacov honors both his own and his brother’s integrity, inviting Esav into his highest self.
How did he do this—honor both his brother and himself? Yaacov led with gifts and with sublimation of his own authority, the subordination of his wealth, of his power, of any ego he might have. He prostrates 7 times before his brother. He nullifies himself.
When Yaacov saw his brother, what did he see? The very thing he saw in his moment of enlightenment after his wrestling. Torah tells us that Yaacov saw the face of G-d in his brother Esav, Pnei Elohim. So, we learn: once enlightened, it is possible to see G-d’s face in everyone one encounters, even those we fear the most. Even those we think are going to kill us.
And after this, after seeing G-d’s face in his long estranged brother, Yaacov repeatedly refers to Esav as my master, Adoni, a form of the word Adonai, which is a name for G-d. Yaacov sees the face of G-d. Yaacov honors the G-d in Esav repeatedly. Yaacov gives Esav a blessing. A blessing a long time in coming.
Torah calls us to cross the boundary between what our broken hearts settle for and what our essential selves feel and yearn for-heaven right here on earth.
What does it take to be a boundary crosser who becomes a peacemaker?
Be brave. Dream. Open to possibility. Open to enlightenment. Allow grace to fall upon us. Know when to submit. Make amends. Heal wounds you have created. Honor the other-especially those who scare us. Lead with gifts. See that of G-d in everyone.
When we cross over the boundary between what is now and what is possible, we can change the world.