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Monday, January 20, 2020

Palm Fronds and Olive Branches: Palestinian Pilgrimage Day I

Question: How can three distinct and different forms of monotheistic religion, all part of the legacy of Abraham and Sarah, co-exist in one Holy Place?

Answer: They can't. And yet, they do.

Muslims, Jews, and Christians all hold claim to Jerusalem. The balance of power has shifted wildly over the centuries, with Christians claiming the largest portion of the spirituality of the place because of Jesus, while the Muslims and Jews have fought over the ownership of the land for centuries.

One can not escape the political climate here. It's in the ether. It's worse than the political climate in America. Much worse. And yet, when you drive through the streets of Jerusalem, you would never know that tensions are often like dry kindling that any spark, or even just some intense heat, could set off into an uncontrollable blaze.

Muslim men and women wait for the bus standing next to Jewish men and women. There aren't many Palestinian Christians left in this place but they are noted by the gold crosses 'round their necks.

In the West Bank, Palestinians and Israelis use different colored license plates. Palestinian vehicles have green or white plates; Israeli vehicles have yellow plates. This makes it easy to see from afar whether a vehicle is carrying Palestinians or Israelis. 
The Israeli army uses this to monitor which kind of person is using which kind of road, and to determine which cars to pull over. Since the only Israelis living in the West Bank are Jewish, and the Palestinians enclosed in the West Bank are Muslim & Christian, this amounts to one color for Jews and one for Christians & Muslims: segregated license plates depending on religion and ethnic background. 
No one is made to wear a special color patch on their coat, but there is absolutely no doubt who is in control and who is  . . . "occupied".  

And then, there's the wall. 
It's there and under construction. Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem in the West Bank but have family or work or business in Bethlehem - a seven-mile journey - can spend several hours between the curve of the wall and whether or not there are a lot of detentions at the checkpoints. 
I heard one Israeli say, "Yes, for them it is an inconvenience. For us, it is our safety."

While it is true that violence had decreased 90% after Israel instituted all of these control measures, it is also true that Palestine, or what is left of it, is best described as the world's largest open-air prison. 

I heard another Palestinian woman describe it as an "incubator for terrorism."

My stomach did a backflip when her words resonated with a place of truth in me.

When the Romans occupied Israel, the symbol they used on their coinage was a palm frond. It is a symbol for power.

On the Israel sheckel, the image on the coinage is an olive branch. It is the symbol for peace. 

Palm fronds and olive branches. 

Power and Peace. 

Can the two co-exist? 

Palestinian Christians are doing their best to broker peace but even they are being forced out, slowly squeezed by regulations and . . .  "inconveniences".

And, any words of challenge or cries of protest are met with a charge of antisemitism. 

As I've moved about East Jerusalem, on the West Bank, I've been thinking about Sarah and Hagar and their sons Isaac and Ishmael.

As we passed Mt. Moriah (where Isaac was almost sacrificed), I thought about what must have happened to Isaac after his father tried to sacrifice him. 

If you remember the backstory, Sarah was unable to bear a child, so she gave her servant Hagar to her husband as the first recorded surrogate birth. She had a son, the firstborn son of Abraham, and named him Ishmael. 

Later, Sarah conceived in her old age. She, too, bore a son and named him Isaac. (One Rabbi with whom I studied Torah says that the name Isaac translates to mean "He laughs/will laugh" which is what Sarah did when she learned she was pregnant. My friend says that when the name Isaac is pronounced properly it even sounds like a chortle of laughter.)

Ishmael and Isaac grew up together, As Sarah watched the boys, she began to wonder about which of these boys would have Abraham's inheritance - the firstborn son or the first "legitimately" born son. 
Not taking any chances, she convinced Abraham to order Hagar and Ishmael into exile where they would surely perish.  

Indeed, they almost did, but "God heard the cry of the child" and rescued them from certain death by providing an oasis of water.

God also promised Hagar that God would make of Ishmael a great nation because he was of the seed of Abraham. However, God also told Hagar that her son would be living in conflict with his relatives. (Genesis 16:7-16)
I needed to tell you all that background narrative in order to tell you what I think happened to Isaac after his father tried to sacrifice him (and, maybe even provide a bit of conjecture on why Abraham might have thought he heard an angel telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac. I can't imagine he wasn't beset by grief and guilt over the loss of his son Ishmael.)

Isaac is never again mentioned in scripture until after his mother dies. That leaves me to wonder where he might have gone. I imagine he was very angry with his father. I imagine he might have even been suffering from what we now know as PTSD.

A clue comes in Genesis 24 when Isaac appears to greet Rebekah, the woman his father has chosen for him to marry. We learn that Isaac "had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev." (Genesis 24:62)

When Hagar ran away from Sarah because she was being abused, an angel found her
"near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur." The angel told Hagar that she was pregnant and convinced Hagar to return to her mistress, telling her, "“I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” (Genesis 16:10)

And, guess what the name of that well was? 

". . . .  the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered." (Gen 16:14)

It's just my conjecture - but when you do it with scripture it's called eisegesis - but I love the thought that Isaac ran to the other mother figure in his life, Hagar and found refuge there with her and his brother Ishmael. 

I imagine that Isaac stayed there with them and only came out to meet Rebekah and then only went back after his mother died. He lived in his mother's tent with his wife. 

He never saw his mother or father alive again. 

Such a mixed-up, dysfunctional family, right? 

So unlike the rest of us.

But, here's my thought: If the two brothers from different mothers in a wildly dysfunctional family could provide solace and comfort and companionship for each other, I'm thinking that there just might be hope that somewhere in the DNA of Muslims and Jews, there is a small thread of possibility for hope and reconciliation and peace. 

Palm Fronds and Olive Branches. 

They grow together in the same soil all over Israel. 

Maybe it's a sign?

We can only hope.

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