This Shouldn’t Be Extraordinary
On Friday evening, February 28 (2014), something remarkable and beautiful happened on our bimah that I’ve never seen before. I hope I’ll see it many times again.
A Muslim, in particular a Palestinian Muslim, participated in our Shabbat Evening service. He didn’t just speak; he sang. But he didn’t just sing; he sang in Arabic. And he didn’t just sing in Arabic; he sang our ancient Hebrew prayers in Arabic.
Alaa Ali is a popular singer and songwriter who lives in Ramallah, outside of Jerusalem, across the Green Line in the West Bank. Alaa’s fans include countless Palestinians.
He came to us with his friend, Michael Ochs, who’s an American, Jewish singer and songwriter. Both are well-known: Alaa, in the West Bank and Gaza; Michael, here in the United States and Europe. Michael came to my synagogue last December, sharing his powerfully beautiful and moving liturgical compositions during our Shabbat Evening service. He spoke about his participation in a collaborative musical project with Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, American and Norwegian songwriters called My Favorite Enemy. The group’s objective is to lovingly nurture change in the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians by modeling respectful and welcoming contact.
Michael called me a few weeks ago to tell me that Alaa was arriving here in America and would I like to bring the two of them to Woodlands. Yes, of course I would. Michael assumed that he and Alaa would present a “sermon in song,” speaking and singing in the pause between our prayers about their shared journey. But I asked Michael if he would ask Alaa to be part of our prayers. To not only join in the ancient recitations, but to add his own translated lines in Arabic.
We opened the evening with Hinei Mah Tov, “How good it is for brothers and sisters to sit together.” We sang a bit in Hebrew, and then Alaa taught us how to sing it in Arabic. It was spellbinding. We all knew the words in Hebrew, of course. And we all knew what the song is about. So when Alaa began singing it in Arabic, the prayer embedded in this simple tune began coming true. There we were, Jew and Arab, creating layers of harmony in languages which have been at war with each other seemingly forever.
With the Barekhu, our “call to worship,” Michael and Alaa sang in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Their prayer this time did not include the actual words of the Barekhu, but its essence: We live in a world that never promises only success and well-being; it is in both the highs and the lows of experience that character and gratitude are formed, and that our challenge is to never despair of life’s goodness, no matter what it throws our way …
Thank You for the sorrow, the times I had to borrow
When my heart was hollow, all my tears and quarrels
Thank You for my madness, all my pain and sadness
Without it I would be less, without it I would not be as blessed*
And so the evening went on. 200 American Jews and one Palestinian Muslim. I am quite certain that, together, we learned what sacred community is really about.
Perhaps most powerful of all was the evening’s prayer for healing and wholeness. As always, we shared aloud the names of those about whom we are concerned. We even called it Mee Sheberakh, invoking “the One who blesses” to help us and our loved ones through these difficult times. But instead of singing the familiar melody, Alaa chanted a dozen lines in Arabic which Michael translated. In doing so, the two of them created a transcendent moment during which Alaa served as our spiritual guide and support, asking the One God to help us …
May you find peace from your pain
Before you feel the pain in your chest, my heart aches
If I could, I would carry your burden, I would carry your pain
How could I leave you to face this time alone
I will never leave you to suffer or face your pain alone
May you find peace from your pain
How many times have we sung the words of Mee Sheberakh? Always, it is among our most spiritual moments, among those points in our service when so many of us truly connect. We connect with something beyond us. We connect with each other. Through the prayer that Alaa and Michael offered to us, those connections seemed stronger than ever and, without uttering a single word about it, expanded our wishes for wholeness to every Israeli and Palestinian.
Michael and Alaa then led us in our prayer for peace, invoking the image of stones – these days, not a symbol of peace but of defiance, recalling so vividly the struggle and the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis. In their heartfelt plea, Alaa and Michael asked that we put down our stones and take one another’s hands instead …
So lay me down
Build a path
Walk on me as brothers
Let me be
Your common ground
Lay me down
And hold on to each other
As you might imagine, the evening’s worship was unforgettable. If ever we felt the tug of our tradition, pleading with us to embrace our neighbor in love, to beat swords into ploughshares, to look into our brother’s eyes and see the face of God, this was that moment.
Imagine! The words of the Shema, declaring the One God of the universe, and doing so in Arabic! This, I thought, is what the world’s religions must have intended when the clouds disperse and hearts can see clearly, and each understands that God wants us to care for one another.
A story is told of a young boy who, walking in the sand, picked up a handful of stones and took them home. Later, as he played quietly with the stones, his father took notice of one of them.
“Hand me that stone, my child.” Happily obliging, the boy watched as his father skillfully polished the stone into smooth planes and angles. In not too much time, he returned it to his son. The stone now glittered with brilliance, and the boy wondered at its splendor. He asked in astonishment, “How did you accomplish this?”
Replied his father, “I knew the hidden virtue of the stone. I knew its value, and I freed it from its coating of dross. Now the diamond can sparkle with its natural radiance.”
In our minds, it can be difficult to picture Jew and Arab side by side. For too many years, such pairings have produced dreadful results. And so, while many wait for peace to come, more have set such dreams aside.
But Michael Ochs and Alaa Ali are like expert lapidaries, with great knowledge of unearthing the ordinary and revealing the diamond within. These two friends make music, but so much more. They are builders of hope. The hope that Israeli and Palestinian can live side-by-side. The hope that Jew and Muslim can live side-by-side. And ultimately, the hope that all of humankind will finally learn to do same.
This was an extraordinary evening. We mingled cultures and religions, something that should not have to be extraordinary at all. Alaa and Michael showed us that this thing can be done, and that it can be done sensitively, and beautifully. We heard music that evoked our different cultures. And we shared in the shouldn’t-be-so-extraordinary loveliness of their fusion. And perhaps more “shouldn’t-be-so-extraordinary,” we heard music and words that brought together two religious traditions: Islam and Judaism. It was startling. It was also uplifting. After all, Judaism and Islam share so many common values about the beauty of, and the responsibility for, human life. Throughout this service, we affirmed all that we share. And we reinvigorated our shared hope that, as God is One, the men and women of this planet can also be one.
I hope you will consider creating such a Shabbat service of your own. The differences between us have not magically disappeared. They all remain. There is always time to argue, to hammer away at our people’s disparate dreams. But when there is so much we hold in common, ought we not find time for that as well?
For more information, visit Michael Ochs’ website thepursuitofharmony.com (if it’s not live, check back in a day or two; it’s a brand-new website).
* lyrics used by permission