Originally published in the El Paso Jewish Voice, August 2010…
On a cool and breezy summer night in Jerusalem, Alanna and I heard Israeli rock star Ehud Banai, accompanied by his long-time musical partner, Salaam Darwish, in concert. One of the highlights of the night for me was an inspired rendition of his 2004 hit, G’vulot (“Frontiers/Borders/Boundaries”):
“He’s not a young man now, more than fifty years have passed.
He’s led a troubled life.
Fighting with an angry neighbor over how to share the yard.
Everyone says, ‘I’d rather die than speak to you a word.’
Certainly not a calm man, living always on the edge.
You never know exactly what he wants.
He’ll curse then say he’s sorry, or go crazy and then fold.
And at night when no one watches him, he cries.
He wakes up in the morning, sees the darkness still around.
Can’t remember where he came from, no idea where he’s bound.
He tosses and he turns, he’s all torn up inside,
He’s confused and divided, taking pills just to get by.
He’s got no time to sit for food, like normal people eat.
He just stuffs it in a pita and goes racing down the street.
He lurches to the right, and then cuts hard to the left.
He wants straighten out, but he cant’ do it anymore.
Sometimes he remembers how it was when he was young:
There were dreams, there was hope, wide expanses, all was clear.
Now all he sees are clouds, stormy, covering the sun,
And he rushes to his home every day when work is done.
Sitting in a traffic jam, simply drained, drenched in sweat,
He turns on the radio, thinking, ‘Not again, please not again.’
Smoking like a chimney, worrying about the kids,
And the pathways to his heart are paved with bypasses.
Banai’s description of his homeland in the opening years of the twenty-first century is powerful and painful, and the driving percussion and staccato delivery of the lyrics that night made it even more so. But somehow, out of that pain, Banai imagines the possibility of something better. As the song continued, the hurried rap of the verses gave way to a chorus that sounded more like a prayer than a rock song. Banai and Darwish blended their voices together and offered up these words:
“Despair limits us; but hope knows no borders.
Hate limits us; but love knows no borders.
Reality limits us; but dreams know no borders.
War limits us; but peace knows no borders.”
As we listened to that open-air concert, clouds blew speedily past. An Israeli flag flapped loudly in the breeze. Montefiore’s Windmill stood, tall and grounded, fifty yards away. Individuals, couples, families of all sorts milled about, enjoying the rare cool evening, the great music, and the sense of peace. It was a moment of pure magic, in which there really were “no borders.”
Living for the past two months in Eretz Yisra’el, the interplay of “boundaries” and “boundlessness” is very much on my mind. Questions of boundaries, after all, are at the forefront of the continuing conflict between Israel and her neighbors. Where will the frontiers be drawn? What will remain a part of Israel, and what will become a part of a newly formed Palestinian state? What boundaries will be placed on Palestinian national aspirations? Will they have an army? A government seated in or near Jerusalem? A “Right of Return”?
And other boundaries occupied the Israeli headlines this summer as well. The boundaries between Ashkenazim and Sefardim and between Chasidim and non-Chasidim were a piece of the sad and troubling episode at the girls’ school in Immanuel. The boundary between Jew and Gentile stood at the heart of the latest “Who is a Jew” flare-up (and also played into the coverage of Chelsea and Marc’s wedding, which absolutely fascinated Israelis). And the boundary between Israel’s aspirations to be both a Jewish homeland and a center for humanistic, democratic life played out in the conflict over the legal status of the children of foreign workers.
In all these cases, talk of boundaries is in fact necessary. These are not simple challenges with simple answers, and it is naïve to think that merely “erasing the borders” is the wise course of action. In the world as it is, there are divisions, boundaries, “frontiers.”
But if it is wrong to ignore the boundaries and their complexity, it is just as wrong to ignore the aspiration, the dream, the hope, and the prayer. It is not Pollyannaish to speak of Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side in a warm peace, sharing Jerusalem. It is no pipe dream to speak of Jews of all streams finding common ground to learn and celebrate. It is essential that we approach any given conflict open to the possibility that people of different faiths and nationalities can truly love and care for the other. Indeed, without those dreams and hopes, what’s the point?
Rosh Hashanah is coming, and soon the shofar will be heard. We might let our hearing of the blasts this year be accompanied by an intention drawn from the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Mohoran 60:9):
The Psalmist teaches (Ps 118:5), “From the narrow places, I called to God; God answered from divine expansiveness.” This refers to a shofar, which can only make sound if the mouthpiece is narrow enough, and the other end is wide enough. By starting in the narrow place and aspiring for openness, the shofar brings us to a place of awe and wonder. It adds years to our lives by adding life to our years.
Holding in mind the teachings of Rabbi Nachman and Ehud Banai, I offer this prayer for the coming holy days:
We call to You, O Holy One, from the narrowest of places:
From the despair of seemingly insoluble problems;
From the enmity that exists between peoples and even within our own people;
From our attachment to what is, which makes it hard to imagine something better;
And from the pain of too much war, too much conflict.
May we hear You calling back to us, from the other end of the shofar:
Sweeten our despair and turn it into hope;
Soothe our anger and turn it into love;
Open our hearts to the world of our dreams;
And most of all, O Source of Peace, bless us with peace.