This past Friday evening, as I finished mopping the floors and removed the food I had prepared for our guests from the oven, I heard the siren that announces the approach of the Sabbath in Jerusalem every week. It is a deep lowing moan broadcast over the hills of this garden city, echoing off its pale stone and resonating through its cypresses and cedars and palms and eucalyptuses, and flowers blooming even in November. In our home, as in many, the siren always spurs one last burst of energy to finish preparations as it calls us to relinquish our week-day efforts and concerns. I always feel like a wind-up toy that speeds up frantically as it spends the last twists of animating tension in its mechanism. For the siren proclaims the arrival of the particular moment in which we understand ourselves as commanded to slow down, to relinquish all the electronic devices that occupy such a central role in our daily lives, and to put aside all instruments of material creativity and production. It begs us to pause and remember how all the arts of our hands should be guided by reflection, how all meaningful activity depends upon rest and quiet, how all acts of signification require contemplation in order to attain significance. It suggests that a grateful consciousness of our status as caused creatures will enhance our abilities and experiences as causes and creators. This siren tells us that the time has come to move at a slower pace, to sing ancient poetry and to study enduring stories and their commentaries, familiar texts that promise a potentially infinite yield of meanings. It announces the weekly occasion on which we celebrate our existences by indulging in richer foods spread on festive tablecloths and to savor them more slowly than we do on other days, and to share them with those we love. It bids us place our hands upon the head of each of our children to invoke upon them weekly blessings of enlightenment, of peacefulness and well-being.
I look forward to blessing my children on Sabbath eve as a highlight of each week. But this week, as missles and rockets flew back and forth between Gaza and southern Israel, the yearning for peace and well-being for children felt particularly acute, for mine and ours and theirs, all caught in the middle of a cascading political failure, a persistent vacuum of vision and leadership. I put on my jacket and stepped out of our garden gate to head to a local synagogue to hear how a Rabbi with whom I have been studying on Sun. evenings for the past few weeks would respond. A deeply kind and compassionate man, he is composing his doctoral dissertation in Philosophy on the metaphysical and theological underpinnings of John Rawls’ concept of distributive justice. As such, his commitment to traditional Judaism is deeply intertwined with a rigorous and deeply felt humanism, a combination all too rare these days.
Three steps out of the gate, as I turned up the lovely, quiet street we live on, a different kind of siren sounded. This siren was a shrill, electric, undulating alarum. Given that the Palestinian and Jewish populations are intertwined here and that the city is the site of Islamic holy sites of the highest significance, no rocket had ever been fired from Gaza at Jerusalem before this. Yet they would not perform a civil defense drill on the Sabbath. I turned on my heel, literally – thinking to myself “aha, so that is why they call it turning on one’s heel” – crossed the garden in five elongated strides and reentered our apartment. The special blend of aromas, of cleaning products and fresh cooking that we enjoy for a few hours every Friday evening refused to be perturbed. We calmly took our three children down to the basement library. I could feel myself reverting automatically to the efficient detachment I learned as an infantryman, but it was now mixed with a consciouness of the necessity to exude reassurance. We called a friend in the neighborhood to check in about the protocol. Usually, we do not use the telephone after commencement of the Sabbath. But this seemed to me to fall under the rabbinic injunction to set aside any and all Sabbath restrictions in the face of the faintest possibility that human life is at stake. Our friends were not sure what to do either, given the unfamiliarity of the situation in Jerusalem. We waited while they checked and called us back with instructions. After the siren sounds, if there is “something” then “it” will occur within 90 seconds. Generally, one should wait about 10 minutes to make sure the siren doesn’t sound again. Then everything is “normal” again.