My Heart is in the East
My heart is in the East.
For the past three weeks, I, like so many of my friends, have been glued to some kind of screen, watching events in Israel and Gaza shift and grow, from conflict to conflagration. I scroll through the news feeds, click on the links, stare in horror and in hope – as if those pixelated words and images were water in the desert and I were dying of thirst.
I have a friend who flew back from Israel yesterday. Today he went to a rally in New York, and stood in front of the United Nations, to stand for Israel, to mourn for Gaza, to demand – to pray for – no more dead. No more innocent blood. His sign was in English, Hebrew. Oh yeah – and Arabic.
His sign was ripped and torn by another who’d come to stand with Israel. Apparently, there’s standing and then there’s standing. Hatred and ignorance have no borders. War is infectious.
My heart is in the East. I breathed in its dust and the spice of its air. I walked through its tangled, crowded roads. I prayed at the Kotel. I stood in the seas – three of them in all. I tasted olive oil from fields as old as God and stood silently among the birdsong of the Golan. I walked that antique, sacred land, felt the weight of centuries and the echoes of people searching for God and home.
My heart is in the East. More and more, though, I cannot shake the feeling that “East” is everywhere – or it can be nowhere at all.
This morning, I drove my son to a school on the west side of Chicago. He’s in Debate Camp. It’s a prestigious program, a training ground that will help to prepare him for the rigors of High School debate competition. The school is less than ten miles from my little suburban home. Ten miles. Ten. From Skokie to the West Side of the city – and there is a war going on there.
I want to back away from that statement, soften it, make it undramatic. It’s not the same – not even close – to the battlegrounds of Gaza, or Syria, or Nigeria, or the Ukraine. Pick a conflict – as if death and destruction can be contained like that, a mere disagreement, with the combatants a couple of schoolboys with raised fists and raised voices, to be settled with a sternly worded letter.
Less than ten miles from my home, there is a world of violence and hatred, of bombed-out, boarded-up buildings and rubble-strewn streets. People stared as we drove by, eyes hard and flat. Worse were the people whose eyes were as dead as their hope. There is poverty and hunger and despair and it’s killing neighborhoods and people in ones and twos and tens, every day. We do not have to go to Gaza to see people who walk through a war zone every day of their lives, trying just to live their lives, raise their kids and they are met with blockades that we ourselves erect at almost every turn.
There have been almost two hundred fatalities due to gun violence in Chicago this year alone, concentrated disproportionately on the west and south sides – almost one for every day of the year so far. Now multiply these numbers by Detroit, or the Ninth Ward, the South Bronx and Watts. Any city. Every city. War is infectious.
The death toll is rising so rapidly that we are almost numb to it. I call it the race to the new normal. How quickly we become inured to what weeks – days – only moments before would have be untenable. We are genuinely saddened by it. We talk about it over coffee, on Facebook, in the board room and the living room; we shrug at the inevitability of this new reality.
“What can we do?” we sigh. The problem is too big, too endemic and ingrained. It’s the government. It’s the people. It’s the politicians. It’s the Left. The Right. The ignorant, the elite. It’s too big, been with us too long. It’s just the way it is. But there’s a sale on and there’s Little League and bills to pay and work to be done.
Don’t get me wrong – there is poverty and violence and hatred in the suburbs. We do not live in a magic land, protected by a magic barrier. And there are spots of light and grace, even on the West Side, people and communities committed to making a difference, building bridges and working for peace. For justice.
Those aren’t just tired old words that people used to use way back when. They are real and vibrant and within reach. They are not naive, nor are they passe, these ideals and with them love and hope and truth. There is something bold about them and magnificent. They are not simple or easy. They will not just come because we want them or wish for them. We have to sweat for them, work harder than we ever have. If we don’t, we will bleed for them. We will die for them. Because without them, we have nothing but bombed-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets.
There once was a man who looked out his window one day, who saw despair and hopelessness and hunger and want and desperate need. He saw inhumanity and cruelty and hatred honored and raised up as virtues throughout the land. He wept then, and cried out to God, “Creator of all, of light and hope and mercy – how can You allow all of these horrible things to be, to flourish?” And he wept more. Suddenly, in the space between breaths, from one heartbeat to the next, he heard God say, “How can you?”
Today, I stand with humanity. I mourn for the senseless death of innocents. Blood is blood. No more dead.
My heart is in the East, and the East is all around me, echoing with centuries and God.