Our relationship to place is so conditioned by our life experiences. When I moved to North Cambridge, Mass., from the expansive West Coast, I got a lesson in the meaning of “near” and “far.” Walking around my new neighborhood, I greeted an old woman sitting in front of her house.
“Did you grow up around here?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she assured me, “I grew up way over on Sherman Street.” Sherman Street is about three blocks from where we were talking, but it is a different neighborhood. So in the language of her personal geography, Sherman Street is not “around here.”
When I traveled to Israel this summer with a group of seminary students from Andover Newton Theological School and Boston University School of Theology, what struck me most was another lesson of geography: If you live in a country the size of New Jersey, your sworn enemy might literally be your next door neighbor.
In Hebron, I walked down a narrow street where crude fencing and feed sacks were strung overhead between buildings to prevent Jewish residents in the apartments above from throwing rubbish, liquids or rocks on the Palestinians below. I visited a Jewish community in Sedrot within missile range of the Gaza Strip and heard a mother describe how it feels to raise her children under the specter of unannounced artillery fire. I met a Christian Palestinian farmer with property deeds going back generations who has been fighting in court for more than 20 years to keep his hilltop farm from being seized under the equivalent of eminent domain.
Through the lens of this landscape, described in biblical texts, my trip gave me new perspectives on Jeremiah 32:1-3a; 6-15.
The action of these passages takes place in Jerusalem, where Jeremiah is being held under royal guard. King Zedekiah has arrested him for prophesying the fall of Jerusalem and suggesting that the king should surrender the city to the besieging Babylonian army. The king asks him angrily, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord?” Rather than responding directly, Jeremiah describes a second prophecy concerning a land deal that God tells him to make, to purchase a field in his hometown near Jerusalem. (32:9-12). These verses, detailing the weighing of the silver to pay for the land, the list of witnesses, and the storage of the deed, read more like a legal document related to land rights than the “Word of the Lord.”
Land rights and proof of ownership are at the heart of so much ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I asked Rabbi Marc Gopin, a long-time peace activist and co-founder of the tour company that guided our group through Israel and the West Bank, to help me understand the importance of “the land” in this region. He grew up with a deep Jewish attachment to the land and eventually learned to appreciate the Palestinian attachment to this same land. But ultimately this bond between land and people fails us if “land becomes more important than human dignity,” Gopin said.
Jeremiah’s story speaks to both our real and existential desire for land. Considering the purchase of land through the lens of Walter Brueggemann’s “imaginative vista of prophetic action,” helps us to see beyond the literal. We can think of Jeremiah’s decision to buy a field on the eve of Jerusalem’s destruction as one of his characteristic “acted parables.” In this act, Jeremiah is making a broader promise based on God’s words to his prophet: We have a future. There is hope for peace beyond this present turmoil. The last lines of our passage read, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (32:15).
Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, talked to our seminarians about her life’s work transforming her home in Israel into a center for peacemaking. Describing what I would call, “the interior landscape of prophetic action,” she told us: “If there is to be space in this land, I first have to make space in my heart.” This is the only way to resist what Israeli writer David Grossman calls, “the shrinking of the surface area of the soul.” He understands this shrinking surface area as the toll he and others pay “for this ongoing state of war,” in Israel.
Prophetic action is so often counterintuitive – like giving away your house, or surrendering your city, or suggesting, as Jesus does, that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
What would happen if we all made space in our hearts and in our neighborhoods for “the Other?” What would happen if we became guardians of our enemies’ survival? Only this kind of prophetic action can create the foundations for a new and lasting peace.
I am grateful we are in the midst of a new round of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, even though, in the wake of my trip, peace seems like it would be a miracle. The mistrust goes so deep; the walls and fences are so high. But God reminds us through the prophet Jeremiah, “I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27). I pray there may be, among the negotiating teams, a few prophets.
Jennifer Howe Peace is Assistant Professor of Interfaith Studies at Andover Newton Theological School and co-director of the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE) a joint program with the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. This ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
Image: Neighbor illustration, Rolf E. Staerk / Shutterstock.com