Open a Window

by Alana Alpert, rabbinical student

In Masechet Brachot, R. Hiyya bar Abba says: “A person should always pray in a place that has windows.” Why do we need to pray in a place that has windows? Obviously because we need to look outside. But more than that – we need to pray in a place that has windows because true prayer is not just introspection; it requires engagement with what is beyond the synagogue’s walls.

There are several reasons why Parshat Hayei Sarah encourages us to reflect on prayer. The first is because it is in this parsha that Isaac goes out to the field, “la’suach”, which is interpreted as meditative prayer.

Indeed, it is Isaac’s prayer that sets the precedent for the daily afternoon mincha service.

Parshat Hayei Sarah also makes me think of prayer because the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron, which is purchased by Abraham in Parshat Hayei Sarah, has become a place of prayer.

Let’s open a few windows and explore what is going on outside of the walls of our ancestor’s tomb:

Through one window we see the Casbah, the Old City of Hebron. Most of the shutters of the shops are closed since long and unpredictable curfews make it nearly impossible for businesses to function. We see metal grates hanging over many Palestinian homes, placed there to catch the garbage and rocks thrown down by the settlers above.

Through another window we see Shuhada Street. Once a center of commerce full of life, it is now empty. Palestinian families who have the bad luck of a door of their house leading onto that street have had that door sealed shut by the army.

Through another window we will see graffiti: “death to arabs” is scattered among the Stars of David.

The third reason I think about prayer when I look at Parshat Hayei Sarah is because Midrash Tanhuma, when reflecting on the parsha, tells the most beautiful midrash.

Discussing the importance of kavanah,­ mindfulness or intention ­during prayer, the rabbis declare that Abraham is the highest exemplar.  They say, “…And nobody inclined their mind and heart like our Father Abraham.” The example the rabbis bring of Abraham’s mindful and heartfelt prayer amazes me: they point to Abraham challenging God.

When God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness, he fights for the innocent, claiming that there must be some number of righteous people within the city’s gates. He asks: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?… Far be it from you to do a thing like that!… Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

What if we chose to emulate our ancestors in life instead of guarding them in death?

The hevre of Project Hayei Sarah works to honor the memory of Abraham as he was at his best: speaking up for the innocent, fighting for justice. This Shabbat, thousands of Jews will travel to Hebron to pray at Maarat hamachpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. For Palestinian residents, this weekend in the Jewish calendar means increased restrictions on movement and heightened risk of violence. As protest & tikkun (repair), members of Project Hayei Sarah will be opening windows into the situation in Hebron in shuls, minyans, schools, shabbat tables, and blogs. To hear more of our Torah, visit our website for dozens of video divrei Torah. Please “like” us on Facebook to support our work to reclaim this parsha towards peace & justice in Hebron.

May we find what true prayer requires of us:

the strength to look at what is going on around us, and the chutzpah to demand that things be different.

May we open a window:

l’kaveyn daateynu,

educate ourselves & others about the situation in Hebron,

l’kaveyn leebenu,

open our hearts to the suffering in the holy city of Hebron.

May we find that opening this window will do more than challenge us to ask hard questions — may it bring in air & light & hope for a better future for all of us.

Ken yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will.


Alana with Nawal and Leila from Women in Hebron, an embroidery and weaving cooperative in the Old City

There Were Three Trees in the Garden: A Midrash

by Rabbinical Student Alana Alpert

In Al Arakhib, tree planted by JNF

And the Lord God caused to sprout from the ground every tree pleasant to see and good to eat, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

There were three forbidden trees in the garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and the Tree of Violence. The Tree of Violence is placed just behind the Tree of Knowledge, for it only takes effect after you become aware of right and wrong. When you eat of its fruit, what you have learned to be true will become false and what you have learned to love will turn against you. Were Adam and Eve to eat of this fruit they would not have been banished – remaining in the Garden of Eden, suddenly a scary place, would have been punishment enough.

It’s been hard year in Israel, when things that had once seemed benign, good, or even perfect, slowly become shadowy, even threatening: A Jewish star, a blue box, a flag…

There is a particular pain that comes when my religious and cultural symbols are being disfigured, when violence is being done to and issuing from them. But the sinisterization of the most basic human symbol, a tree, is a crime even harder to digest. The Jewish National Fund in Israel is using trees as tools of displacement, as facts on the ground, as soldiers in the quiet war against the Bedouin in the Negev. I will not easily forgive the JNF for making a tree something to fear.

But this is bigger than the JNF. Here are just a few examples of places around the country I have visited recently where theft is being perpetrated in the name of the environment:

West Bank: Wadi Kana has been declared a nature reserve by the Civil Administration and Palestinian farmers have been told to uproot 2000 trees from their own lands or pay for the cost of the bulldozers themselves. Of course, this designation has not affected over 100 buildings built within the “nature reserve” by Jewish settlements, which by the Civil Administration’s own law are illegal.

East Jerusalem: growth of the Palestinian neighborhoods of Issawiya and A-Tur is being prevented by the designation of parts of their lands as a national park.

Negev: the village of Al Arakhib has been destroyed and is being forested, in an effort to force its residents to move to the recognized Bedouin village of Rahat.

I offer the words of naturalist Enos Mills:

The forests are the flags of nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten.  It may be that some time an immortal pine will be the flag of a united peaceful world.

Ken yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will.

To read more about the “forestation” Al Arakhib and take action, click here.

To read more about the “Nature Reserve” in Wadi Kana and take action, click here.

To read more about “National Parks” in East Jerusalem, click here.