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The Pit of Despair and Hope – A Reflection on Jerusalem

Mona StrickWhat plays on the soundtrack of your life?   Take a minute… Close your eyes… if I say high school prom, or a memorable summer when you fell in love…  what song immediately pops into your head?   

For better or for worse, the night of my high school graduation is forever linked to Barry Manilow’s Copa, Copa Cabana.  I can’t think of labor and delivery of my son Eli without Bob Marley and the Wailers “Three Little Birds”    And my year at Hebrew U in 1981-82, when the Sinai was returned to Egypt, goes hand in hand with David Broza’s Yihieh Tov.

And this fall the soundtrack accompanying my experience in Jerusalem- the thing I just couldn’t get out of my head was… Avodah Zara (idol worship).

 I wish I could say it this was some hot new band – but NO… I’m talking about Masechet Avodah Zara!  

The words of Avodah Zara playing over and over in my mind while walking through the streets of my beloved Jerusalem…. 4 days a week plus extra time for hazara.     

Jerusalem – golden, beautiful, inspiring, challenging. I spend hours exploring new neighborhoods walking past cats and cafes.  I build my Hebrew vocabulary and discover remedies based on recipes from Rambam in the shuk. I study Hebrew calligraphy, Zohar and kashrut with inspiring teachers and search for the best hummus….. But the words from Avoda Zara invade my mind and refuse to leave.      

 I worry about what it is doing to me in the beit midrash but I am more worried about the residual affects – the aftershocks.   

The first few weeks the rules of how we are to interact withTHEM, the ones whose values aren’t like ours, the idol worshippers, Akum are pretty straightforward:  

Don’t do business with Akum (idol worshipers) on their holiday… or three days before or three days after.  Don’t eat food with them, or go to fairs in their cities.  Don’t accept gifts from them.  If you have to accept a gift so as not to piss them off, then the best course afterwards is to throw it in the sea.     

There are many interactions to avoid in order to protect ourselves out of fear of losing our way of life.  Eerily some of the same language of fear is similar to what I hear coming from the US during the election – and in Israel as well.  

Rabbi Joel at the Conservative Yeshiva teaches a guestshiur (lesson) which helps put things in perspective. He notes that if we aren’t to do business with them on their holiday – it’s clear that we do business with them the rest of the year and that ultimately this masechet is about how to live with others in a multicultural society.  I find this way of looking at Avoda Zara refreshing but in a few weeks we get to more difficult topics.    

 I sit with my incredibly wonderful hevruta, Joseph, from Ziegler and we prepare the source sheet for the day’s shiur. 26a/b       

 R. Abbahu recited to R. Johanan: ‘Idolaters and] shepherds of small cattle need not be brought up though they must not be cast in, but minim (non-Jews),  informers, and apostates may be cast in, and need not be brought up.  Once we figure out what they’re talking about, Joseph and I take turns reading the sugiya and Rashi, debating: who can you save from the pit… who you can throw into the pit… who is excluded from this list… what excuses you can make for why you’re taking their ladder from the pit… (Bavli Masechet Avodah Zara 26a/b)

 WAIT!  STOP!    We look at each other and ask- are we really discussing who it is you can throw into a pit? Or not pull up if you find them in a pit? 

How can we be so nonchalant about this?    

 I can imagine the level of fear that inspired this sugya (passage) and I truly believe that there is value in grappling with difficult texts but I wonder how these messages are affecting my psyche, my particularism? And what about the people who study this masechet on a regular cycle? When people scream at me on Rosh Hodesh at the Kotel are they thinking they have permission to throw me in the pit?  

I search for answers and come up short – until Jerusalem herself answers my questions.     

Walking on the street I pass a sign, Sacana bor!  Danger, a pit.   The next day I see two signs, Sacana Bor – danger a pit.  I start noticing dozens of these all over the city.  They are like secret messages calling out – Pay attention!  The pit is the danger. Stop being complacent.  It is a call to take a different path. Because no one deserves to be left in the pit. And I can choose for myself whether or not I will succumb to fear.    

 A few weeks after we finish this sugiya I’m sitting in one of my favorite cafes near school, Agronski.  Sonia, the owner makes me a delicious iced coffee that she serves with a teeny tiny square cookie and as we chit chat, I pick up one of the newspapers she leaves on the counter.  I glance down at a story and do a double take – I laugh out loud – this can’t be for real!  

“An Israeli man, a resident of the settlement of Avnei Hefetz in the northern West Bank – was rescued on Saturday in the West Bank by members of the Palestinian Civil Defense branch from a pit he had been stuck in for six days.  The man was helped out of the pit by Palestinians who encouraged him in Hebrew to keep calm and “hold tight”

This human story of people – just doing the right thing  – is the antidote I need. I get up early the next morning to go daven with the CY at Robinson’s Arch.  I make my peace with Masechet Avoda Zara. On this morning at the Kotel there is only Avodah.

 Mona Strick is a fourth year rabbinical student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. 


 Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work. Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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