As I was driving to one speech last night, I was listening to another in my car.
“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame,” President Obama said in the aftermath of the violence in Tucson, “let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
Uplifting words and good advice for those of us hurting on the sidelines – those of us hoping for news of the next uptick in Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s condition or wishing we could just stop thinking about guns, hatred and accusations of “blood libel”—images that keep hitting us like the aftershocks of a emotional earthquake. Good advice, particularly if you’re feeling the pain and sharing the experience vicariously through news reports and wondering what you can do to help.
I’d also spent some time earlier in the day looking at pictures of orphan children in Haiti, survivors of the earthquake a year ago this week, and wondering how they can smile when their living conditions are so dire, a full year after the real earthquake.
How do people who have survived such pain, hate or despair continue to hope, dream and love?
As Obama finished talking, I arrived at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library, where Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian obstetrician/gynecologist had come to speak about his book, “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey” at a forum sponsored by ALOUD and funded by the Righteous Persons Foundation, Stephen Spielberg’s charity to promote peace, interfaith healing and Holocaust remembrance.
Abulaish is a Palestinian doctor who worked in an Israeli hospital and has always been a friend to both sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He became famous when he was interviewed on Israeli television immediately after the killing by Israeli fire in 2009 of his three daughters and his niece at his home in Gaza. As he cried out for the violence to stop, the Israeli television anchor interviewing him broke into tears. Two days later, the war ended.
And there, in the L.A. library auditorium, just two years after his tragic loss, he talked to a packed house about love and reconciliation and his mission to save lives. “I may have the right to hate,” he told the audience, many of us Jews with strong allegiances to Israel, “but the antidote of hate is success.” His own success is embodied in his service as a doctor, saving lives and delivering babies, and in realizing his own mother’s dream of what having an education can provide: Born to poverty in a refugee camp, Abulaish earned his degrees in Cairo, London and at Harvard. In addition to his ongoing work as a physician, he has started a foundation, Daughters for Life, to provide scholarships for high school and university for girls and women.
“The only thing impossible is to bring my daughters back,” Abulaish told us. “Anything alive is possible,” any dream of greatness can be realized he showed us, by example.
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Obama’s call for us to be our better selves echoed as I wondered, could I rise to the challenge, as this man before me had? Could I do so today, surrounded by a healthy, loving family and many friends? Or if, heaven help me, I’d lost a child through an act of violence? Could I preach love, not hate?
The same question had occurred to me a couple of months ago, when I met Rivkah Moriah, whose son, Avraham David Moses, was murdered in a terrorist attack in March, 2008, at the age of 16, while studying Torah in a school library. Eight boys died at that Jerusalem yeshiva; Avraham David was one of the youngest, a high school student from Yeshivat Yerushalayim L’Tzereirim (Yashlatz) who was, by chance, studying that evening at the neighboring Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav because his own library was unavailable.
Moriah’s sweetness filled the home of her hosts as she spoke of her own journey and of her son. She is a convert to Judaism, raised Quaker in a small New Hampshire town, a child inspired by her mother’s generosity to the foster children the family helped raise. Moriah met Jews for the first time as a college student at Oberlin, where she gravitated to a kosher coop and found herself inspired by a rabbi.
She studied to become a Jew in spite of the dismay of a friend’s mother, who wondered “why anyone would want to become Jewish.” Her journey led her to Orthodox observance, to make aliyah, and eventually to become the matriarch of a blended family with eight children, six from her husband’s first marriage, two from her own first marriage – including Avraham David – and then to have two more.
If it was the victims’ Jewishness that attracted the killers of her son, they could not snuff out Moriah’s faith in the goodness of the world. And so she came to Los Angeles to raise money for Yaslatz, the school, in Avraham David’s memory.
“He is somebody that I was expecting great things from,” Moriah said. But, she added, “he still has something to give, and that’s part of why I do this.” To continue the connection, she said, between her son and what he loved.
“I take strength from the kind of person he was to be the best person that I can be.”
If Rivkah Moriah and Izzeldin Abuelaish can find hope and love in a world in which their children were innocent victims, can’t we, too, strive to heed their message and that of our president, as he spoke to us from that Tucson auditorium?
“All of us,” Obama said, “we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”