Visiting at the tent of the Shalit family

March 19, 2009 by

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Tuesday, March 17th 2009 marked 996 days since Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, was kidnapped by Hamas. The campaign to free Gilad has become a sad reality on the Israeli streets: billboards, posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts portray his picture and a single word, in his handwriting: ‘hatzilu’ – help. While Israeli officials shuttle back and forth between Cairo and Jerusalem in an attempt to seal the deal of release before Olmert’s government steps down, Shalit’s family have set up a protest tent outside the Prime Ministers’ home in central Jerusalem. Thousands gather there daily, signing petitions, showing support. Additional tents were set up alongside the original tent of the Shalit family. Youth groups, tourists and activists fill this small compound, while across the street another tent is pitched: Israelis who want Gilad to come home but are protesting the steep price tag. Hamas demands the release of an estimated 300 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for the one Israeli soldier. Some of these prisoners have been convicted of violent terror attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel is torn between its codes of loyalty to its soldiers on the one hand – and fear of surrender to the Hamas on the other. This is not the first time Israel is faced with this dilemma although it’s been a long time since such negotiations focused on a soldier who, according to all accounts, is still alive.

At the tent compound this morning, people were tense. I went over with my sister. We stopped to read the hundreds of messages and wishes pinned to the walls of the tent. The Shalit family were not there – summoned to the Prime Ministers’ office for a debriefing on the negotiations, which seemed stuck. “We will not budge from here until Gilad comes home,” Noam, Gilad’s father later announced to the media, before sitting back down inside the tent of protest, also dubbed here as the ‘tent of hope.’

Tents, gatherings, and reasons for public discussion about values and priorities are what this week’s Torah tale ‘Vakhel Pikudei’ is really all about. Maybe there’s some clue here, some way to look at this terrible tension and heartbreaking dilemma with new eyes. As the Book of Exodus comes to an end, the first public project of the Hebrew People is also concluded. The Tabernacle – that elaborate worship tent complete with golden props and mobility options, gets the final touches before the ribbon is cut. The tabernacle, ‘Mishkan’ in Hebrew – ‘the dwelling place’ is also known as ‘Ohel Moed’ – the ‘Tent of Meeting,’ or the ‘Tent of Special Occasions.’

One of the first Special Occasions that happen there, just before the official celebrations of completion – is a gathering, called for by Moses:

“And Moses gathered the congregation, all the children of Israel, and said: These are the words which God has commanded, that you should fulfill them.” (ex.35:1)

The Hebrew for ‘gathered’ is ‘Va’yakhel’ – and this is the only time this word is used in the Torah as an active verb. Moses activates the tabernacle by assembling his people and inviting them to ‘gather round’ for a public address that will strengthen their sense of shared narrative, meaning, and identity. The tent, a temporary dwelling for the divine, merely marks the means to the end – a place to gather so that the many will be united as one. Every community needs a symbolic collective ‘home’. Later on it will become the site where animals are sacrificed and incense is perpetually linking earth and heaven, but for its first use – the tent is just a tent. No matter how elaborate that tabernacle was – or, for that mater, how lavish its subsequent replacements – temples and synagogues and other institutional ‘places’– the main focus was and remains – the people – gathered, if briefly, as one. With so many current ‘tents’ folding up due to the economic crisis it is important to remember that gatherings of all sorts have to and will continue, however and wherever recreating temporary collective sense of ‘home’. Tents are temporary, but intention lasts.

At the tent of hope this morning, in the middle of the ancient city of endless tents, emotions were raw. The gathered hopefuls were waiting for good news, held together by good intentions and by a symbol that stands for all that Israel is ideally about – homeland – a place to be safe, and proud and just happy to be home. Even the bitter debate about the price of freedom and the value of each individual life couldn’t take away this sense of urgency – this sense of shared destiny. It’s bigger than all of us, and at times like this, it reminds us of what our values and yearnings are really all about. Parents want their kids back home. period.

The Tent of Hope outside the house of the Prime Minister is a sad but true reminder of the fleeting nature of all that is. Ehud Olmert won’t be living here for long, and, hopefully, Noam Shalit and his family won’t be on this street corner much longer either. Maybe, even before 1000 days of captivity are up – he will get to gather his son once again in his arms, and they, and everybody, will come home.

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