Eyes wide open


On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, congregations around the country and the world will read the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Cast out of Abraham’s home and into the wilderness, Hagar quickly runs out of water. She leaves her son Ishmael under a bush and sits at a distance, not wanting to watch her child die.

But, hearing Ishmael’s cry, God opens Hagar’s eyes, and she notices something she didn’t see before: a well. She fills her waterskin and gives her son a desperately needed drink, saving his life.

Why didn’t Hagar see the well before she left Ishmael to die? In some way, her eyes must have been closed. In order to save her child, she had to open her eyes to the possibility that lay before her.

Hagar’s brush with despair teaches us that you can’t be what you can’t see. In order to realize the future we want for our children, we have to be able to open our eyes and envision it. This is especially true of how we teach our children about Israel.


When you picture the map of Israel from your daughter’s Hebrew school classroom, your Birthright t-shirt, or your son’s summer camp climbing wall, what do you see? Does Israel extend uninterrupted from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River?

If you answered yes, then you’re not alone. While most American Jews support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most of the maps we show our children don’t demarcate any difference between Israel proper and the area that would likely become a future Palestinian state. In other words, they don’t show the Green Line, the pre-1967 border of Israel that delineates the Palestinian Territory.

Does it really matter exactly what’s on our maps? Couldn’t we just show our young people a more simplified, symbolic version of this tiny, precious country that we hope will find its way into their hearts and their consciousness?

It does matter. As my son grows up, I want him to understand Israel as more than just a symbol, I want him to understand Israel as a reality. I want him to know all the wonderful things about Israel and all the reasons to be proud. But when the time comes, I want him to know about the flaws and challenges too, I’ll want him to know about occupation, and about the brave Israelis and Palestinians and Jews and non-Jews who are working to end it and to bring about a more secure, just and peaceful future.

During the past few months, a number of synagogues and summer camps have made a point of using maps with a Green Line on their walls when they teach about Israel. As we enter the New Year, it is up to us — concerned rabbis, educators, parents, and institutional leaders of our community — to be honest by showing maps that realistically depict the political reality.

Heading into 5776, we have to ask ourselves: if Hagar didn’t open her eyes and confront the reality around her, could she have saved her child? If we choose not to open our eyes to the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation, can we save Israel’s Jewish and democratic future?

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we’re expected to do more than just pray — we’re called to commit ourselves to tangible, achievable steps that put us on a better path.

If we want to have a prayer of achieving a two-state solution — the only solution that can finally resolve this wrenching conflict — we’ve got to start with a small but scary step: picturing it.

The author is director of programming and education at J Street


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