By Shirley Gaskin
The Mercer On Mission trip to Israel was an experience of a lifetime. Dr. Culpepper's expertise and knowledge of the Middle East made each ruin come to life. His wisdom gave us the advantage of bypassing some sites in order to spend more time in the ancient areas that gave the best learning experience. Never could I have learned as much as I did about the Jewish culture in one semester sitting in a classroom. Dr. Culpepper's guidance, by far, was the most valuable resource of the trip.
When I initially heard about this trip, I automatically assumed it would be an opportunity where God would use me in ministry since I see my life's calling is offering healing and restoration to people in need. In some ways this trip offered that experience, for we cleaned and painted homes as well as built relationships with the local Palestinian Christians. But as much as I thought I was there to help others, I also realized I was there to work through questions in my theological journey.
For instance, one day during a Shabbat service, we were asked to reflect on whether or not we had contributed to the wellbeing of another person for that day. Automatically I thought of mentioning the physical energy extended contributing to painting another's home, but I shied away from making the comment. I believe our contribution made a remarkable difference in one person's life, but was it enough to actually bring about healing and restoration? Questions like these caused me to remain quiet.
The following day I thought about the course of conversation during Shabbat and my silence. I began to experience a period of uncertainty and questions began to surface. Why am I in seminary? Am I doing enough in this life to truly help others? How does such a paradoxical ministry of healing and restoration fit within the world of academia and scholarship? My answers were so inconsistent that I just kept them hidden, ashamed of speaking them to the group.
But through this uncertainty, I realized that this trip had just as much to do with what I was learning as it did with the people I was serving. God wanted me to learn of the Jewish lifestyle and acknowledge firsthand His providence to the Israelis as well as God's love for the Palestinians. I say this because this was what made the greatest impact.
My learning began at the House of Peace when Pastor Daniel Aqleh presented the group with the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Since his story was the first I heard, I wanted to side with him and fault the Israelis for their inappropriate behavior. When someone presents you with a clean canvass and only one side of a story, there is no argument. However, when listening to the stories and even seeing footage of the Israelis' rude behavior regarding the Separation Wall, I was apprehensive and believed there was more to know.
My next lesson came at the Hartman Institute when Noam gave a tutorial on Shabbat. I loved it! I love the spirit behind Shabbat—stopping everything for rejuvenation. It just felt right. Every word Noam spoke regarding the ritual resonated as peaceful, principled, and proper. Even the questions I asked him regarding practicing on any particular day, he answered well within my comfort level.
To gain a better understanding of why practicing Shabbat is necessary, I must reflect back a year or so ago to my life while living with my mother and son, a lifestyle depicting many American families. Although my son and I share a close, cordial relationship together, it is not the same between my mother and me. For most of our lives, we have welcomed the disturbances of appliances and telephones to shield us from conversing. In our case, less is more. Nevertheless, I wonder if our conversation would be as elusive if on every Friday evening (or perhaps any other day), we sat down, turned off the television and phones, lighted a candle, and ate dinner together. Moreover, what would happen to the divorce rate in America if married couples were to do that? How would it affect families with teens and the pregnancy rate, school dropout, or incarceration among Black males? Let us not forget our family pillars, the elderly; how would Shabbat affect suicide rates among them? Could it be that the Israelis have found the Deuteronomic blessing through the practice of Shabbat?
Yet, another very vivid lesson came as I carefully read each detail of the fate met with the Jewish people displayed at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. From the beginning, dating back to 1932, I read how others became jealous of the Jewish fortune and financial diplomacy. Their rage fueled arbitrary laws against the Jewish people that later spun out into anti-Semitic crimes of hate and murder. I will go out on a limb and post the question, “Could this jealousy have been part of the ultimate plan of God to pressure the Jewish people to Israel, a predestined location?” Yes, it seems quite harsh to think about such cruelty by God for His set purposes. Nevertheless, He has demonstrated it several times in the Bible. One example was with Pharaoh leading up to the Exodus. In Exodus 7:13 and various other locations, it states, “He hardened Pharaoh's heart.” He did the same, setting the stage for Jesus to go to the Cross. In order to execute His plan of salvation, He hardened the people's hearts against Jesus and caused them to release Barabbas instead.
I began to think of other ways God could have strategically moved the Jewish people to this predetermined location without such pressure and catastrophe as the Holocaust; and I could not think of another way. Never would I intimate that I am ever as wise as Almighty God, but I sat and thought about if there could have been any other option. Given the choice, many people would not have moved. Who would voluntarily give up all they own to move to another country without having valid motivation? I thought of the census that prompted Mary and Joseph to journey to Bethlehem. Although affective during that era, a census in the twentieth century would not have caused an entire nation of people to move from Germany, Russia, and neighboring continents. It had to have been something as drastic as what is now termed as the Holocaust. This leads me to think that God has a supreme reason why the Jewish people must be in Israel.
Moreover, my lessons on the Jewish existence and lifestyle continued when we visited the Hartman Institute a second time to hear a lecture from Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman. He is a very soft-spoken man, yet I remained engrossed during the entire discourse. He offered the other half of the story behind the conflict between Israel and Palestine. What was most clarifying, even after his mentioning the agreements between the United Nations on the Separation Wall, he stated that the Palestinians never took the steps to become a nation state and therefore were not defined as a people. They had no rights. On the other hand, Israel fought for these rights during the War of 1948; and it made all the difference. In simple terms, how can one say that they own a house when they never contracted a deed? Regardless of how long they were there, unless they legalized their position they remained squatters! Rabbi Hartman humbly stated that he was not proud of some of the things they did against the Palestinians and if given the chance, they probably would do some things differently. Nevertheless, fighting for the right to become a nation state was profound in establishing whom the Israelis have come to be.
Rabbi Hartman spoke about some of other practices of Israel that have contributed to their success. For instance, everyone is required to serve in the military in some form. This creates a team spirit and fortifies their armed services. If every abled-bodied American contributes to the armed service in some form, everyone would learn a life-sustaining trade that could decrease unemployment. Additionally, when we form team spirit among citizens, Americans would think less individualistically and more collectively. We have too much of a “what about me” attitude when it comes to taxes, universal healthcare, and other governmental issues. America should be much farther universally than we are on so many different levels.
To further my tutorial, I listened to input from fellow pilgrims and seminarians who have formed relationships with the Palestinians. They are deeply touched by the hardships their new friends endure, especially with the shortage of water in the community and the treatment at the checkpoints by the Israelis. Admittedly, I found the Palestinians in the West Bank territory were very hospitable and friendly, which changed my views from news media here in America. It is unfortunate they live in such a volatile area. Nevertheless, this experience afforded us the opportunity to see the downside of God's providence. For example, reading how Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land was a moment for cheering and excitement. Nevertheless, we never knew the people that occupied the land prior who gave up their homes and lives. In every conquest, there are winners and there are losers.
Nonetheless, as obvious winners, the Israelis should take a good look at their behavior towards the Palestinians. According to the videos seen on Zionism, their behavior is bordering incivility. Israelis, with their amount of sovereignty and principled doctrine should govern themselves against treating anyone with such abhorrence. It is obvious that their mutual distrust causes the Israelis to enforce strict rules of security effecting Palestinian family life and holidays, but pouring dirty water and trash upon them is inhumane and unnecessary. It does not hurt them to be civil. As we can see, sharing space with your enemy can make anyone skittish, and many times rude. Perhaps it is the reason why God required all living bodies be destroyed, including the cattle and sheep, when seizing new territory in the Old Testament periods. Statistically, there are only ten to twelve percent of the Palestinians remaining in the state of Israel, down from nearly eighty-eight percent in 1947 according to Daniel Aqleh. Indeed, the Israelis are destroying the Palestinians, however rather slowly.
In summary, I have studied the Jewish culture over the past several weeks and am amazed at the resilience of the people. Truly, they are God's chosen; and I have gained respect for the culture. Nevertheless, one question remains. Even with all they have accomplished in relatively a short period and having an unquestionable divine presence, do they not still need a savior? Foreshadows of Christ's salvation reverberates throughout the Old Testament, especially within the Torah. Were they not included in the race of people who fail with Adam? Furthermore, do they not recognize the messages sent by the killing of the unspotted lamb and the sprinkling of the blood? Why do they not connect the two and relate it to themselves? More specifically, why do they not recognize Jesus the Christ as their Savior?
Perhaps their blessedness has caused them to believe they do not need redemption. Many parents reward their children's good behavior with gifts, privileges, and favor. This could reflect how the Israelis see themselves, as being rewarded by a Divine Father for their good behavior and obedience to His statutes. Deuteronomy 28 clearly outlines these promises of God's blessing or otherwise cursing according to obedience; and we clearly see the Israelis upholding the principles of God. Nevertheless, according to New Testament principles of salvation, they are missing an integral piece of the puzzle, Jesus Christ.
I must remind myself of the repetitiveness of Bible history. Although the Israelis are very prosperous today, they have fallen on numerous occasions. God refers to them as a stiff-necked people. On various occurrences, He has had to deal with them firmly in order to keep them on destiny's tract. Perhaps He understands that one day they will come to understand and embrace the theology behind the Crucified Lamb and accept Him as their Savior. Many Jewish Christians have already done such.
In closing, this trip has broadened my understanding of the Jewish culture. America would do well to incorporate certain elements of their lifestyle. Shabbat practiced on any day of the week could be the catalyst researchers, clergy, and philanthropists have sought that could change the direction of the modern family. Mandatory service to government and collectivism are others elements that could benefit Americans.
Moreover, prior to my understanding of the Zionist movement, I have determined that God's purpose is for the Jewish people to occupy Israel. He providentially moved them into that land. Certainly, no one understands exactly why. Just as He proclaims in the book of Isaiah, “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” In this decision, the Palestinians, even some who we know as good people, have attained the downside of the reward. Nevertheless, I will always believe that God's providence may not be fair in each situation, but He is just. He would do the same for the Palestinians as he has with the Israelis, according to His divine purpose. Although the Israelis are prosperous and principled, they are also stubborn by not realizing Christ as their Savior. I hope that they will in time.
I direct my final thoughts towards the wonderful people I met on the trip, my fellow pilgrims. God graced us with a vibrant group of individuals where everyone brought something of value, especially our instructors. We even tolerated each other's faults, mine especially, as I faced fears and lagged behind on most occasions. I hope to remain in contact with the group and look forward to taking other classes instructed by Dr. Culpepper. In addition, surely Dr. Whitfield would make a great addition to the McAfee School of Theology faculty.