I spent last Sunday (October 28) in Bethlehem, along with thousands of other Jews. To be more accurate we went to one of Judaism's most important holy sites, Rachel's Tomb, a tiny Israeli enclave which borders southern Jerusalem and Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem.
On any ordinary day there are many visitors to the tomb, people who come to visit our matriarch Rachel, who died in childbirth on the way to Bethlehem, in the hope that her tragic story will help to inspire their prayers. Others come to symbolically console the matriarch, described in the bible as weeping for her exiled and dispersed children. For others the physical connection, visiting the ancient tomb itself, is an important part of their connection with Jewish history and the Land of Israel. That Sunday, the eleventh of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, thousands made the traditional pilgrimage to commemorate the anniversary of Rachel's death.
Last year the Israeli army prevented worshippers from making their way to the tomb, then under constant Palestinian bombardment. Since then the army has worked out a tighter security regime around the site, including huge concrete walls and organised bulletproof buses to shuttle visitors on the minutes-long ride from southern Jerusalem through the very short, but dangerous corridor which is in firing range from Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem.
On the eleventh of Heshvan extra buses were laid on to accommodate the huge crowds flocking to the site. Every half hour an armoured bus left Jerusalem's central bus station, packed to the gills, not even any standing room left. At the Gilo Junction in southern Jerusalem, thousands more Jews waited for the armoured shuttle buses.
Even though there was no room for more passengers, my bus still stopped at the junction. The driver asked everyone to make sure the bulletproof windows were closed, as we were about to run the potentially dangerous gauntlet on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Through the dust-encrusted windows of the battered bus I saw several Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles parked by the roadside. Ahead we had a bulletproof army jeep escort. Only the night before, gunbattles had raged in the area, as Israel hunted down terrorists in Palestinian Bethlehem.
Arriving at the site was like entering an armed compound. Between the tomb and Palestinian Bethlehem huge concrete blocks shielded the structure and adjacent army positions formed a protective cordon. The bus parked outside the site, with the doors lined up with the entrance to the building, the bus itself shielding us from possible snipers in the nearby Palestinian-controlled sector. Israeli soldiers and police quickly but calmly rushed us into the building, shouting at us to hurry and get inside. No one was taking any chances.
Inside, the thick walls of the building created a cavelike atmosphere. The heavy security made me think of some deep underground bunker from a Cold War movie. A short elderly woman, her hair bound in a colourful kerchief, blessed each soldier and policeman as they gently ushered her inside, reaching out to each one with her book of Psalms and touching him lightly on the shoulder. "May God bless you, and all those who protect Israel, and all their families, and all of Israel, and all the world, and may He bring peace and His Messiah speedily in our day, and may we all be blessed, Amen and Amen."
Entering the shrine was like entering a place in which all the mothers of the world had been gathered together, crying for God's children. The small, stuffy stone room was crowded to bursting point. All around me women swayed fervently as they recited Psalms. Many wept, some sobbed uncontrollably, others paused occasionally to wipe away a tear with the corner of their headscarves. In one corner a woman stood, eyes clenched shut, reciting Psalms in a whisper, begging God to save His people from the enemies surrounding us. Another woman stood, as if in a trance, a beatific smile on her face, an ornate book of Psalms in her hand, joyfully murmuring the words to herself. A woman with a strained look on her face turned out to have spent the night in prayer at the site. Mother Rachel would have been proud to see the sincerity and the piety of the throngs who flooded Bethlehem to honour her memory that Sunday.
That Sunday we needed every prayer. I arrived home to news of a terror attack. Two Palestinian terrorists opened fire on passengers waiting at a bus stop in the northern Israeli city of Hadera. Four Israeli women were murdered in that attack and over 40 people wounded. Only that morning there had been another shooting in the same region, in which Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli car, killing the driver. This after a week in which mercifully no Israelis had been killed, as Israeli security forces successfully caught several terror cells red-handed, and arrested many others. However tight the borders though, there is always a chink the terrorists manage to exploit.
That night we were invited to sheva brakhot, a festive dinner for the bride and groom, part of the traditional week-long wedding celebrations. This mix of sorrow and joy, the extremes of sorrow and joy, typify life here now. In some ways it might seem obscene to go out and party after news of a massacre. On the other hand life has to go on, and what better way to express our determination to live than to celebrate the creation of a new Jewish family, the founding of a new Jewish home in Israel. Our enemies believe in destruction, our way of life is founded on creation. Our response to those who destroy life is to create new life. A few days later we were invited to another festive occasion, this time it was a brit, the circumcision celebration for eight day old baby boys. How wonderful to initiate another Jewish child into the covenant of Abraham.
A week later, Sunday November 4, a Palestinian terrorist opened fire on a bus in Jerusalem's bustling French Hill junction. It seemed unreal, like a replay of last week's ghastly attack in Hadera. Two Israeli schoolchildren were murdered, 16-year-old Shoshana Ben-Yishai and 14-year-old Menashe Regev. Over 50 other people wounded.
I made dinner this evening to reports on the condition of the wounded. The bus driver, a Jerusalem Arab, was amongst the wounded interviewed from the hospital. As his headscarfed mother leaned anxiously over him he pleaded with the terrorists to stop their campaign of killing. "Enough of the war, enough of the killing. I had a bus full of innocents, of schoolchildren and elderly. The terrorists don't care if they kill Jews or Arabs, they just want to kill as many people as possible."
And we want to live as much as possible. God willing I'll be attending three more weddings this month.