Late last night I took a torch and, shining the beam across his path down the garden, lead our guest to the apple tree. The damp buds, latent with leaf and life, glistened in the darkness. My friend held up his phone and took photographs.
He was Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of I Shall Not Hate, about his life as a Gazan doctor with close friends and colleagues in Israel, who lost three daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, when their home was shelled twice in swift, fatal succession in the Gaza war.
Soon afterwards, I came to know him and planted that tree in his daughters’ memory.
‘I’d like to see it’, Dr Abuelaish told me.
Earlier, we’d been in conversation at my synagogue, sitting together beneath the verse ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ inscribed above the holy ark. A hundred people were held silent by his heart-felt words.
From the time I was a very small boy I have been able to find the good chapter in a very bad story…
From where did he draw the strength?
God knows what has to be, he said. Therefore, we must take what happens for the best.
Maybe his beloved wife Nadia had died four months before the tragedy so that she wouldn’t have to witness the deaths of three of her daughters. Mothers are the life-givers, the life-cherishers: let women walk in this world not behind us men, but by our side, out in front…
Do not see the other; he said. Do not look at the world out of one eye only, one perspective; see the humanity in all. (I still have that vista before me, the day I first saw a familiar Jerusalem scene from a Palestinian home in a refugee camp. Yes, I knew this valley; I recognised that road. But I’d never seen it from this angle. It was a mere 500 metres away, and a universe apart. I love Israel no less, but with more complexity, more simplicity, more humanity, since.)
Do not blame, Dr Abuelaish added. Don’t say ‘them!’. God judges us for what we do. We must take responsibility, each for our actions, our errors and our future.
Life is a short journey. He pointed at the doors on either side of the synagogue: ‘We enter here and exit there’. In the space between, we can do good. We can leave behind kindness, love. That is all that matters.
Afterwards, at my home, he said ‘My heart is my compass’.
On Passover night we dip our maror, the bitter herbs of history and memory, into the sweet paste of charoset, made, the Talmud teaches, ‘in memory of the apple’.
What apple? ‘It’s the apple tree in the Song of Songs’, the commentators explain. Beneath it during their slavery and degradation in Egypt, the Children of Israel showed each other solidarity and love.
Thus, the sweet charoset mitigates, overcomes, the venom of the bitter maror. So may love disarm hate; the steady heart of compassion withdraw the fuse from fury and from fear.
Will it work?
I asked Dr Abuelaish how the next ‘good chapter’ in a harsh story could be written. He made no comment about the plot, but pointed at the authors.
We are all responsible. We are all the writers of the future. No action is too small to matter and every one of us can choose to be a healer.