“Can we see hell from here?”

gehenna

We were gazing over this lush valley lying just outside the city of Jerusalem.

Now known as the “Valley of Wolves & Gardens” it was thought to be the original place where children were sacrificed to the god Moloch (check out that Bible history in Joshua, 2 Kings, etc.). Later, because of the way the sun set on the valley, this same valley, named Gehenna became the place rabbis described as a “fiery furnace”.

It was the place where people burned their trash and dead animals. Gehenna was a stinking, destitute place with a bad history and no future. Likely this is what Jesus was thinking about when he pronounced the judgement of Gehenna (translated as hell) upon the scribes and pharisees in Matthew 23:33.

Then hell got landscaped.

Who would now imagine the hellish pit of dead children and rotting carcasses that once filled this valley?

The day we visited hell was a day of heartache for me. We had spent some time in the morning with Sahar Vardi,  an articulate young woman who had detailed the manner in which militarization can slowly encroach upon every level of society. After which we spent a few hours with Jeff Halper whose organization, ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition) creates more equitable housing solutions by stopping the destruction of Palestinian homes and advocating for fairer policies.

We ended the day by hearing the stories of ultimate grief as two fathers each discussed the death of their daughters by the hands of their enemies: An Israeli man whose daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber and a second Palestinian man whose daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier while she sat in her classroom. Both men had gone to a hell I can’t even imagine. 

But just as the place of Gehenna was transformed, so too was their desire for revenge and retribution. These men and others like them found a way forward.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,  there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.” writes the 13th c. poet Rumi. Hearing that phrase quoted by an Israeli dad sitting next to a Palestinian (who in addition to losing his daughter also spent time in prison for his own violent past), was like a dam suddenly releasing thousands of gallons of water into a dry field.

Perhaps something more significant than a valley could be cultivated as well. Maybe the wrongs of our own life could have a new beginning. Perhaps even the darkest places of grief could bring forth renewing life.

Today we visit Hebron. I’m going with that prayer in my heart.

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