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Brief Encounters

As part of our mission to promote new Jewish thought, writing and commentary, here is the text of Dr. Irene Lancaster's recent ‘Thought for the Week for BBC Radio Manchester, by special arrangement. The author of "Deconstructing the Bible, Abraham ibn Ezra's introduction to the Torah", (Routledge 2003) Dr Lancaster FRSA is Research Fellow in the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester and has just been appointed to the Council of Lord Carey’s Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East.

Dr Irene Lancaster

I wonder if you are, like me, excited by train journeys? You get on a train and wonder who will be sitting opposite you. Will it be a ‘stranger on a train’, intent on their computer game, or will it be a true ‘brief encounter’, which will change you forever and make life seem even more meaningful than it was before?’

In the last few weeks, I have made two train journeys down south in order to do my bit for interfaith relations and world peace. But on both occasions it was the journeys down that set the mood of what was to come. On the first trip, I got into conversation with two students from Manchester University who were off to spend the Jewish Passover in Haifa, a town in northern Israel, on a project bringing Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs closer together.

On the second trip, last Wednesday, my ‘brief encounter’ was with a woman who travels the world singing in interesting places. In the course of our chat, we realised we had a mutual friend, someone I had lost touch with over the years.

Sadly, I learned from my train companion that this friend’s son had recently died in his sleep, aged only 20. Although my friend had not been Jewish, the local Jewish neighbourhood had turned out en masse to be with her in her grief during the weekly Jewish mourning ritual, called sitting shiva. This had been of enormous comfort to my long-lost friend.

This talk of death made me think of my own Israeli daughter, Kalela, who lives in South Tel Aviv, where she is also involved in the peace process. On Easter Monday, I was sitting quietly at home, enjoying the holiday restfulness and received a call from Kalela. ‘I’m OK’, she said. I was a little puzzled: ‘Great, I said’. ‘You haven’t heard, have you’? she replied. ‘Heard what?’ I asked. ‘There’s been a horrendous suicide bomb in our area, but don’t worry, I’m OK’.

I just couldn’t believe it. The terrorists had struck again and for about the 10th time in my life, my wonderful, beautiful daughter, was contacting me to let me know that she was ‘OK’. ‘Right, Mum’, she said gently, ‘I have to go back to work’, and she put down the phone and went back to her work of trying to implement part of the Middle East peace process.

And the thing is, I am so used to these phone calls that I no longer feel shock or even revulsion when she tells me that although a bomb has gone off in her street, she herself is ‘OK’.

And I was reminded of all this when on Thursday, my journalist friend, Ruth Gledhill, Religion Affairs Correspondent of The Times, told me that she had been asked to preach the sermon later tonight at Westminster Abbey. Could I give her some ideas about the passage in Deuteronomy where God tells the children of Israel why he is bringing them into the Promised Land: the Promised Land being, of course, this very same Israel which is under constant attack.

And I thought about this a while and then responded that to be ‘God’s chosen people’ is not that God chooses us, but that we make the choice to choose God. And the way we do this is by seeing the spark of divinity in all those we encounter during life’s wonderful journey, whether it be long or short. Only in this way can envy be turned into respect, hate into love and the slavery of ego into the freedom of one’s own true self.

And that is why I know that it is right for my daughter Kalela to be an Israeli and to work for peace, because in her short life she has done a terrific amount of good. And even if she dies tomorrow, I know that a life cannot be judged by longevity alone, but by the quality of its ‘brief encounters’.

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