8 Jan 2017

Tanks ‘n Tractors


Thoughts on the Jerusalem Truck Attack that Killed 4 and Wounded 15 Pedestrians

Terror AttackThis morning’s headlines tell the horrifying news of yet another vehicular terror attack. While some news outlet tout this as being a “shocking copycat of the Berlin and Nice terror massacres”, my memory tells me that in fact the European attacks were modeled after what had begun in Israel as far back as 2008 – the first on July 2 of that year and the second some three weeks later on July 22.

That first attack employed the use of a tractor. I remember my astonishment at something that has, tragically, become “normal” to us. Here’s an article I wrote at the time. Rather than focus on the horror, it addresses the mystical aspect of Swords into Plowshares in light of the fast of the Tenth of Tevet.

The Caterpillar Tractor

The internet’s down!  And with it the phone.  Tannersville is quiet by night.  It’s a silence about the texture of a goose-down cushion.  Thick.  Soft.  Comfortable.  I want to sink in but find no rest.  Was it the movie “E-lollipop” that began with the protagonist asking a stranger on a park bench, “Does the noise in my head bother you?’?  I am thinking of things hard and loud.  And the noise in my head bothers me.

It could be yesterday that I saw the yellow Caterpillar tractor lurching across a Jerusalem street.  The footage was from a cell phone.  A silent movie…I can’t put them together.  The tractor and death.”

It could be yesterday that I saw the yellow Caterpillar tractor lurching across a Jerusalem street.  The footage was from a cell phone.  A silent movie.  I imagine the sounds.  The engine-belly, the fork on cars, the fork on flesh, the sound life makes leaving a body, and the wails of terror and grief.  Now, cross-legged on the couch in our summer rental, I gaze into the black beyond the window and review the scene.  My thoughts jump.  I think of the caterpillars we watched as children, seeing them lift-and-crunch from tail to fore as they jerk across a leaf.  And I wonder if, standing beside the white or yellow line painted along the tar of Jaffa Street, onlookers felt they’d missed a step as the tractor crunched and swung for death.

I can’t put them together.  The tractor and death.  From the wooden puzzles of my kindergarten years and on, I’ve been taught that tractors support life.  They churn soil and soften it to receive seeds.  They are the backdrop of bread steaming from an oven, of apples in a bowl.  My mind wrestles with a Caterpillar run amok in the Holy City.  I guess one must know how to use one…The people of Gush Katif did.  They tossed a desert into leafy greens.  They drove their tractors across austere sands and behold – fields of cilantro and parsley fragranced the air. But the neat categories of childhood don’t hold up to the “adult” world I live in.  Despite what those puzzles-painted-in-primary-colors would have me think, it was tractors that flung the Jews of Gush Katif, like rocks tossed aside, from the Land.  Bulldozers rendered their homes rubble in the name of life and peace.  And the very tanks manufactured to protect them were turned on those who best knew how to use their metal.

The Iron Pan

Terror AttackThe internet’s down and the contradictions screech within me.  I think of a passage in Ezekiel that talks of iron and alludes to the tanks and tractors of both the world at large and of our inner landscapes.  Prior to the siege placed upon the First Temple, G-d told him, “Take an iron pan and place it upright as a wall of iron between you and the city…and it will be as a siege…a sign for the Jewish people.”[1]  The Biblical commentator Rashi tells us that the pan served as a metaphor.  It presented G-d’s message that “in this way Jerusalem will be besieged.”[2].  It called upon the people to repent.  “If not,” cried the pan, “the Holy City will be surrounded by a wall of iron slotted together of soldiers carrying swords and cloaked in shields.  Return.  For metal is upon you.  Prevent the wall of iron from breaking the walls of the City and of the Temple.”

“If not,” cried the pan, “the Holy City will be surrounded by a wall of iron slotted together of soldiers carrying swords and cloaked in shields. “

Ezekiel and the people knew well the destructive power of iron.  They saw it grind the Temple into dust like the homes on the hills of the Gush.  G-d knows how that hurts.  Precisely because of its deathly edge, no iron tools were allowed to be used in the construction of the Temple.  As the Midrash comments on the gold, silver and copper we were asked to bring for the building of the sanctuary, “Iron was not mentioned here, neither in relation to the sanctuary nor the Temple, because it is analogous of the people of Edom, who destroyed the Temple.”[3]  G-d’s aversion was stressed most with regard to the altar, the primary vessel of the Temple,[4] for “the altar was created to lengthen the days of a person and iron was created to shorten the days of man.  One may not raise that which shortens over that which lengthens.  Even more so, the altar brings peace between the Jewish people and their Father in Heaven.  Therefore no cutting or damaging (could) be imposed upon it.”[5]

Strength of Steel

Terror AttackEach human alive can attest to the destructive power of its strength.  From the hills of Afghanistan to Columbian mercenaries, from pistols fired in gang warfare to Uzis to tanks to air force bombers, no patch of the planet where humans dwell has not heard the sounds of iron shortening life, or watched as its soil is reddened with blood cut loose.  And yet, the metal has a holy face.  The Land of Israelis one who’s “stones are made of iron.”[6]  The very stones that were crumbled to fragments are rich in iron ore.  And they too speak to us in parables.  They remind us that locked deep within our beings is an essential core so strong it can withstand exile.  It is the point of absolute beinghood within each of us that defies definition, which exists because it exists.  It holds us through war.  It supports us in the midst of our madness.  It is the fulcrum of confidence.  The springboard of our drives.  The elemental power of the soul. It is The Unwoundable Self.

No patch of the planet where humans dwell has not heard the sounds of iron shortening life…And yet, the metal has a holy face.”

We all have it.  The trick is to direct that iron core in the right direction.  One might well call it The Art of War – or for that matter the Art of Peace.  “She has an iron will.”  “He’s made of steel.”  Is it good or bad?  Is iron life or death?  Our sages say, “Any sage who is not tough as iron is not a sage.”[7]  G-d calls us a “stiff-necked nation.”  Bulls-eye! We’re obstinate and tough.  But our “stiff-neckedness” is at core a chutzpa of holiness that has borne us through the hatred of nations from the ancient Hittites to the father of two from Tzur Baher in Eastern Jerusalem who drove a tractor for death.  Is steel good or bad?  Is iron life or death?  Depends.  The orientation is at my disposal.  The outcome really lies within my hands and heart.

Preempting War

Terror Attack

Photograph of Biblical Jerusalem by Annette Batkin

The “art” of the matter is to catch the process at the outset.  The Holy City was besieged on the 10th of Tevet.  The walls were breached a half a year later on the 17th of Tamuz.  And the Temple was destroyed within a mere three weeks of that.  The remedy to prevent the demolition and devastation was to hear the message of the pan put forth before the siege.  If we’d listened and really gotten the prophecy of Ezekiel, we’d have converted the danger and death that hovered above us to light.  We could have activated the essential force of our souls, our steel will, and built a new world from the struggle.

I watched this battle within myself this past week.  I’ve been angry at a friend for a while now.  Despite my attempt to dialogue, the connection still felt rotten and full of the dark red stuff that clogs relationships in their down faze.  I could have reminded myself of Ezekiel’s pan.  I could have put a post-it-note “Tanks ‘n Tractors!” on my fridge door.  But no!  I festered in the mess.  Then I whipped out my sword.  And promptly cut an email to “Friend” that had zilch to do with what was really going on.  I was all bulldozer on Rehov Yaffo, tank on an enemy turf.  What I needed to do was go back to the beginning and catch the anger, activate my Essential Iron Core and be big enough to say, “I’m so sad you’re not in my life anymore.  I miss you.  Can we reconnect?”

But no!  I festered in the mess.  Then I whipped out my sword.  And promptly cut an email to “Friend” that had zilch to do with what was really going on.”

The hurt was the desire to connect with someone else.  It almost always is.  That, or the real inner longing to bond with G-d.  If I can find that point then I can build the rubble into a Temple.  It’s not just patching together the old, not just “making do” with what’s left and building a shack of debris.  To heal you have to go back to the beginning.  To halt the destruction of the ninth of Av, you have to go back to the tenth of Tevet, back even to Ezekiel’s pan.  If you can get back there, you can change the direction of the future.  At ground zero, I can touch my metal, activate my inner essence and find the strength to say, “I’m hurting”, or “Can you help me with this?”, or “I don’t know.”  I catch the core of who I am before a hurt compels me to unsheathe my sword.  And from there I build the Third Temple.

Building with Steel

There’s no building a world without steel.  King Solomon himself set aside vast amounts of iron, all in anticipation of building the Third Temple.  The call of the hour is to ensure that the steel be that of healing and building rather than a blade which shortens human life.  You start with an iron pan on a hilltop outside of Jerusalem.  If ignored, the metal dish forebears the sound of sword upon sword, battle calls, the roll of tanks and cries that cut into the heart and the heart of heaven.  Jerusalem is ravished.  Caterpillars roll across the road, blades hungry for blood.  Bulldozers rip homes and synagogues from the ground, and military brass dump families into hotel rooms for the night, or month – or decade.  But if the people hear the song of the prophet and the sound of the pan resonating across the valleys, then the iron builds.  We grow bold and strong.  We are put in touch with why we are here.  And we realize that we have enough steel within ourselves to build a brave new world.

This article was originally published on

[1] Ezekial 4, 3
[2] Rashi’s explanation of the verse.
[3] Terumah 25, 3
[4] See Rambam’s opening discussion on the laws of the Bait HaMikdash
[5] Yitro 20,22 and the commentary of Rashi, from the Mechilta.
[6] Ekev 8, 9
[7] Ta’anit 4, 1