It must have been around 10 or 12 years ago. I was studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for the first time. It had been years since I had spent any significant free time in and around Jerusalem and I asked friends for ideas of off-the-beaten-path sites I might check out. One friend told me about a relatively new museum which had been created in a building which had once marked the boundary between Jerusalem’s New City, what had been for a long time the “no-man’s land territory” between Israel and Jordan, and East Jerusalem which prior to 1967 was ruled by the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. The building, known as Beyt Turgeman,which still sits on the line between East Jerusalem and the newer parts of the city, had been turned into “Museum on the Seam.” With rough directions in hand, I set out on foot to find the place. As I wandered more deeply into parts of East Jerusalem than I had visited in decades, I began to wonder if I was lost. I even asked directions. Soon enough I found myself standing in front of the “Museum on the Seam Line” as the banner outside proclaimed.
The next few hours that I spent at the museum (it is not, I should note, a terribly big place) were eye-opening and thought provoking. What I learned over the course of my time during that first (but not last) visit was that the creators of this new museum meant to use the building’s location and history to challenge visitors to confront the reality of different groups sharing space and/or living in close proximity to one another.
Just inside the entrance, alongside the ticket kiosk, was a large display featuring the text from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech L’cha describing the tension between Abram and his nephew, Lot over whose flocks had the right to graze on which fields. We read: “From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot . . . . Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle . . . Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” (Genesis 13:1, 5-9)
The Museum’s main exhibit, which flowed from this dramatic passage from Genesis proceeded to challenge a visitor’s perception and understanding of co-existence, which remains a major theme in the Museum on the Seam to this day. You can make a virtual visit here: http://www.coexistence.art.museum/Coex/Index.asp
Living as we do, in times of incredible tension, and violence, which challenge the very notion of co-existence, it strikes me that this episode from our portion, and the events about which we are hearing on a daily basis, bespeak the ongoing relevance of the story of Abram and Lot. Clearly there are no simple answers to the current conflict. It’s not as simple as Abram telling Lot he can take his choice and Abram will go in the direction Lot does not choose.
Over the years, Museum on the Seam has become a place to which I return again and again. The lessons it teaches are more far-reaching than the (not-so) simple question of territory. In a world in which lines and boundaries are constantly in flux and changing, the questions, challenges and issues of co-existence laid out in our portion grower sharper and even more challenging as time passes. If nothing else, we need to summon the wisdom of our Patriarch Abram, and at least consider the implications of his words to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.”