Vignettes From A Pilgrimage To Israel.
The following meditations are a sampling of some of my thoughts upon returning from two weeks in Israel with Congregation Ohav Shalom’s biennial mission.
Like Semitic languages in general, Hebrew is quite ordered and logical. Unlike English and other Germanic languages, the Hebrew vocabulary flows naturally from shorashim or word roots, three or four letter verb stems in the infinitive form that are the basis for different verb conjugations as well as nouns.
Consider the following examples. In Hebrew, the shoresh or verb root khazar (KH, Z, R) consisting of the letters khet, zayin and resh, means to return. If I want to say “I am returning,” an intransitive verb form, I say, “ani KHoZeR.” If I want to say “I am returning the ball,” a transitive verb form, I say “ani maKHaZiR et ha-kadur.” However, these shorashim are even more versatile. If I want to say “reconstruction,” I say “sheeKH-ZuR.” If I want to say “recycling,” I say “meeKH-ZuR.” All of these words are completely different from each other, but if you listen carefully to them, you hear echoes of the original verb stem, KHaZaR, to return.
Returning on one’s own, returning someone else’s belongings, reconstruction, recycling: they are all about return, coming back to something, bringing back something, rediscovering that which was, is, and will be.
I notice these kinds of words as I leave Ben Gurion Airport and walk the streets of Israel once again. The words of Hebrew, the street signs, the protest slogans, the Hebrew newspapers all point to a pervasive truth that is Israel, a truth brought to life by the language: to come to Israel is to return to the source, the root, to come home.
The Torah Scroll.
In Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, there is a Torah scroll on display, which had been saved from destruction at the hands of the Nazis during Kristallnakht, the Night of Broken Glass which took place on November 9, 1938. That night, on the orders of Hitler’s regime, Nazi party members all over Germany looted Jewish businesses, vandalized synagogues, raped, assaulted, and murdered German Jews across the country, as their fellow citizens - friends and neighbors – looked on in fear, apathy, or approval. This was a foretaste of the hell to come for European Jewry and millions of other people.
The scroll is now the property of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, opened up for everyone to see that the Jewish people and its God passed through the fire, badly burned but alive nonetheless. I am always intrigued by Torah scrolls, but I have been most intrigued this year as our congregation proceeds with the writing of our own new scroll. I look closely at the passage to which it has been opened, the ancient priestly blessing that Jews recite on different occasions.
May God bless you and guard you; may God cause the light of God’s face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.
What was the intent of the person who opened the scroll to this passage? To make a cynical point? “How wonderful, Jews. Look at the blessings bestowed upon you by your God who died at Auschwitz along with you! And yet you still believe.” To make a statement of profound faith? “Jews, we and our Torah are still here. The blessing and its God are still alive.” I cannot know what the museum curator who did this was thinking. All I know is that no more than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, our sofer (Torah scribe) is slowly writing our new scroll in black ink, in this nation that grew out of the dark ashes of the Holocaust like a weed poking through a pile of rocks, yet whose attachment to this land is far older and greater. May God bless us and guard us.
In his poem, “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He then wrote a painful reflection upon the forced boundaries placed between him and his neighbor, ones that defy the natural impulse for things and people to connect with one another. What would Frost have thought if he had visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem? Also known as the Kotel, it is a magnet for the faithful, the faithless, the curious, the lost, the sick, the broken, an endless humanity that streams towards it day after day, all day from every faith, every corner of the earth. They place written prayers in the Kotel’s cracks and crevices, desperate as they are – as perhaps we all are – for healing, to be heard by God, for guidance, for forgiveness. Sometimes, the prayers are not pleas, but offerings of pure gratitude, words of praise given unconditionally. The sea of people that visits loves this wall, needs this wall, looks forward to imagining an intimate conversation between each person and God at this wall, the very last vestige of the ancient Jerusalem Temple that stood on the Temple Mount. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, are there perhaps also no rational skeptics at the Kotel?
With all this, the Kotel is wrapped in irony. This most sacred place began as nothing more than the outer retaining wall of the newly renovated second Temple of King Herod the Great, one of the most brutal men to rule over the land of Israel in behalf of the Roman Empire. Perhaps equally ironic is that this place which draws people from the four corners of the earth to worship together is also a physical and social boundary between Jews who worship at it below the Temple Mount, and Muslims who worship on the Temple Mount. I feel the Kotel almost heaving, reeling from the seismic tensions between Jews and Arabs, struggling to retain not only the earth behind it but to keep peace as well, by keeping us tucked in behind safe boundaries.
The Kotel is a wall, and the Kotel is the world: an endless paradox of separation and togetherness, boundaries and oneness, peace and conflict, the sacred and the profane living in the same space, the same time. And flying above its stones, traveling straight to God’s throne of glory, are words, the tools of creation and destruction given to us by God, who waits to hear what we have done with them.
At the Entrance To the Carmel Market…
A young man, thin, lithe and agile, tap dances skillfully for money to the tunes on his boom box at the entrance to Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. Friday afternoon here reveals a sea of colorful humanity and insanity, as even the largely secular residents of this city rush about to prepare for Shabbat and the closing of the market stalls for one day. I sit on a bench at the entrance, watching the dancer tap, tap, tap away on his wooden board like a clock tick-tocking too quickly, as he entertains the passersby who appreciatively throw in a few shekels after they clap in admiration.
In my head, I am moving in time with him, shouting to him: “Dance my friend, move swiftly against the tide of despair, the hatred of the nations, the mortal threats. Dance faster and faster, quicken your pace, and quicken the pulse of all who dance with you, this seemingly endless flow of people who are Israel, who know that they must never stop dancing, never stop moving, never stop hoping; for at the moment that they stop, they cease to live!”
He stops tapping, scowls at me and says, “Idiot, I’m not your American Zionist poster boy, so cut the crap. I’m just out here trying to make a buck like everyone else.”
Khaval Al Ha-Z’man
Lior, our group’s bus driver, has the boyish look of a sixteen year old and the swarthy dark skin of his Yemenite ancestry. His appearance is like Israel itself, old and young. To look at him, listen to his soft voice, and appreciate his modest demeanor, you would not know that in Tzahal (The Israel Defense Forces) his job was to operate a critical missile defense system using complex mathematics and computer models, something he cannot and will not say much about.
Because I am fluent in Hebrew, Lior and I converse easily. When I talk about all the great places to see and do in Israel, something about which he knows quite a bit, he greets my enthusiasm with the Hebrew saying, khaval al ha-z’man. Roughly translated, it means, “time’s a-wasting.” It normally is used to express regret that one is running out of time or to push someone else to get moving on your behalf. However, Lior seems to be using the phrase to mean, “I agree, ‘X’ is so cool.” I keep meaning to ask him how this phrase took on a new meaning, but I figure it out on my own: ‘X’ is so cool and so worth making the time for, but khaval al ha-z’man, time is sadly so tight that we can’t do or see everything that interests us.
Perhaps I never get around to asking Lior about what he is saying, because I sense what else this phrase means to Israelis at a deeper level, and I don’t feel right asking him about it. Rightly or wrongly, Israelis have the reputation for being fatalists. Though Israel is a strong, world-class nation, Israelis live with a sense that time is never really on their side, even more than the rest of us do. However, this fatalism does not seem to breed collective despair, as anyone spending time in this turbulent, thriving, energetic country can tell you. Israelis go about their daily business, no less or more meaningfully than the rest of world…but possibly feeling greater compulsion to see more, say more, get more, give more, love more, hate more in less time, for who can know what tomorrow or even the next hour will bring them? Khaval al ha-z’man: we who live outside of Israel don’t really get the sad slippage of time the way that they do.
Khaval al ha-z’man: time’s a-wasting. We grow older, and if we are lucky we will reach seventy or maybe even eighty, as the psalms remind us; who knows if we will even be healthy, wealthy, with it enough to enjoy all the years we are given. For the Jews, being a free people in our own land is a blessing, a miracle, but have each of us tasted that blessing, experienced that miracle? If you support the State of Israel and care for Her, that is wonderful. But to truly know Israel, to be transformed by Israel, you need to be in Israel, even if only for a short period of time. Khaval al ha-z’man: hopefully, Israel will continue to defend herself from her enemies, will find peace with her neighbors, and will live for another thousand years. But you and I will not. Don’t wait to come home until you no longer have the strength to come home. Come to Israel. Khaval al ha-z’man.