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Re’eh: From Jerusalem to New York – Diary

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Monday, July 29, New York

I walk the streets of New York in a daze. After arriving late last night from Israel, the feelings of surreality reverberate around me. I cannot believe that just yesterday I was being escorted by armed soldiers, in front and behind us, as we made our way out of the Arab (occupied) Quarter in Old Jerusalem.

I look around on 5th Avenue – the superficial, man-made “child” called modern New York – and I close my eyes and am startled by the fact that just Saturday night I was standing on a rooftop of the Old City staring at the ancient 5762 year old Temple Mount.

I see a group of teenagers sauntering down 16th Street, loud and high, oblivious, apparently on their way to a movie after watching some TV soap opera. “We are children,” I thought to myself, “little spoiled children here in America, reaping off the fat of the land, thinking as though there is no tomorrow and no yesterday.”

Every American should go visit Jerusalem for a few days, not as a camera-wielding tourist, not as an observer but as a participant. Go immerse yourself, soak up the quintessential realities that lie saturated in the tunnels beneath the Old City. Walk the streets, each inch laden, filled with layers upon layers of history upon history. Join your brothers and sisters as they dodge terrorist bombs…

Want some truth? Close the ‘Reality’ shows on TV or ‘virtual reality’ on the Internet, pause from the distracting parties and take a stroll down Jaffa Street in Jerusalem into the Old City.

More tragic news this week from Jerusalem. War seems the only inevitable and regrettable solution, G-d forbid. I never thought that war could be the only answer. Especially in our lifetime. We thought we had finished the battles with WW I and II. We were now an enlightened age, empowered by high-tech and all the comforts, blazing our way from the 20th to the 21st century at warp speed, with medical breakthroughs constantly increasing our life expectancies, and conquering illness and even death.

And here we face a war with the primordial forces that consume billions of people. A war we must wage if we want to guarantee our children, if not ourselves, a life of peace and stability.

Existence is right back where it began. In the Middle East, and at war with itself.

Does this not make you think that there is a cosmic – need I say Divine – hand at work behind the scenes? Why is it that our material comforts do not provide us with fulfillment and peace?

Why do we have to go to war? And what exactly is this war about? All previous wars were very defined. They are usually driven by the desire for land, power, money, control. What is this war about? What do the terrorists want? What did they want when they crashed into the World Trade Center and what do they want when they blow themselves up in the streets of Jerusalem? Yes, they claim that they want the Jews out of Israel, but is that it? They killed Jews even before 1948… And Saddam Hussein – what does he want?

The Arab world carries a deep rage. A rage that goes back, I submit, to their father Ishmael. They themselves do not know why they are angry. Their rage exposes the major flaw of existence: We must make our peace with G-d.

This war is a spiritual one. It is not just about quelling the forces of terror and unconventional weaponry. It is about establishing a vision of life – a vision that encompasses all the nations of the world while respecting their diversity, includes all individuals of the planet while maintaining their individual integrity. The vision of how the Cosmic Architect intended us to live and to fulfill the purpose of our being.

When it isn’t working we sometimes need war to straighten things out.

Perhaps I need to travel to the Holy and Promised Land to feel the dichotomy between reality and superficiality.

Most people I meet would have problems with my statements. That’s why I don’t suggest a debate. Rather, take a trip to the Middle East for a few days, then we’ll talk…

Yet, strangely, at the same time that the Holy Land reminds us if the deeper truths, it also gives us great solace and comfort. Believe it or not, I felt stronger and more centered and focused – and yes, more secure – in Israel than I do here in New York… Go explain that. You may dismiss me as weird, but maybe not…

So, allow me and please join me for a stroll down memory lane – actually not such distant memory, as I return to my last week in the Holy Land.

Tuesday, July 23, Lod International Airport, 5:15 AM

Land as dawn is breaking in Israel. We get on line for passport control, foreigners to the right, Israelis to the left. Though the room is packed with hundreds of arriving passengers, the foreign line is somber and quiet, punctuated by hushed conversations. The Israeli line is loud and boisterous, with occasional shouts of people yelling at each other why they aren’t moving quicker, and who is first in line.

For some reason, perhaps it’s the wee morning hours, I am noticing details I usually ignore. We finally come out of the airport, rent our prerequisite cellular phones, grab a cab and off we go to Jerusalem, Yerusholayim Ir HaKodesh.

The cab driver, a nice guy, is driving fast, which is okay, but he insists on driving literally inches off the tail end of the car in front of us. And he’s not alone, everyone in Israel drives the same. When I ask him – and later, ask other drivers – for an explanation, he innocently answers me “If I leave any space between cars someone else will move in.”

Is this rudeness, bordering on abrasiveness, an Israel feature? Middle Eastern? Jewish? Is it built on the instinct for survival the people here are fighting for?

Regular nice people, very nice people. As soon as they hit the road a battle ensues. It’s hilarious. They make a wrong turn, and suddenly they are speaking – no, yelling at themselves – with all types of wild hand gestures. And mind you, not for a minute, one wrong turn, one cutoff, one glare, can result in 20 minutes of muttering and hand gestures.

No exaggeration. I spent hours in the car with our driver who took us up north, to Tiberias and Tzfat, and perhaps half the way was filled with these aggressive conversations.

I’ll chalk this up, I guess, to the general dichotomy between the surface and what lies within. The classical ‘sabra’ analogy: Prickly on the outside, sweet and juicy within.

And sweet it is. I had the sweetest and juiciest time during my brief stay.

Tuesday night I attend a wedding. It can be described as ‘shotgun’ in more ways than one. No, not for any forced issues, but because of its refreshing spontaneity and unscripted beauty. A Southern, Memphis Dixie with a Northern Yankee. A straight shootin’ tell-it-the-way-it-is proud Jew with one of the softest and warmest personalities I have met, marrying a beautiful, refined and ever so kind woman. A grass roots Southern Jew-from-the-gut betrothing a woman who is known for her extraordinary efforts on behalf of many Jewish organizations, and a major force in the Jewish community in the Upper West Side of New York.

Two people who do not have many social superficials in common. But when you see them together – as I have had the privilege to witness – you see the melding of fun, challenge, and profound warmth.

The chupah (wedding ceremony) is on a terrace overlooking the Wall and Temple Mount. I hear that weddings are not preformed at the actual Wall because we don’t want to celebrate in face of the Temple’s destruction. That is beautiful and sensitive: We don’t want to embarrass the Wall – and desensitize ourselves – by obliviously celebrating our weddings right in the shadow of the Wall.

But this wedding is taking place from a distance. Perhaps the Wall can’t quite see us, even as we peek at it.

Thoroughly enjoy the wedding as the celebration continues in the Jerusalem Hilton (now known as David’s Citadel, even thought “Hilton” seems to be the name that sticks). From the Wall to the Hilton – after all my writing I will leave it up to your imagination to know what I would say.

Wednesday, July 24

Israel doesn’t get sweeter than the drive up North. Final destination: The great cemetery in Tzfat, which I wrote about last week. I will now fill in the dream I referred to and some other gaps I omitted last week.

Mordechai Shababi tells me that one night, right after he took over his father’s position (30 years ago) as the cemetery-keeper (or whatever you call it), he has a dream, in which Reb Moshe, the Alsheich, comes to him dressed in white and he complains to him that his grave is falling apart, water is dripping in and the site is about to collapse. Reb Moshe tells him that he is not needed for this job if he doesn’t take care of the site.

Mordechai continues that he skeptically dismissed the dream. A few nights later he has the same dream, which he again ignores. Finally after the dream repeats itself a third time, he decides to go visit Reb Moshe’s grave. To his surprise the grave is soaked, water leaking in, and it is about to collapse – just as Reb Moshe told him in the dream.

Of course, he repairs the gravesite, and then feels that he has earned the right to remain the caretaker of the cemetery

I’m not really sure why I needed to hear this story, and why among all the people standing and praying at the grave of the AriZal, Shababi happens to tell it to me. Perhaps the message for me – and one that I must share with you – is that each of us has been entrusted with a sacred trust, the skills and opportunities we have been blessed with. We must not take them for granted and neglect them. We must make sure that we are not allowing that which we have been entrusted with to collapse.

One of the things that blatantly glares at you in Israel is complacency. Here we have the holiest place on Earth. After thousands of years in exile, we as Jews have been blessed to be able to live in the land. The Land that was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob countless times. The land that Moses so desperately wanted to enter. The land that justified all the pains in Egypt and the 40 subsequent years, all to enter the Promised Land. And today we have this land, given to us in miraculous ways, especially after 1967.

And what are we doing with this gift?

Each of us has been blessed with many gifts, not least of which is the unprecedented freedom that our people have today, as opposed to the last generation and all generations past. Spiritually and religiously we are free to do as we please. This was an absolute fantasy just 12 years ago in the former Soviet Union, 50 years ago in Europe, and an almost unrealistic dream for all our grandparents a mere 100 years ago. Let alone the centuries before that spanning back to the time of the Temple’s destruction.

What are we doing with this gift?

Once this question is asked we don’t need Reb Moshe to come to us in a dream and challenge us whether or not we are fulfilling our roles as caretakers of our sacred trusts.

Perhaps that’s why Mordechai Shababi had his dream and shared it with me. Reb Moshe Alsheich’s message has now reached the masses.

Friday, August 2, Erev Shabbat Re’eh, New York

We are concluding the third week of the seven weeks of consolation (following the three of affliction). We are not satisfied with G-d sending messengers to comfort us over our losses – and the losses we have are many. We demand that G-d Himself comfort and console us.

This is the story of these seven weeks (more on this next week), as explained by the Midrash (Pesikta), cited by the Avudraham.

The reason we have the right to demand more, to demand that G-d appear to us, is because we are doing our part and comforting each other. We earn the right to ask for G-d’s presence and to finally end our tragedies by protecting the gifts given to us.

We have the right and we must cry over our losses. But crying is only half the story. Our tears – and our outrage and disillusionment – can ultimately distract us from what we must do. We must channel our strong feeling into a revolution. Into a total and absolute embrace of a higher vision. This is what our great leaders have always done and have always taught us.

The biggest question each of us must ask today is this:

What am I doing with my gifts?

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60 Day Journey

Each daily posting contains an inspirational thought and a practical exercise for the day -- excerpted from 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays.

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