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Shmot: Jerusalem Diary I

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2004 Edition

Thursday, Jan. 15, 9:43PM Jerusalem time –

Sitting in an Internet Cafe in the Old City writing thoughts that flow faster than my fingers can move. This place stimulates every sense, so much to say, yet so important to be silent, so much to absorb, yet so important to share. One cannot really communicate when in the absorption mode, but I shall try nonetheless. Maybe the best communication is the one that comes without calculating…

The good news and the bad news from Israel is the same: nothing has changed. People going about their quotidian lives, as people everywhere are doing, yet here every step you take is cast in the long shadows of history. A lingering sense of inevitable destiny thickens the air. You can feel the combustion, but the only way to survive is to sit in cafés, Internet or other, run your daily life, take care of your family and your health, and entertain/distract yourself in every which way.

As one Israeli friend tells me (only after I push him to the wall): “Thank G-d for the burden of our jobs, our need to bring in an income, even for the common cold. It takes your mind off of the ‘real’ things.”

Everywhere you turn festers with tensions of Biblical proportions, not just proportions but actual Biblical tensions. There are no leaders. No one with vision, no direction, nothing to look forward to. We’re “buying time.”

Buying time?! G-d, is this what life is all about? Getting by with a comfortable status quo, avoiding the real challenges, until our time comes and we leave the mess to the next generation? And what does the next generation do? It follows the lead of its predecessor, and pushes off the challenge to their children, and grandchildren?

Yet, I am not pessimistic for some strange reason. Because in some mysterious way, these problems are all man-made. The land has survived thousands of years of every form of abuse – whether it be ravaging wars or raging apathy. The Wall still stands, the waters still flow, the rain still falls. All this, while the people, well, the people still argue.

*****

Let me work my way backwards to Wednesday, January 14, upon my arrival to Israel.

Pick up my rented Avis from Lod airport, and drive to Jerusalem. I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by this country. I open the radio to take in the sounds and languages of the people in this land, while studying the terrain as I climb the Judean Hills surrounding Jerusalem. The contrast immediately jumps out at you: the man-made noise blaring from the radio, in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian (and others I don’t recognize) drowns out the sounds of history resonating from these mountains and valleys.

Torrential blessings fall from heaven. My window wipers effectively mop away the rainy blessings. In the Bible and the Talmud these rains were considered the greatest of blessings – the source of all sustenance. This is true today too. Yet, in some way we now have built window wipers and umbrellas, dams and gutters, to protect us from these blessings.

The rain falls in Jerusalem as well, but in a very different way. The clouds cover the city delivering their watery package, and a moment later the winds blow away the clouds and the blue sky appears. What makes it unique is that this pattern repeats itself again and again in quick form – billowing clouds pour rain below, only to be immediately followed by the reappearing sun, as if a hand is forcing the doors of heaven open, only to be closed again, and then the hand returns to open the doors yet again. It was just a year ago when I was here in the snow. Same experience, but then it was snow. Today it’s rain.

Israel is clearly where Heaven meets Earth – and all its consequences are quite apparent. Both matter and spirit tug at you in the Holy Land. The heavens open up, only to be closed a moment later by clouds.

Wednesday, January 14, 2PM. Much to do, but I must visit the Western Wall.

The Wall also seems not to have changed. Yes, there is construction going on now at the Wall to add approximately 30 feet to the plaza where people pray. But the Wall seems oblivious to the construction. It must have seen much more than this over the years.

I share this with someone I meet at the Wall. He tells me, that it’s just a wall of stones. “Don’t be so romantic about it. Poetry is great, but don’t ever take it too seriously,” he shares with me with a smile radiating with self-confident wisdom. OK. Whatever you say. “But why are you here praying at this wall of inanimate stones?” I ask him. He looks confused.

Yet another paradox. So what else is new in the Promised Land?

Thursday, January 15

Drive up the 91 north to pick up my daughter from her seminary in mystical Tsfat. As we approach Jericho, I keep glancing over to my right, to see the actual place where legions of Jews crossed over the River Jordan 3277 years ago. The arid air around the Dead Sea dries out my skin. This is the lowest place on Earth (below sea level), just a few miles from the highest spiritual place in Jerusalem. Is there a message here?

Greatness always invites both the highest and the lowest. Powerful energy can go both ways: It can lift us to the peaks, but also can drop us into the pits. The Holy of Holies is where the Divine is revealed, it must therefore remain protected lest we get burned by its intensity.

We drive from the arid Judean desert to the plush Galilee, from the deepest valley up high peaks. Cannot help but be amazed that in a span of a few hours you literally travel from one extreme to the next.

Tsfat is covered in deep fog, which finally gives way to a beautiful red hue covering the horizon with the setting sun. The curvy roads leading up to Tsfat are somewhat of our human surrender to the contours of the terrain. Nature and human beings don’t quite get along yet.

As we finally reach the city I look down below. It was just 3316 years ago, when the Jews left Egypt, and 3277 years when they crossed the River Jordan into the West Bank of the Promised Land.

As we live with the Torah portion relating how the Jewish people descend from Israel into Egypt, I have ascended from New York to Israel. I guess that we have always been traveling – one way or another – from the pits to the Promised Land or back. We pass each other like ships in the night, but this is the story of our lives.

What can I say, Israel evokes in me the most powerful reactions.

I don’t live here so it’s hard to say what happens to you once you get accustomed to daily life in a place like this. I have the luxury of a visitor. And I know that some may criticize me and say, “Why don’t you move here instead of waxing eloquent as yet another tourist?” Perhaps they are right. Perhaps.

But perhaps my job – the job of all of us living outside the window between heaven and earth – is to expose this window in the cities in which we live. After all, Jerusalem needs us as much as we need it.

They say that New York is the city that never sleeps. I guess that means the nightclubs, and… Citibank. They must have never been to Jerusalem.

Warmest regards from Yerusholayim – the city of complete awe.

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