Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Are we living in the past?

Israel is such a diverse little country that you can choose between a wide range of touring options. You could snorkel in the Red Sea, enjoy Tel Aviv's nightlife and still get your picture taken at the Western Wall. Or, you might jeep through the Negev, hike Masada and float on the Dead Sea. If you're a history buff, you'll love the museums and marvel at the multi-layered archeology buried in Israel's sands.

We chose the religious sites trip, visiting Israel's four holy cities. First stop was Jerusalem's Old City and the Western Wall, or Kotel. Bemused tourists looked on as every shade of Jew came to find solace, connection or inspiration at this ancient Wall.

I've always had a bittersweet relationship with the Kotel. I stand there in awe of our holiest site, the portal to G-d. But, I stand frustrated at being on the outside. That stone wall is an unmoving barrier, a constant in-your-face reminder that we are children locked out of our father's house. Those bright, cracked stones recall what was, but is no longer. How can you possibly be happy standing there?

Next on our holy cities circuit was Chevron, city of the Patriarchs and original seat of David's throne. On the way down, our guide spoke Yinglish as he pointed out the ancient Judean hills that now sprout modern Jewish settlements. We soon arrived at Rachel's tomb (now a veritable fortress to protect visitors from the less-than-friendly neighbouring Arabs), where we stopped to daven. We then proceeded to Chevron. Standing at the burial sites of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs while uttering the words "G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" in the Amidah was moving.

A few days later, we traveled north and visited the holy gravesites in the remaining holy cities of Tiberias and Tzfat. Our holy-site tally included the graves of Rabbi Akivah and his pious wife Rachel, Maimonides, sages of the Talmud and Kabbalists of Tzfat, along with prophets and biblical characters. I have photos of lots of graves.

Early on in our whirlwind grave-hopper tour I started to get that Kotel  feeling again. Each burial plot commemorated someone who used to walk on Israel's holy soil; someone who once-upon-a-time inspired our nation. It was easy to start thinking that all the good stuff lies buried in history.

My awakening came at the Arizal's grave. Rabbi Isaac Luria was the 16th Century Kabbalist who brought Jewish mysticism to the people. I had spent this past year researching his life and teachings, so standing at his resting place was more than just "another" grave. He was alive for me; I could sense his presence. In his proximity, my eyes opened. I wanted to go back and start again- to re-experience all the other graves, not as markers of who our nation's heroes used to be, but as places where you can connect with them today.

The righteous never die, even as they leave our world. Once you enter their domain, your soul enmeshes in theirs. You could make the tourist mistake, snap a photo, say a Psalm and move to the next "point of interest" on your rental car's GPS. But, when you stand quietly and think of whose space you've entered, everything changes. You are no longer visiting a spiritual museum, you've entered a dynamic soul-hub. Your prayers take wing here; your heart is unlocked. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel or Maimonides and Rabbi Meir Ba'al Hanes don't linger in the past, they remain linked to us, they look out for us, they inspire us still today.

Israel is not the Land of the Past, it is alive in the present.

As the sun peeked over the Kotel  the next morning, I wound my Tefillin around my arm. I no longer felt stonewalled by G-d, standing on the outside reminiscing about what was. Our prayers reverberated in my mind with G-d's eternal promise of renewal, of a restored Jerusalem- the promise of Moshiach. The Kotel  represents the glory we used to enjoy. It also represents the promise of greater glory to come. Jerusalem is the city of the future.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Rainbow nation

A cool breeze soothed us into Shabbos spirit as we walked towards the Jaffa Gate into the Old City. Mamilla mall was quiet, the GAP and Ralph Lauren stores closed. All you could hear was the echoing footsteps of dozens streaming through towards the Western Wall.

We entered through the Jaffa Gate and joined the faithful throngs who walked through the Arab shuk. "Shabbat shalom!", the non-observant security guards manning the security checkpoint before the Wall warmly announced as we arrived. We passed through the metal detectors and stopped. Dozens of steps would lead us to the plaze, but the scene below was riveting. The Kotel was alive. It pulsated with the rhythm of thousands as they swayed, prayed and danced. The mens sectioned thronged in black, peppered with green IDF uniforms and flecks of white, gold and casual-wear. The women's section was a celebration of colour.

I had forgotten how spectacular the Kotel is on a Friday night.

Mesmerised, we made our way into the crowd. Inside the human sea, you could distinguish its varied currents. Just ahead, to the left was a huge contingent of Chassidim, their peyos swinging as they davened in ecstasy. To our right, a Shlomo Carlebach minyan, singing every word of the ancient prayers. Immediately to their left modern Orthodox Jews chanted a traditional Lecha Dodi. Behind my left shoulder a man in white, his eyes tightly shut, led the services word for word, loudly and clearly. Directly behind us was a group from Judea, knitted kippot on their heads and determination in their eyes. Even further back American students on the Birthright tour marveled at their first taste of the Kotel's Shabbos magic. On the right two dozen paratroopers danced in a circle, M16's bouncing on their backs; privates with arms on their commanding officer's shoulders.

It was a dizzying array of diversity. So many Jews; so many differences. Each group sang its own tunes and used its own siddur. You could tell their affiliation from the nuances of their garb and head-coverings. A thought flashed through my mind: "We're all in the same place, celebrating the same Shabbos. Why do we all have to do it differently?"

A soldier whirled by, joy splashed across his duty-weary face as the Chassidim next door proclaimed the Shema and a father lifted his son onto his shoulders. Yes, each group was distinct, but there was a comfortable peace within that diversity.

We all faced the same direction as uttered the same fundamental declarations of a shared faith, while celebrating the same Shabbos. Every group reverberated with energy, yet respected the goings on of others around it. Friday night at the Kotel is a reminder that we can live a different brand of Torah Judaism from the next community, yet we can still stand together.

In Judaism, unity does not require uniformity.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A blessing on your head

It had been almost ten years since my last visit to Israel. Naomi and I were supremely excited to travel there for ten days at the end of last month (I'll admit that holidaying sans kids added to the anticipation).

In the near-decade since last time, nothing has changed and much has changed. Kissing the mezuzah on the way in to the airport made us feel right at home. Ben Gurion International has experienced Extreme Makeover since I last saw it- it's big, modern (with the traditional Jerusalem stone touch) and efficient (our suitcases made it out before us). New highways crisscross the country (all in excellent condition) alongside high-speed trains that run between the burgeoning major cities.

We were based in Jerusalem (where else?), which is a slick, modern city superimposed over ancient cultures and historic structures that beckon from in between the high-rises, all set against the backdrop of Eternity. Even the smaller towns (like Tsfat) have had a facelift. You feel growth and development everywhere.

But, nothing's changed.

Israelis still drive recklessly, have poor manners, walk right into you on the street and chain-smoke. Security remains a concern, yet the populace lives. Despite disproportionate global condemnation, Ahmadinejad's nuclear jihad, Syria's agitation and Hizbolla and Hamas' ongoing belligerence (not to mention the volatility of Israeli Arabs), Israelis laugh and go about their business. Six-year-olds walk their baby siblings to school (even in such hotbeds as Hebron) and take late-night buses.

Back in Joburg, people lock themselves up at night. 9PM is the unofficial curfew for many and fear of crime s more paralysing than violent crime itself. We could learn something from the Israelis.

There's something else we could learn from them.

You cannot be a Jewish tourist in Israel. As soon as you arrive there, you are considered family. You'll be jostled on the street like anyone else; they'll offer unsolicited advice on your clothes and shopping choices (like the woman at the Machane Yehudah market who told Naomi which pomegranates she should put back and which she should keep). Israelis will yell at you (as our taxi driver did when it took more than 30 seconds to load our luggage) or call you- a perfect stranger- motek/ sweety. Or they'll flit back and forth between both attitudes in one conversation (like our taxi driver). They treat you like family with no holds barred.

(We passed an altercation on Ben Yehudah Street on Friday, a street vendor was screaming at two heavily armed policemen. A friend noted that every second person in Israel carries a weapon, yet they bawl each other out in the streets. Normal people would never confront someone who is armed, but Israelis are family and know that a screaming match goes no further than that.)

What touched us most about Israelis- and this is a great lesson for us all- is how they dish out blessings. We entered shops and they returned our "Shalom" with "uvracha". Before Shabbos they wished us and they added a timely "Chag Sameach" for Tu Bishvat (an almost non-event outside Israel). On the way out of shops, restaurants, taxis and our hotel, we were wished success, a safe trip and a string of other brochos. All from strangers- or rather family we'd never met before.

According to the Talmud even a simpleton's blessing is potent. Proffering sincere blessings rather than the pleasantries that Westerners habitually exchange creates a positive environment and a healthy attitude towards the next person. It also brings blessing because G-d treats us as we treat others.

Give someone a blessing today.