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.