Friday, March 11, 2011

Vayiqra 5771 - Israel: the Mundane Made Miraculous

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, 3/12/2011.)

When I was 17, during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I spent two months in Israel on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (HSI) program. To this day, HSI takes high school students all over Israel while they learn Jewish history from Genesis to the present.

That summer, I was transformed - I knew immediately upon returning that I was no longer an ordinary American Jewish teenager from a small town in rural Massachusetts. I had been “turned on” to Israel and all that she offers.

I had hiked through wadis (dry river beds) in the desert, climbed Masada, learned to identify a Herodian stone at 10 paces, marveled at the ancient sites of Jerusalem and crawled the beaches of Tel Aviv, walked the Bahai gardens of Haifa and got lost in the alleyways of Tzfat.

(In retrospect, they gave us a stunning amount of freedom - we were given almost every weekend free to travel about the country in pairs or in groups. Somehow we always came back to our campus in Hod Hasharon, perhaps despite our youth and naivete and raging hormones. In retrospect, I wonder if my parents knew that we had such freedom? I don’t think I spoke with them by phone for the whole 8 weeks that I was in Israel, something which seems almost impossible today.)

But the coursework was demanding - names, dates, places, concepts, peoples, movements, and so forth. It was a college-level course for which credit was offered, and as such there were classes and exams and study sessions and grades. And it was wonderful. I’ll never forget our first tiyyul, to the archaeological excavations at the undeveloped Solomonic city, Tel Gezer, where for thousands of years the upright stone monoliths have stood guard over their idolatrous High Place.

And I’ll never forget my first trip to the Kotel, where the tears welled up instantly, from nowhere, as I reached out to touch the warm, ancient stone.

And I’ll never forget the ½ hour bus ride to downtown Tel Aviv, where pavement-based urban pleasures could be found in abundance for American kids with a few spare shekels.

I learned to judge the quality of falafel, the aroma of spices that complemented the mashed chick peas and the freshness of the salad offerings. I learned to haggle in the shuk. I learned to identify the best Israeli chocolate. I even learned a smattering of spoken Hebrew, despite being around Americans all the time.

And I fell in love with those ancient rocks, the holy city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the place where our ancestors came to offer up their finest of their flocks in service to God.

And I swooned to the spiritual hum of the cemetery in Tzfat where the 16th-century Spanish kabbalists are buried.

And I looked out from the top of what was then the tallest building in the Middle East, the Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv, to see the extent of the greatest Jewish city on Earth.

There are two things that my 8-week academic experience did NOT do for me, two things which our Youth House trip did in fact accomplish in its 10 short days. I’ll come back to that.

There is an astronomical difference between two months in Israel and 10 days. Our group of 39 teens was challenged to pack in a whole lot more in 10 days than is really possible. We covered an impressive range of the things that I’d seen on my first visit in 1987. We woke up early every morning and had long days - so long that the staff was exhausted.

But even though these kids had given up the luxury of sleeping late for a week of winter vacation back home, or in some cases sleeping late on Caribbean vacations with the family, there were rarely complaints about being awoken at 6 AM (or occasionally 5) or being pushed with programming until 10 PM. On the contrary, they learned quickly that every hour was precious, that every time they got onto the bus there was another marvel to behold.

There were for me two particularly holy moments during the course of this trip. One occurred on the southern steps of the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple Mount complex, in the Ophel Archaeological Park that contains some of the most impressive excavations. On that morning, we got out of our hotel early, saw other parts of the park, and davened late; it was already 9 AM when we were wrapping our tefillin on the steps, facing the southern wall and the now-blocked entrance where our ancestors actually ascended to enter the Temple complex while it was still functioning, 2000 years ago. (The steps have been largely reconstructed, but in places you can actually see and walk on the originals.)

We paused right before we sang Psalm 150, the last Psalm of Pesuqei Dezimra (the introductory morning psalms), the last one in the book of Tehillim, the one that identifies all the instruments that were used in service to God when the Temple was functioning. I asked everybody to picture themselves in the shoes of our ancestors, climbing these steps for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the very same sacrifices described in Parashat Vayiqra that we read about today, while the Levitical choir chanted and played the very instruments identified in the Psalm.

הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּתֵקַע שׁוֹפָר; הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּנֵבֶל וְכִנּוֹר.
Halleluhu beteqa shofar, halleluhu benevel vekhinor
Praise God with the blast of the shofar; praise God with the harp and the lute. (Psalm 150:3)

And perhaps for a moment we felt it, because there is nowhere else on earth that you can feel the presence of our history, the lingering buzz of God’s presence, even though the Temple itself has been gone for two millennia, and the Shekhinah, the lowest sefirah of God’s mystical emanations, has long since departed the precincts of the Temple Mount.

That was the first holy moment.

The other one came six long days later and in a place that was effectively two thousand years away. On our second Shabbat afternoon, in the coastal city of Ashkelon, where we were graciously hosted by Israeli families who identify with the Masorti movement (that’s what the rest of the world calls Conservative Judaism), and after lunch we took a short walk to the beach.

We relaxed, we dipped into the Mediterranean waves, we played games, and we watched as our guide Amos collected fragments of ancient Ashkelon that were casually sitting on the beach, and he told us what they were and from which period: a Byzantine plate, a Roman sewer pipe, miscellaneous jug handles, and so forth. It was the moment that brought together ancient and modern, in the context of an actual contemporary community of Jews like us that live in a real Israeli city that is somewhat off the beaten path. It was the nexus of the Israelite past and the Israeli present; the culmination of a week and a half of history in its modern guise. (As an added bonus, some of us even got a tan.)

On the beach, my mind flickered back over the length of the trip, and I recalled the moment on the southern steps of the Beit HaMiqdash. And I remembered the words of the poem called Tourists, by Yehuda Amichai, which we had read together as we wrapped up our tefillin. It’s short, and I’ll recite the whole thing for you right now:

Visits of condolence are all we get from them.
They squat at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Western Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.
"You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head."
"But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
"You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."

That is what Israel does like no other place - it brings together the ancient and modern, and makes the mundane miraculous.

There are two things that we did in Israel two weeks ago that I did not do when I was there 24 years ago:

We prayed as a group, honestly and transformatively. And we lived with actual Israelis, if only for a Shabbat. Those are the things that made this trip a success.

Join us after qiddush and hear from the students themselves what they experienced, because this was their trip, not mine.

Shabbat shalom.

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