This evening, as the sun set, I swam. Israel, like New York, is in the midst of a heat wave, and even as the evening breezes rolled in off the Mediterranean, the water was warm and soothing. There were only a few other bathers near me - a family tossing a frisbee, a couple chattering in Russian, a guy with an underwater metal detector working his way patiently back and forth in the shallow water. A man was davening minhah (reciting the afternoon prayer service) in a bathing suit, t-shirt and black kippah alone, next to the now-empty lifeguard station - I must confess that I've never seen THAT before on the beach. I watched Tel Aviv light up, floating in the salty, draining day.
Out of nowhere in a particular, a song popped into my head: Cantor Charles Osborne's "Samahti Be-omrim Li," (here is a performance featuring Cantor Osborne on piano; although not a perfect recording, it gives you an idea of how moving this piece is; song starts at 1:52). The text is Psalm 122:
שָׂמַחְתִּי, בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהוָה נֵלֵךְ
עֹמְדוֹת, הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ, יְרוּשָׁלִָם
Samahti be-omrim li, beit Adonai nelekh
Omedot hayu ragleinu, bish'arayikh Yerushalayim
I rejoiced when they said to me: Let us go up to the House of God.
Now we stand within your gates, O Jerusalem!
The psalm speaks of the peace that enables the author to enter the Temple in Jerusalem; Osborne's setting speaks to me of the ancient yearnings that led late 19th-century pioneers to start building the modern State of Israel in this land, which the Romans re-named Palestine two millennia ago to further dishonor the defeated Jews. Those yearnings are still with us, and yet peace is not.
Tel Aviv is not Jerusalem, but I am beginning to understand that it is almost as holy. "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," says the psalm. And so we do, even on the beach.