Friday, March 7, 2014

Ten Days, Two Countries, 34 Teenagers: A Physical and Spiritual Journey with the Youth House to Prague and Israel

Two and a half weeks ago, on a Tuesday evening in the Negev desert, I was encamped with 34 teenagers from our Youth House and seven other staff members at Khan HaShayarot, a Bedouin tent complex. (Well, OK, so it’s not really a Bedouin tent - it’s for tourist groups. But it’s staffed by actual Israeli Bedouin Arabs, and it really does consist of a bunch of large tents in the desert adjacent to a camel pen.) We had already eaten dinner and were preparing for a campfire with guitar and singing and s’mores, which, as we all know, are a traditional Bedouin campfire snack.

The time had come for us to recite ma’ariv, the evening service, and we created for the group a decidedly non-traditional tefillah experience. We lined them up as quietly as possible by the entrance to the camp, and then walked them one at a time out of the camp to a slight hill overlooking the camp. Each person was placed far enough from anyone else, to allow them to find their own quiet inner-space, distant enough from their friends so as to be able to hear the special silence one only hears in the desert.  There was some light from the camp below us, and the moon offered us a shadowy sense of the hills around.

Silently, we took in the desert scenery, and I reminded everybody that we are a people that came from the desert, and that prophecy - the Torah, the words of the Prophets - has always been channeled to us in the desert. We then faced north, towards Jerusalem, and recited the words of the Shema and the silent Amidah. After yet more silent reflection, we returned, one at a time, to the camp and the campfire.

Danny Mishkin, director of the Youth House, asked our teens at this point, before the s’mores, to write down a few words about the importance of being on a journey and how that related both to our trip to Prague and Israel and to being Jewish in general. We sat quietly, and everybody spent a few minutes writing in their bound siddurim, which we prepared specially for the trip, incorporating open space for journaling along the way.  

The thoughts expressed were striking. One of the participants wrote the following:

“Tonight was THE most memorable experience thus far. I have never felt as connected to God. Standing in the desert at night with the stars, praying as one group, singing Oseh Shalom made me tear up.”

Another connected the experience to the departure from Egypt:

“As I was walking to the top of the hill, I couldn’t help but think of the Jews leaving Egypt. We have always been a moving people… never fully at home until we received Eretz Yisrael.”

A third related the struggle for the modern State of Israel to the long Jewish journey of the soul:

“It is obvious that in Jewish history, things did not always come easy, such as the land of Israel itself. Endless days of travel breeded an unexpected but needed bond between Jews with the same end goal. By experiencing the same emotions of joy, sorrow, and by just achieving a general sense of what our people collectively had to go through just for the sake of a religion makes this bond unbreakable.”

You might make the case that the essential message of the Torah is that being Jewish is about the journey. Think about it: Noah is sent on a journey by boat that will guarantee a future for humanity (and Noah’s ark does not actually GO anywhere - it has no steering mechanism). Abraham is called upon to leave his father’s house and his homeland to go on a journey to an unknown place, which will some day be called Israel (after his grandson Jacob). Joseph is sent on an unwilling journey to Egypt, and then the rest of his family follows him. Moses is tasked with leading the Israelites on the ultimate journey of redemption: up out of slavery, and back to the land of Israel. And on and on.

It is the journey that defines us as Jews.  In this day and age, when we are free to choose our identities, free to opt into or out of our tradition, it is the experiences, the memories, that will inform who we want to be, whether being Jewish matters and how we want our Jewishness to manifest itself in everyday life.  

Our parashah today, Parashat Vayiqra, is also about an ancient aspect of the Jewish journey. As our bar mitzvah, Yoel, pointed out, it is about a series of essential sacrifices. But all the more so, as Yoel also argued, the sacrificial system that is laid out in the Torah and that was practiced by Israelites for nearly 1,000 years in the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem, was only a point along the way to developing a much better system of accessing the Divine: tefillah, prayer. And he is in good company here. Maimonides, the 12th-century physician and commentator, one of the biggest names on the Jewish bookshelf, said the following about sacrifices in his philosophical work, Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide to the Perplexed:

“Sacrificial service is not the primary object, but rather supplications, prayers, and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object.”

In other words, the Torah describes the sacrifices in detail. But that form of worship was not God’s ultimate plan for us. Maimonides, writing more than a millennium after the destruction of the Second Temple, believed that prayer was the higher goal. Sacrifice, after all, was limited; it only took place in the Temple, and was performed by an intermediary: the kohen, the priest, who took your sheep or ram and offered it up to God. “But,” Maimonides states, “prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person.”

So why did God give us all of these mitzvot if the higher goal was prayer? Because, said Maimonides, the Israelites needed to be weaned from the idolatrous ways of the Egyptians and the Canaanites in a way that did not challenge what they were familiar with too severely. God’s plan was that eventually we would offer the words of our hearts rather than the bounty of our flocks.

What we do today as Jews when we gather in synagogues, or when we offer berakhot before and after meals, or when we communicate with God alone, is the superior form of worship. The spiritual journey from sacrifice to prayer amounts to a democratization of our connection with God.

Vayiqra, ladies and gentlemen, is one leg of our spiritual journey. And we as a people, and as individuals, are on a constant journey. Every single one of us here.

Some of us might be aware of this - there are active seekers among us, looking for that next spiritual high, searching for meaning within and without. You know who you are.

Most of us, however, are probably not aware of our journeys. Our lives are complex - we are thinking about many things - the job, the family, the kids, the next vacation, or how am I going to make the next rent check, or how am I going to help my cousin who is battling drug addiction, or how on Earth am I going to broach the topic of end of life choices with my parents? We have too many things to worry about. Who has time to be concerned with our spiritual needs?

But we all have them. Jews and non-Jews. And, I think, Jews more than most, because, at least in the Diaspora, we have always been on the outside. We ask ourselves, what does it mean to be Jewish? How can I be both Jewish and American? Why should I care, and if I don’t care, what then is my relationship to this ancient tradition, handed to me by my parents and grandparents?

As Jews, we have always been on a journey, both physical and spiritual. The physical one was often forced upon us, and for our ancestors who suffered oppression and anti-Semitism wherever they went, it was this struggle that kept them Jewish. Today, in 21st century America, where our greatest enemy is indifference, we need to send ourselves on journeys to accomplish that task.

So where are we going? To quote the Hasidic Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav, “Kol mah she-ani nose’a, ani nose’a raq le-eretz Yisrael.” Everywhere I go, I am going to Eretz Yisrael. Not physically, but with every step, we are moving closer to Israel in spirit.

All the more so regarding the trip that we took with 34 Great Neck teens. The mind of the average high school student is in a bunch of different places at any given moment - they are thinking far more about all of the uncertainty and awkwardness of being a teenager: How will I fit in with this crowd or that? How can I convince my parents that I am more mature than they give me credit for? How do I balance school work with time for myself?

And our job was to cut through all of that classic teen stuff and help them along their spiritual journey. Because that is what visiting Israel is all about.

What made this trip work was not just Israel. It was not the combination of Israel and the Czech Republic, although that was really cool. It was not the tefillah, or the Kotel, or the desert, or the Bedouin tent, or the guide.

More than any of those things, it was the journey itself. It was voyaging together from here to there as we reflected on our experiences, as we sang and danced and welcomed the Shabbat on a Jerusalem rooftop. It was how we marveled at the tenacity and the tenuousness of the residents of the Terezin ghetto, who created a secret synagogue in a barn, as we sang in that synagogue Hannah Senesh’s famous poem Eli, Eli to remember them and their striving to connect with their faith under such conditions.

What made the trip successful was the internal journey, the spiritual traveling that took us not from New York to Prague to Tel Aviv via Amsterdam, but from the Diaspora of the mind to the Promised Land of the heart, from the cool distance of the teenage identity struggle to the close connection with our ancient religious and national heritage.

We did that. And the greater we, the we of this community, should be proud of that. You gave these kids a series of memories that they will carry with them for the balance of their lives, that will always serve to reconnect them to Jewish life. So kol hakavod!

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, March 8, 2014.)