The Spiritual and Profane Mishmosh That Is Israel

Sorry for the lack of posts this summer!  Have recently returned from our congregational trip to Israel.  Below are some reflections on the trip.  Will respond to comments shortly.

At the end of Shabbat, we make Havdalah and thank G-d for separating the holiness of Shabbat from the ordinary days of the week.  In doing so, we acknowledge that G-d created both the sacred and profane, the extraordinary and the mundane, the things that make us go “wow” and the things that pass us by.

We are blessed to be able to experience both the holy and profane aspects of life.  We can’t dwell simply in a holy realm or in a profane realm.  G-d created both for a reason.  We need balance.  We can’t immerse ourselves solely in holiness.  It would be overwhelming and we would, in time, fail to appreciate it.  At the same time, a life devoid of holiness is empty.  A true appreciation of the incredible world in which we live requires that we experience both the holy and ordinary aspects of life.  Somewhere in the middle, we discover true meaning.

I have been to Israel many times.  On this trip, however, I truly appreciated the incredible power of the land because I was given numerous opportunities by our wonderful guide, Peter Abelow of Keshet, to immerse myself in both holy and profane aspects of the Jewish homeland.

So many people go to Israel and expect to be awestruck by the spiritual power of the place.  Certainly, I and many others have had incredible holy moments in Israel.  But, if all you expect from Israel is awesome moments of Divine inspiration you might find yourself disappointed and/or you will miss simple, mundane moments that will allow you to be radically amazed by the power of the Holy Land.

When we visited Mt. Herzl, Israel’s “Arlington National Cemetary”, Peter reminded me of the teaching of the late Israeli President, Chaim Weitzman z”l, who said to those committed to creating the Jewish State in 1948 that Israel will not be handed to the Jewish people on a silver platter.  His message still applies today.  If you want to understand Israel, it is not going to be easy.  It is not simply about the spirituality and the “feel good” stuff.  It is the stuff that you won’t find on the silver platter – the ordinary, mundane, even challenging and perhaps unappealing stuff in combination with the holy aspects of the land that truly define Israel.

I don’t want you to think that our trip this year was lacking awesome spiritual moments.  We certainly had them!

Experiencing the Kotel (Western Wall) with our fellow travelers – most of whom had never been to Israel – and seeing the tears and feeling their emotions and listening to them talk about fulfilling their dreams and the dreams of their parents and grandparents who never made it to the Kotel – was one of the most sacred moments of my life.  It stood in stark contrast to our very profane visits to a chocolate factory and a winery in the Golan Heights.  It was completely different from our time spent on an urban kibbutz in the middle of Jerusalem where poverty abounds and families of 9 are housed in 400 square foot apartments. But, together, our holy experience at the Kotel and these moments where we came face to face with the mudane, profane and challenging aspects of Israel capture the power of the country.

Another awe-inspiring moment involved planting kiwi trees on the Lebanese border.  To be able to actually plant a tree in Israel (instead of paying an organization to do it!), to appreciate the beauty and the power of nature on a magnificent kibbutz – this was the epitome of a spiritual moment.  As we planted the trees, the kibbutznik who was leading us that day, instructed us to look up the hill on the other side of the border with Lebanon and wave to the Hezbollah terrorists who were closely watching our every move.  Talk about profane!  Again – holy and profane combining to define the power of Israel.

One of the highlights of our trip was the Monday morning B’nai Mitzvah of three of our Ramat Shalom teens at the Kotel.   There is no way to capture the power of this moment.  I urge you to talk to the parents who were blessed with the experience of standing next to their child as they read Torah at the holiest spot in Judaism.  Just moments after we all took part in this incredible ceremony, we found ourselves preparing food in a soup kitchen in Jerusalem, helping to feed the countless hungry souls in Judaism’s holiest city.  How many bar/bat mitzvah parents go from a Torah service straight to a soup kitchen?  Holy and profane again capturing the power of Israel.

Our trip began up north, in the mystical city of Tzefat.  We stood in the Ari Synagogue, the spot where Kabbalat Shabbat and the song L’cha Dodi were created!  No one on our trip will ever be able to welcome Shabbat without thinking of our time at the Ari Synagogue.  Soon after, we were back at our hotel watching our kids play an ordinary game of football, laughing and having fun.  Holy and profane.

While I have been to Israel many times, I had never visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv – the place where the Jewish State was declared by David Ben Gurion in 1948.  I was overcome with emotion as I stood in the spot where it all began more that 60 years ago and learned that even the tough, stoic Golda Meir cried in that very room when Israel was born.  As I exited Independence Hall, filled with powerful feelings, I walked right into one of the tent protests that are spreading throughout Israel – a political movement that is demanding lower housing costs, a reduction in taxes and a better standard of living for middle-class Israelis.  I quickly went from being moved by the historical moments of 1948 to very much aware of the mundane, political reality that is the modern State of Israel.  The latter was not moving and “spiritual” but it is proof that what was born in 1948 is still very much alive: a modern Jewish nation with every day problems and challenges like any other nation.

Our time in Tel Aviv, a regular, secular city in the Holy Land in which we could shop and dine and swim much like we would on South Beach, drove home that a true understanding of Israel requires visiting the extremes – the holy cities, like Jerusalem and Tzefat, and the profane city of Tel Aviv.  Somewhere between the holy and profane – in the blending of these regions, lies the power of Israel.

On our trip into the Negev, we visited Kibbutz Revivim.  Surrounded by empty desert, this kibbutz has beautiful groves of olive and fruit trees.  The desert at Kibbutz Revivim is green.  Amazing!       A miracle!  We learned that the reason for this miracle is that years ago, the kibbutzniks discovered brackish water (water that is slightly salty and filled with minerals; not sweet, drinking water) deep below the surface of the kibbutz.  A system was created to irrigate the olive and fruit trees with the brackish water and the trees grew and continue to thrive to this day.  Interestingly, the olives are of a higher quality and the fruit is sweeter than those that grow on trees watered by sweet water.  The miracle of Kibbutz Revivim is not just that the desert is green – it is that it takes both the holy (the trees, the power of nature, the miracle of growth) and the profane (brackish, unappealing, slightly salty water) to create the green desert.  This is the power of Israel.

This blending of holy and profane was perfectly captured by one wonderful man we were lucky enough to meet during our trip.  His name was JoJo and he is from a simple development town in the Negev.  We visited him and his family, Libyan Jews, who live in a very ordinary (probably below ordinary according to American “standards”), small apartment complex.  JoJo and his family had us over for a traditional Libyan lunch.  Within a tiny living space, they found room for all of us (25 people) to sit comfortably at tables and feed us like we were kings and queens.  Their simple, ordinary home was filled with so much hospitality, warmth, love, incredible food and compassion (one of our members was ill and JoJo escorted him into one of the bedrooms and put him into bed during our lunch – insisting that he rest and recover!) that it was transformed into an amazing sacred space.

As he greeted us, JoJo said “Welcome to Israel”.  His words were so powerful.  We had been in the country for more than a week.  But as we sat in his family’s apartment, we were experiencing the true power of the country.  “Welcome to Israel” – the incredible blend of ordinary and extraordinary.

Our time with JoJo drove home that Israel is not just the luxurious hotels that most tourists stay in.  Israel is not just the complexities of politics that most Americans see on television.  Israel is not just religion and spirituality that most associate with the Jewish nation.  Israel is not just urban areas and stores that tourists flock to.  Israel is not just religious people.  Israel is not just archeology or kibbutzim or hummus and pita.  Israel is a wonderful mishmash of holy and profane, incredible and ordinary.  One minute, we were all crying at the Kotel and the next minute we were all peeling eggplant in a soup kitchen.  This is Israel!  How lucky those of us who traveled to Israel this year were to experience it together.  We hope you will join us next year!

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