September 30, 2009

Sublime and Sacred: Yom Kippur in Israel

Where else, other than Israel, does a country take a day off for introspection? And where on this planet does an entire nation stop what they are doing to contemplate their deeds? Which other country asks forgiveness for their wrongdoings, and prepares to make amends?

In this fast-paced world, life has become a complex mesh of bits and bytes. Jumbo TV screens flash megapixels at us 24/7, concrete super highways whip us along, and our PCs twitter away through cyberspace to IPs and ASPs.

Life has become a flash. We drive while we SMS, we walk with cell phones plastered to our ears and we grab a fast food while watching the latest gossip on the most popular talk shows.

So when the whole of Israel takes time out and a day off, it is serious stuff. Imagine. For 25 hours, the country goes on a ‘cleansing.’ Israel literally cuts out all of the junk: broadcast TV is shut down; radio is suspended; buses do not run; airports are closed; schools and universities lock their gates; businesses shut down; and no cars travel the roads.

As soon as we light candles on Yom Kippur eve, a profound silence envelops the hills and muffles the cities. Tranquility. From Metulla to Eilat and from Herzliya to Eli. Quiescence.

As the last cars on the road pull over and park, people leave their homes and walk to synagogue. Old people sidle with walkers and babies are pushed in strollers. We are dressed in white, men with white pants and shirts, and women, their white head scarves long white skirts flow with their steps. This evening marks the start of a fast that will last 25 hours. Everyone over the age of 13 (girls start at12) will refrain from eating, drinking and bathing. These rules help us to focus our thoughts inward and to connect with G-d. It is said that during this time, we are so removed from the everyday world, we are akin to angels.

In Israel, not everyone is religious. But a surprising 71% of Israeli Jews reported that they plan to fast this year. Most of them will go to synagogue. For soldiers who remain on active duty, they will pray at services led by 180 soldier/Torah scholars from the Hesder Yeshivot. Soldiers on bases must be on high alert as one can never forget what happened here on Yom Kippur in 1973.

The Hesder soldiers will also ensure that there are prayers on secular kibbutzim – something that is quite new. And for those Jews who are unfamiliar with the Yom Kippur service, the organization Tzohar holds 170 gatherings across the country where they hand out easy to follow machzorim and inspiring words.

And yet, there are many Jews who cannot connect. For them, Yom Kippur is Yom Ofanaim, ‘the day of bicycles.’ While we prepare for the fast and work on our Cheshbon Hanefesh, those new resolutions that we hope will strengthen us and elevate us in the new year, these people line up at the bike shops, pump up their tires, replenish their water bottles and look at the clock. As soon as we are in shul, they take to the streets and the highways. They ring their bells and fly down the hills with reckless abandon. Most do not wear helmets. And indeed, the ambulances are kept busy looking after their injuries and collisions. This year, some 162 accidents with roller blades, scooters and bikes were reported, including 2 adults who suffered serious injuries – and who were not wearing helmets.

After Kol Nidre, the shuls empty out and people walk right down the centre of the street. Since there is no rush to go home and eat, people mill about. Old men bring out their chairs and sit outside the shul. People congregate in the kikars, the busy traffic circles that now are traffic free. Toddlers run around freely.

When we left shul, there were so many people in the street, it was hard for bikes to navigate. We saw one, then two, then three bikes. My children started counting. We stopped at 67. Yet, I was sure that there were less bikes this year than last year. When I first saw this phenomenon four years ago, I was angry and put out. Now I simply feel sorry for these cyclists.

I saw one little girl learning to ride a bike, her father puffing alongside her. I wondered, ‘When she is grown up, will she remember that she learned to ride her bike on Yom Kippur?’

I passed one kid who was riding one of those battery-powered cars right through the crowd. Bicycles are bad enough, but at least they are not automated. For me, this was sheer chutzpah – something Israelis are known for. I know that if I were secular, I would not parade with a bicycle through a crowd of shul goers, sipping my water bottle in front of those who are fasting, and yelling profanities in front of those who are trying to elevate themselves. I would lay low.

But all in all, people were respectful of each other. Those bikes seemed to weave seamlessly through the crowds of those walking, everyone vying for a spot on the road. Despite the long fast ahead of us, there was a festive air on the streets of Israel. Everyone was out. Each individual was a part of this phenomenon, no matter how they observed it. This gives Israel its inner strength.

The next morning, the streets were quiet - resplendently tranquil. The sun shone with its usual vigor, bright swathes of sunshine coating the hibiscus and bougainvillea. I could hear birds, a quivering of palm fronds…and nothing else.

Everyone was wearing white. And in the intensity of the sun, they all looked brighter and fresher. Most Israelis prayed. They prayed for forgiveness, they prayed for health, and they prayed for peace - not only for Israel, but for peace in the whole world. Some Israelis biked, yet they too enjoyed tranquility and a freedom from the regular toil of life. We were all touched, changed somehow.

During Neilah, the time in the service when the gates of heaven are closing, there was a special intensity in our shul and in synagogues across the country. People were beseeching from the bottoms of their hearts. At this moment, I felt as if I were floating. Yes, I had been fasting and was weak, but I felt an inner strength and I felt pure.

After the fast, as Israelis get back in their cars, start their engines and turn on their cell phones, I know they will have taken something from this day. When those electronic gateways are hushed and the airwaves are lulled, we become much closer to our inner core, to our essence and to our Creator.

May we all merit a year of meaning, spiritual fulfillment, health and peace.

September 4, 2009

Under The Weather in Zefat

Yet another ‘moment’ in Israel. I am sick and I need a prescription.

I am not in my familiar home town in Israel, the place where I have a friendly English speaking doctor. She is a former Australian who works out of her house, and who has a large waiting room painted in a calm lilac color, complete with soft classical music and magazines.

Nor am I near my home town’s large, modern Macabi building; a health services place where one swipes a magnetic card in a computer and out a spits a piece of paper with a number on it. This number is then electronically called, giving one access to medical services. There, everyone sits patiently and waits their turn.

I am not in Kansas. I am in Safed, the wild west of Israel. I find the local Macabi offices tucked in behind an old grey building. There is an information desk at the front. People mill around in a herd. There is no line and they have no numbers. They grab a chair in front of the secretary, sit down, wave their arms, scream, chat, gossip and then leave. I do not know what they are saying half of the time. I just know that I am in pain and I need help.

I wait until there is an opening in the crowd and show my Macabi card to the secretary, asking for an appointment. She is Russian. She is either generally a nasty person or is in a foul mood today.

“An appointment? Here? No. You have to call the Macabi number on your card. We don’t give out appointments.”

She throws my card back at me and looks at me in disgust, dismissing me from her sight. I look at her in amazement. I am stunned, speechless, and wonder how many other nicer ways she could have said this to me. If I had the vocabulary to tell her this, I would have, but I am in no condition to think about such things and just stand there, my mouth open in amazement at her absolute lack of manners. She then says to me, if you really need a doctor, go and wait outside door number 8. There is a doctor working there today.

One doctor working? I walk over to this door and see a sheet with several dozen patients’ names listed. I realize that I am to force myself in between patients. The problem is that there are many people already waiting and the doctor is behind schedule. When I arrive, those waiting are already agitated. They are all talking about The List, pointing out their names on the paper and looking at everyone's assigned times.

They look at me darkly. “What appointment time do you have?” they ask, pointing to The List accusingly.

I am about to confess that I have no appointment and am a castaway, a good for nothing, when the woman beside me (whom I have just been met and has already told me much of her life story, with special graphic details abut her health) jumps up to protect me.

“She just needs one minute with the doctor. Please let her squeeze in between patients.”

A burly man, bald head shining and red temples bulging, jumps out of his seat ready to fight. “That’s what they all say. And who do you think you are?”

At that very moment, the door opens and a patient walks out. My new best friend grabs me and forces me inside. The burly man and his wife burst past us and sit down. It is like a nasty case of musical chairs or a kindergarten prank where a kid grabs someone’s toy and shouts, “Na, na, na, na, na.”

The doctor looks at me and at them. She tells me to leave and shuts the door. This happens again and again. At one point, I am positioned by the doorway and am about to enter, when a couple with an old women shuffle right past me and go inside. I wonder in amazement how they could time such an entry into the building and then straight into the office without an appointment and without an explanation to anyone. It is almost as if one has to walk around here like a king.

I have now been here for two hours. I consider going home and dealing with my pain alone. Instead, I sit and philosophize about this, about my personality, and my inability to compete with these people. I realize that I do not want to be a fighter as it just agitates me inside. I do not want to walk around like a king because it is not respectful. I conclude that in my Zen way, I will work on my patience and try to instill calm inside instead of intense anger.

The door opens one more time and I find myself facing the doctor. I tell her that I just need a prescription. I want to come across as if I do not require any effort on her behalf other than a few words on a piece of paper.

This is the wrong approach. She tells me that if I think her job is so easy, I should try to sit in her chair. She gets up and points to her chair as if the threat is real. I almost expect her to walk out of her office and leave me to take care of the patients. She is Russian and she does not mince her words.

She finally asks me about my health. I know what is wrong with me but she does not trust that I know. She scribbles something on a piece of paper and tells me to see the nurse.

The nurses' station looks like a bridge club. People are chatting, joking, coming and going. Someone is being weighed. Someone is having their blood pressure taken - all in full view of everyone. Here, everyone’s health is everyone else’s business. The nurse tells me to grab a plastic cup beside the water cooler and to pee in it. I return with a full cup and wrap it with paper towels to protect my privacy. I wait outside, terrified that my cup will spilleth over.

I walk in and sit down. The nurse confirms what I knew all along, except that my infection is acute. She tries to enter my information into a computer but is having a heated discussion with my new best friend. Every time she tries to press a key, she stops to argue. My ‘friend’ says that illness stems from negative thoughts. The nurse says that this is nonsense. One counters that we if we did not dwell on sickness, we could be healthy. The other says absolutely not. This goes on and on. Zefat is a perfect town to hear such a discussion.

After a while, people gather around and a man asks if anyone wants coffee and cake. Somewhere in the crowd, an Englishman is theorizing about politics. I hear the words Condoleezza Rice, Putin and Siberian labor camp. Perhaps I am in a bridge club.

I am finally given a piece of paper with results from the contents of my plastic cup. Yet again, I find myself face to face with the doctor’s office door. It is shut tight. I wait and I wait. Children race up and down the corridor. Locals drop in for a chat. Everyone knows everyone. I work on my relaxation skills. I have been here for three hours.

I continue to wait for the door to open, and as soon as I spy a crack, I race in, waving the paper to the other patients; this note is my legitimacy, my passport for entry.

I am finally asked to come inside and the doctor hands me a prescription. It takes her one minute to write it. As for me, I have been given an afternoon to think about life, to do a self analysis, make a new friend and experience yet another side of Tzfat; and, yes, the pharmacy is still open - for another ten minutes. Now it is time to rush.

September 3, 2009

Lag B’Omer in Meron

What causes 250,000 Jews from all over Israel (and the world) to congregate on the same day in one small moshav outside one ancient cave? What is it that inspires many of them to camp nearby in tents, to stay up all night singing, dancing and learning and to pour out their hearts reciting tehillim (psalms)? Where does this joy come from; this unparalleled exuberance; this unflappable, contagious energy?

This special place is Meron and this propitious time is Lag B’Omer. In Hebrew, lamed gimmel is the number 33 and as an acronym, these letters spell out the word ‘lag.’ This day marks the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. (Day One was the night after the Pesach Seder and the counting culminates on Day 49, the night before Shavuot.)

The 33rd day signifies the end of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva who died from a mysterious plague. In the Gemora, in the tractate of Yevamos 62b, it says that 24,000 of the finest Torah scholars died during this time from a croup-like illness. We are told that they died because they did not have respect for one another and did not treat each other with dignity.

After the tragic death of his students, Rabbi Akiva began to teach again, and one of his foremost students was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Shimon bar Yochai died on the 18th of Iyar, which is Lag BaOmer.

Known as the Rashbi, this mysterious Torah scholar hid from the Romans in a cave for 12 years. He spent these years in hiding with his son, learning and writing the Zohar HaKadosh, a mystical book which is the basis of Kabbalah. On his dying day, he revealed many deep secrets to his students.

Centuries later, this time was also a period of terrible tragedy for Jews in Germany and France. As a result, we treat these 33 days as a period of mourning: we do not listen to live and recorded music; we refrain from getting haircuts; men do not shave; and we do not celebrate weddings.

It was the Arizal who started mass pilgrimages to this burial cave on the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the Rashbi’s death. Over the years, many people who come here on this day have had their prayers answered.

This procession died out over the years but was reinstated by Rav Shmuel Abu in the 1820s. He helped fund the renovations of Shimon bar Yochai’s grave and, as a token of appreciation, he was given a Torah. A lively parade to the Rashbi’s grave began with this very Torah and continues to this day, except the Torah is now driven to Meron. Nonetheless, there is a lot of excitement, live music and dancing as the Torah leaves the Abu home in Safed on the afternoon of Lag B’Omer.

The main street of Zefat closes down and police guard the way while people line the road in anticipation of kissing and dancing with the Torah. As the Torah passes by, women wrap colorful scarves around the scroll, yodel in their distinct Sephardi style and clap their hands. Men hand out sweets and plastic cups of liquor along the way. The procession moves slowly, often stopping for a song and a dance. Every man in town has a chance to dance with the Torah until finally the Torah is placed in a car and chauffeured to Meron.

This past Lag B’Omer, we said our farewell to the Torah and decided that we would follow the steps of the Arizal and walk to Meron. It was already late in the afternoon. We threw our backpacks on our shoulders and walked down to the old cemetery and below to Nahal Amud. We know the trails of the Nachal Amud but had never walked all the way to Meron.

Last year, we took the bus to Meron on Lag B’Omer and after getting stuck in an enormous traffic jam for hours, we decided that it was better to rely on our own two feet this time around.

The late afternoon sun glistened through the trees. We imagined how many great scholars and mystics had taken this same well-worn trail from Safed to Meron over the centuries. Today, trail blazes clearly mark the way. We actually had no idea how long the hike would take, so we decided to pick up the pace – just in case! We had one small flashlight between three of us, cell phones and a determination to make it before the sun set.

We ran into another group who were following the same trail – a family from Gush Etzion. We walked together for a while, following a winding river that glistened between the fig trees.

I suddenly ran into a group of people lying across the trail, looking up into the trees with wonder. They seemed spellbound with life in the forest – or perhaps it was thanks to some other magical substance. One girl handed something to me and told me to hold it up to the trees. I took it and looked through. It was a kaleidoscope. I saw the sun shimmering through the leaves in what looked like a multitude of colored geometric shapes. Yes, it was beautiful, but it was also getting late. I warned the group about the time but they were in no state to feel worry. They were happy to stay put and gaze in surrender at the lush nature around them. The festivities in Meron go all night long, so they felt they had time, even if it meant groping through a dark forest where wild boar prowl.

We picked up the pace and ended up on the famous Shvil Israel, the Israel Trail, hugging the bank of the river. We started to hear music and knew that Meron could not be too far away. As we walked on, the sun started to dip in the sky. The music strengthened and so did our determination. The path ended in a valley, opening up into a clearing. By the time we crossed over the highway, the music was pulsating and the sun had set.

We passed by tents set up amongst the trees and blazing camp fires. We walked past families with babies, young yeshiva students, older couples – all camping nearby so as to get a taste of the energy of Meron.

We walked on through the forest and finally came to the town. It was already thronging with people, loudspeakers screamed out words of Torah, people were handing out food and drinks for free in order to perform a mitzvah, and music was blaring. I was shocked by it all. Having just spent hours in a quiet forest, I felt like I had emerged from the dark into the blazing sun. It was all a little too much for us.

People come here from all over Israel and around the world. We had met someone in Tzfat this afternoon who had just got off a plane from New York and was pulling around a suitcase on wheels. We ran into others who had just flown in from the States, jumped into a rental car and then driven up to Meron.

Buses are chartered from Bnai Brak and Jerusalem. Buses upon buses arrive all night long, depositing people along the road. Young religious mothers get out of the buses, strollers in one arm, baby crooked under the other and a toddler hanging onto the back. How they handle small children in this crowd is beyond my abilities. I see old men with wild white beards, soldiers still in uniform, backpackers with torn jeans and flip flops, giggling high school girls tossing back their long black braids, yeshiva students in crisp white shirts and pressed black pants, secular Israelis with dreadlocks. I detect English, American and Australian accents. I hear French, Spanish, German and Dutch. I see Temani families, Ashkenazi families and Ethiopian Jews.

People were pressing along a fence, all peering in expectation. There were bleechers set up and yeshiva boys were literally hanging off the back, scrambling up the poles, all trying to get a look. The crowd was screaming and the loudspeakers blaring “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.” A woman beside me was fervently reading Tehillim, her cheeks streaked with tears.

Suddenly, the many choruses became one loud cry. The men stood up, swaying and clapping, a sea of black hats and black coats. I was too far away to see a thing, but I knew what was happening: the torch was being carried to light the main bonfire. And with this one huge blaze, the festivities officially began.

Everyone started pushing away from this area. I did not know where they were going and am not sure they knew themselves. Many people headed for the kever, the place where the Rashbi is buried, but I am not sure how many get close to it on a night like this.

I was swept up by the crowd and thrown into its crazy ebb and flow. People pushed and I tried to keep my footing, fearful this would turn into a stampede. I prayed that this surge would pass and soon enough, the crowd parted, depositing me on some street corner below a huge picture of the Breslov Rebbe.

I heard “Rabbi Nachman, Nachman m’Uman” being sung to a reggae beat. A group of men danced in frenzied circles, black coat tails flying, dreadlocks bopping, long curled peyes hopping and knit kippot flapping. They flew in circles, arms locked around each others shoulders, all joyful, all celebrating being together.

It is these micro moments that I connect with the most; times when religious and non religious Jews joins arms, their souls uniting as Am Israel Chai. These moments show that we can overcome the mistakes of Rabbi Akiva’s scholars by respecting each other despite our differences. When united we are so strong.