September 22, 2015

Simply Being

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.”  Devarim (Deuteronomy) 32:1

Erev Yom Kippur. It is now late morning as I sit in my garden to reflect. There is a waft of sweet guava. A bird sings. A gate creaks.

The roads are sleepy quiet as this day is a holiday in Israel. No school and no work for most. People take this day to prepare for the fast, cooking the festive meal before the fast begins, calling friends, spending time with family and visiting relatives’ graves.

It was 5:45 a.m. this morning when Amir, Talya and I stepped into the car. The sky was still dark and the air fresh as we drove to the beach. It was a gentle morning, the waves soft and quiet.

We ran the length of the beach, hugging the shore where the sand is packed. No earphones today; my feet stepped to the waves slipping rhythmically to the shore.

We then took out our machzorim to do tashlich, a prayer to ask for forgiveness. We looked out to the horizon, where sea meets sky and Talya said a personal prayer to G-d aloud:

I love you. I love your world. I love your creations. I love it all, the good and the bad, the laughter and the tears. The sea and the sky, the birds and the trees. When I sit in the cool, clear, fresh water I remember a promise you made thousands of years ago. You put the sky and the sea as witnesses to that promise. The sun never fails to rise every single day to light up the world once more even after we're sure it abandoned us for good. The waters that crash on the shore are always pulled back into the place from which they came. They may not resurface in the same shape or size, but they will always be part of the sea. 

We brought some bread to throw into the sea and I felt a little sheepish doing this on such a public beach, imagining some environmentalist lecturing me on the havoc wreaked in the marine system because of these breadcrumbs. Instead, a woman came up to us and asked what we were doing, standing in the waves with our prayer books.

Tashlich,” we replied.

“I want to do this too. Can I join you?”

We gave her some bread and this woman soon realized her Hebrew was superior. She took over the reading for us.

We threw our breadcrumbs to sea, as if we were discarding our sins, casting them into the water, watching them swirl, sink.

Besorot tovot,” she wished us. Only good things.

As we cast our bread, I looked out and saw a large delegation of swimmers coming towards us. They soon emerged at our feet. Turns out it was the local Ra’anana triathlon club. This morning they ran to the beach, swam and were about to run back.

They gathered on the shore and I saw a man with a kippa, one of the triathletes, reading from a prayer book. They all listened intently, threw a piece of bread into the sea, embraced, then started to run the 10 kilometers home.

Here were two occasions of what one could label secular Jews reaching out to Hashem and touching their souls.

According to Dov Lipman, who recently wrote in the Times of Israel, “The era of “secular” Israeli Jews is over and recognizing this will help us take the crucial first step towards the fulfilment of what should be our ultimate goal: an Israel in which levels of religious observance and piety are between each person and God, and in which we don’t have a compulsion to identify what type of Jew we are but can simply be “Jews.”

Living in Israel, I see examples of this every day. We are a soulful people and we want to connect and be connected, just like the sea and the sky, the heavens and the earth. We strive to make the two meet.

After tashlich, we swam out and floated on our backs. Our arms were limp, our legs buoyant. The sun was just peeking over the cliffs, bathing our faces in light.

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.” Moshe’s song that we will read in synagogue this Shabbat addresses the eternal heaven and earth.

We may be small floating specks, but in moments when we let go, allowing the waves to take the lead, giving in, breathing deeply, melting into nature’s rhythm, we become connected and an intrinsic part of the harmony of creation.

Wishes for a G'mar chatima tova and a meaningful fast.

September 9, 2015

Dispirited Dust

Jerusalem, Sep 8, 2015
Soupy, moldy, thick, brooding, dark, moist, dank. This is our weather and the forecast calls for more of the same. I walk outside and feel as if I am entering a wet sauna. I try to breathe deeply, but there is little oxygen to enter my lungs.

Is that the sun or the moon? Is it morning or evening?
The world is silent, still. I look up and can barely make out an orb in the sky. Is this the sun? Or the moon? Is it evening or morning? Time has stopped. The wind has abandoned us, the air all but seeped away.

This thick, damp mush takes me back to a distant memory: an old, creaky attic filled with dusty, moldy furniture, cobwebs, darkness. Or is it a basement with old, wet carpets, dust balls, moist cardboard. Where am I?

Poetic fallacy was a term coined by John Ruskin in the 19th century. In this literary convention, nature mirrors human events. We have read of dancing flowers, moping owls, angry winds and happy larks in poetry.

How about today's morose moon, dispirited dust and lugubrious layers? The Middle East is being smothered by a sandstorm so large, it can be clearly seen on satellites from space.
NASA photo of the sandstorm.

With origins in Syria and Iraq, the massive dust cloud sits 600 metres high, coating Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt’s Sinai, Cyprus and Israel with sand particles, forcing the thermometer to soar to 100 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity levels reaching 85 percent.

The Middle East is shrouded in a foreboding smog and the countries affected all simmer in this thick, unbearable soup together. As we try to catch a breath, the world powers sit from afar and judge us. Their vision is as clouded as the air, our future endangered like the dust particles we are forced to breathe.

If this sandstorm plays in the practice of poetic fallacy, just wait for the next blood moon. That will be on September 28, the last of the four tetrad lunar eclipses. The skies looked similar in 1492, 1948 and in 1967, years that changed the Jewish world forever.

We are now entering a new year and the signs outside are rather brooding.  At least we have front row seats over here in Israel.

A sweet and good year are necessary ingredients in our stagnating soup, so let’s pour them in.
The Tower of David, Jerusalem.

September 2, 2015

A Bumpy Landing

The airplane’s landing was bumpier than I thought. In more than one way. I was returning to Toronto for the first time since my mom’s passing. Living in a far away country had somehow made my loss less real.

When I got up from the shiva in Canada last November and flew back to Israel with a broken heart, a part of my mind filed my mom’s absence to a folder called ‘long-distance relationships.’ In this file, I imagined she would be there as always when I visited Toronto.

She would be counting down the days until our arrival as she always did. She would be so excited to see her growing grandchildren, to give them tearful hugs and just stare at them with love and pride. She would be there for me too as she always was. Patient, soft, gentle, glowing with love. Boundless love that only a mother can provide.

And when the plane’s wheels bumped onto the runway, the tears trickled, then flowed over my cheeks. This landing was my reality check. We, her family who left her to live in Israel, were here. And she was gone.

We took our luggage and drove to my father’s home, no longer my parents’ home. The last time I had been here, it was early winter. My mom was seriously ill and was in palliative care. We were doing 24-hour shifts to make sure she was comfortable and felt loved until it was the end. And so I left. And so I return.

My father hugs us all at the front door.  He marvels over how tall the children are now. I peer over his shoulder and there is no one. Her chair is empty. No novel or reading glasses on the coffee table. No slippers by the front door. She is truly gone.

The following day we all go to the cemetery for her unveiling.  Her grave is covered with a cloth. My father, my brother and I approach the stone, and with trepidation we tug at the covering. It gives way, revealing the stark letters of her name engraved in stone. It is real. Too real. The letters are too deep. These etchings I cannot erase. She is gone from us.

This past year of grieving, I tried to connect with her and invited her to share in my life in Israel. I healed through my hikes, to the silence of foot treading upon the earth, of the infinite feel of rock.

And so she ‘accompanied’ me on my hikes. And on each hike, I picked up a rock or two with the intention that I would bring them to her grave.

And now the day of returning the rocks is here. Each person at the unveiling picks out a rock and I read:

When we visit a Jewish graveside, we place a rock on the grave and not flowers. Why is this? No one really knows the origin of this ancient custom. One theory is that flowers eventually die, but stones do not. Instead they symbolize permanence of memory and legacy.

A second thought regards the Hebrew word for pebble. Tz’ror.  This also means bond in Hebrew. In El Ma’ale rachamim, the prayer we recite at a funeral and today at the grave side, we ask that the deceased be bound up in the bond of life – tz’ror hahayyim. So we place the stones to show we have been there and that the memory of our loved one continues to live on through us.

The rocks that I am passing around are no run of the mill rocks. They have a story and a history.

Since my mom’s passing, I felt a deep loss and emptiness. The only thing that truly gave me comfort and filled me with spirit was hiking. It was my way to be alone in nature and with my thoughts, in the open and the quiet that, for me, signified my mom’s essence.

Hiking became my way to heal. This past winter and spring, I hiked the deep canyons and dry riverbeds of the Eilat mountains, where we crunched over soft red sandstone, and past black, red and green mountains.

Although my mom had passed, I felt she was with me and as I put on my hiking boots I would say “Come on Mommy. Today we’re hiking. I know you think I’m a bit crazy, but you’ll love it.”

Eyes to the ground I would pick up a rock or two on every hike. I found basalt, quartz, granite, flat slate stones, marine sediment rocks and limestone. Some of these stones are millions of  years old.

We also hiked in central Israel, past spring poppies and cyclamens, along where winter rains fill the rocky river beds.

My son Shaya often ran 10 km to the beach, picked up a shell or sea glass for his Grandma and ran home, depositing a prized seashell in front of me. We had my mom in our minds on all our outings and have now brought our tzrorim and konchiot, our treasured pebbles and shells, back to my mom’s resting place.

My mom loved nature. She loved Israel. She loved her family. And we loved her. This is our small way of connecting.

 The day of returning the rocks came. And passed. I am back in Israel and am still in my 12 months of mourning, a time that forgives, allowing the loss to be real and giving us space to  heal. I do not go to weddings or parties. I stay home where I feel I should be.

Tonight my husband is at a wedding. There is singing and dancing and much joy. For me, I still feel introspective. So I sit with my tears, my words, my healing, my very long-distance relationship. And I miss my mom.