As many of you know, I just returned from a trip to Israel a few days ago. Rabbi Sisenwine invited me to share some of my thoughts with you. This trip to Israel was a unique one for me. It was a vacation – not a “study” trip, or a mission trip, or a congregational trip. It was wonderful to travel to Israel with family, to go with Doug, his brother, and his parents who were visiting Israel for the first time. So, when asked to share, my first thought was “How do I reflect upon a vacation to Israel?” But then I realized, “You can’t simply take a vacation to Israel.” Vacation, is supposed to be a complete rest. And while Israel surely provides a sense of spiritual rest (although sometimes spiritual agitation) … I don’t think one can simply travel to Israel and shut off one’s mind. And I don’t believe that one can travel to Israel without doing work (at least when it’s not Shabbat).
These are the reasons why I think visiting Israel is MORE than a vacation. It is indeed, each and every visit, a transformative experience. So, upon thinking about our trip, I do have many reflections. I’ll try to hone in on one experience, which actually relates to a few verses in this week’s Torah portion. So, a word about the Torah portion.
We find ourselves in the middle of the Book of Numbers, in the middle of the Israelites’ 40 year journey through the wilderness. By this time, the Israelites have become professional kvetchers. The community rallies against Moses and Aaron. They are hungry and thirsty and tired. (Numbers 20:1-5) At the beginning of the portion, Moses disobeys God and strikes a rock from which to draw water. By the end of the portion, God assembles the people around a well so that God may give them water. And at this moment, the People of Israel sing a song (21:16-20):
“Spring up, O well [we sing to you],
The well which the chieftains dug,
Which the sages of the people started,
With tools, and with their own staffs,
From Midbar to Mattanah, from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamot…”
My have the Israelites matured! Instead of hitting a rock out of frustration to acquire water against God’s will, they gather on God’s command and they pray for the blessing of water to spring forth from the well. But they acknowledge that while God might have the power to create such a blessing, this blessing is better earned through hard work, patience, commitment, and team work. They acknowledge the work of their ancestors in digging wells throughout their journey in the wilderness.
This is precisely the spiritual value that struck me after returning from my recent trip to Israel.
Israel is not simply an entity that we can wish into being simply because we thirst and hunger for a free homeland of our own. No! Our ancestors picked up the tools and the staffs, worked the land, restored Hebrew as the language of our people, created a democracy of State, and defended Israel’s right to exist as a nation. And our Israeli brothers and sisters continue to innovate and cultivate to ensure that Israel thrives as a modern Jewish nation with much to contribute to the world. In return, Israel nourishes us, satiates our spiritual thirsts, providing us with immeasurable value.
These are the reasons that I think you can’t simply take a vacation to Israel. Because, there’s still too much to do! And more importantly, it’s our obligation to take part in building and sustaining Israel each and every day.
So, I’ll share just one way that I think we contributed to the continued building of the State of Israel on this trip….and surely a few ways that I personally was spiritually nourished by our journey.
On our first day in Israel, I met with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center to follow-up after her visit to TBE in April. She sends her regards and shared that she feels blessed to be in relationship with a congregation that is so forward-thinking, passionate, and vibrant. Anat has proposed several ways that our community can continue to partner with her to create a more pluralistic society in Israel. I will be excited to work with our Israel Connections Team this summer to hone in on several specific areas of action. We look forward to presenting these ideas and partnering with the entire congregation in the fall.
Sitting in Anat’s office was an experience in and of itself. She and her small, but far-reaching team, represent the human and civil values of the entire Reform movement in Israel. They work out of a few rooms on the 2nd floor of our rabbinical school in Jerusalem. In fact, they’re tucked away in the College’s Archeological building. But, Anat and her team are in the middle of, at the heart of, making positive political and social change in Israel. I spent a lot of time studying the artwork on Anat’s walls, for she left the office 3 times during my visit to take a call from the Office of the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s staff was calling to keep Anat up-to-date on several threats to her life and threats to the well-being of The Women of the Wall who were to gather 6 days later for a Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel, the Western Wall. As you’ve learned, Women of the Wall gather monthly at the Wall to affirm their rights and any woman’s right to pray out loud, wear a tallit or t’fillin, or read Torah at the Wall. But the Haredi Ultra-Orthodox Movement has countered to disrupt the women’s prayer services, often with violence and acts of hatred.
So, Anat asked me if I was going to join Women of the Wall for their next service, knowing that I would still be in town. I looked at one piece of artwork on the wall. Actually it was a framed backpack from the Jerusalem Municipal Jail that read “Prisoner’s belongings.” The name scratched on the backpack was “Anat Hoffman.” She caught me looking at the backpack and smiled, explaining that this was her souvenir from her most recent arrest after praying aloud at the Wall and proudly wearing her Women of the Wall tallit. (Actually, it was THIS exact tallit that Anat wore that morning.) And as she reminded me of her heroic act, I told her that I had already planned to join the Women at the Wall in a few days.
I had attended Women of the Wall gatherings before, but little did I realize when I committed to joining this time and invited my mother-in-law to join me for her first experience at the Wall, that this time would be so different.
For the first time in Women of the Wall’s 25 year history, the organization asked all participants to register. Because of the threats that had come in, they didn’t want any Woman of the Wall supporter to arrive at the Wall by themselves. So, they arranged for buses to bring us into the Old City together. Perhaps we all would have enjoyed the solidarity and feeling of traveling together into the Old City… if it wasn’t a POLICE escort that our caravan required for protection. You see, 2 months ago, Women of the Wall won a historic decision. An Israeli court instructed police to protect all who pray at the Wall and STOP detaining women for performing religious rites at the Wall. So, this month, in light of the threats and with the help of the court’s ruling, Women of the Wall were not arrested by police, but rather escorted by police.
Eight of our buses arrived outside the Western Wall gates. Already we could see the barricades the police had set up in order to keep away the screaming protestors. Female police officers lead us past security, into a private entrance near the Temple Mount. While I was busy surveying the scene and saying a little prayer for our safety, the hundreds of women surrounding me began to sing. It was evident that we were not only going to position ourselves in front of the wall for a service, but we were going to clearly, loudly, and proudly sing our way there as well! With words of God’s praise, we drowned out screams, hisses, and protests. I refocused on our task at hand, celebrating the new month on this beautiful morning.
When we reached the Kotel plaza we were met by another surprise, police had cordoned off half of the women’s section for our use by setting up more barricades. You might say, how nice, Women of the Wall were finally given their own section of the Wall to pray in peace! But in reality, this was not a win. The barricades were set up with female police officers guarding it every 2 feet to separate us from the rest of those gathered at the Wall that morning. The barricades kept the female protestors from inflicting harm upon us. 3oo of us crammed into this barricaded space. Unfortunately it felt like a cage. But, our leaders refocused our energy as we began our service with the singing of the morning psalms. We prayed our way through the entire service and at times I could even hear groups of men from across the plaza singing the same psalms. I thanked God that we could join our voices with others who peacefully prayed in their own way, too. But of course, our voices were matched by hisses and shouts during each part of the service, especially when a young bride stood on a chair surrounded and protected by all of us as she loudly chanted the week’s Torah portion from a chumash, not a scroll but a book. (We were not allowed to bring the scroll that morning.) We again drowned out the protestors with shouts of Siman Tov u’Mazel tov! The leaders of Women of the Wall concluded our service with prayers for peace and equality and Anat drew things to a close with the singing of Hatikvah. “As long as the heart within a Jewish soul still yearns…and towards the East an eye gazes toward Zion. Our hope is not yet lost, the hope of 2,000 years, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Looking back at just this one experience in Israel, I realize that hope alone cannot make a difference. Just like our Torah portion teaches us, the People of Israel could not simply hope for water or stand at the feet of a well and sing, they had to pick up shovels, they had to endure difficult feelings, they had to sweat and they had to work.
So, too, is my prayer for us. That when we thirst and hunger for connection with Israel, we don’t just sit and gaze towards Zion. There’s much more work and building to do. I hope that you will take part in this sacred and fruitful work with us. I invite your conversation and your thoughts, as I know our Israel Connection Team does as well. We invite you to share the link to this blog post and dialogue with others. And as a result of our efforts and our work, may we see, as a community and as a united People, the well-spring, that is the land of Israel, nourish and sustain us for years to come.
Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.