Two matters challenged me during my visit to Israel: family and God’s presence.
Carolyn and I spent Passover week at Masada by the Dead Sea. There, the last Jewish rebels against Rome held out until 73 CE. We joined my cousin Maxine, who lives in Karmiel east of Haifa, her children and their families, other relatives and friends.
Family is crucial to Israelis. They spend much time together. American families often seem fragmented, psychologically and geographically, separated by many hundreds or thousands of miles. Because Israel is small, families can “scatter” there yet remain close.
I wondered if Israelis’ family focus produced insularity and conformity. But my Israeli family’s views and practices cover a broad spectrum. Outside ultra-Orthodoxy—a minority—Israelis freely disagree and argue while accepting each other. Family is family. Carolyn and I share that value. Still, we have one son in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (grad school) and another in Tennessee, soon moving to Los Angeles. Our youngest, fortunately, lives in San Francisco. Being American comes with a price.
As to God’s presence, I regularly attend Friday-night services and Shabbat Torah Study at my Reform synagogue. At Masada, the services I attended were “traditional” and way different. I was totally lost as the men (no women) raced through the prayers. Did they find spiritual fulfilment when I didn’t? My friend Larry Raphael offered perspective: In the same circumstance, he let the rapid flow of prayers create a space for meditation. There are multiple ways to pray.
Then there was my visit to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. I had a brief conversation with God. Yes, we talk. Yet I experience God as much, if not more, at home. To be honest, I was put off by men in the plaza on cell phones and empty water bottles littering its stones. I wondered: Do visitors to the Kotel become too familiar with God?
Last week’s Torah portion (Shemini) offers the story of Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, both priests. They bring “alien”—not prescribed—fire offerings to the Tent of Meeting, which preceded the First Temple. Their zeal may have been genuine, but God kills them! Later in Deuteronomy, Moses warns the Israelites they should neither take away nor add to the commandments. In Judaism, boundaries are crucial. As at Mount Sinai during the giving of the Ten Commandments, we must keep our distance.
A contemporary commentator suggests that the many laws regarding ritual purity were written to keep Jews awayfrom the Temple. The priests might be overworked. And familiarity with the holy place might erode our sense of awe.
Not everyone feels this way. Hours before we visited the Davidson Museum of Archaeology near the Kotel, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox activists sacrificed two Passover lambs. They want to establish the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, an explosive proposition. I doubt that most Jews want to revert to sacrificing animals. Moreover, would this represent getting too close to the Holy One?
I love Israel, even in challenging times. And they’re always challenging. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Jews belonged somewhere, not everywhere. Yet the God they worship is the God of everywhere, not just somewhere.” Israel plays a central role in Jewish life. Still, I live in San Francisco. Rabbi Sacks lives in London.
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