Sunday, July 22, 2012
The sun sets over the hills of northwestern Jerusalem, as seen from Kever Shmuel HaNavi - the tomb of Samuel the Prophet.
“When the Lord restored our exiles to Zion, it was like a dream.” - Psalm 126
Now that we’re back from our two-week dreamlike sojourn in the Promised Land, people have been asking us, “Was Israel what you expected?”
Yes and no.
I, for one was not sure what to expect. But my answer, invariably, is that Israel defies expectations. It was everything I expected, yet nothing like what I expected. And it was more, far more, than I expected.
It is a land of contradictions. It is thoroughly modern, yet it is the ancient seat of the three great Abrahamic religions. There are stones that serve as evidence of cities that were built over seven thousand (!) years ago, yet as recently as 1900, the land where Tel Aviv now stands was a desiccated wilderness of sand dunes.
It is home to both a vibrant secular society and to people who hew to Judaism as it was practiced in Eastern Europe three hundred fifty years ago.
It is green and fertile... yet it has huge expanses of stark desert that shimmer in the summer heat.
We felt safer in Israel than we do at home. It has been said that America is a country with secure (albeit somewhat porous) borders, but with not a whole lot of domestic security. Israel, conversely, has borders that are constantly under threat... but you can wander about Tel Aviv or Jerusalem - both big cities - at any hour, without fear.
Israel is tiny, about the size of New Jersey. We were able to cover a lot of ground in the two weeks of our trip, starting in Tel Aviv and ending in Jerusalem, with stops in Haifa and Tiberias. We visited the extreme northwestern and northeastern corners of the country, as well as traveling the Jordan River from its sources in the north, through the Sea of Galilee, to its terminus in the Dead Sea. (Alas, no time to visit the Negev Desert or the hot-weather resort of Eilat at the country’s southern tip.) Yet despite its minuscule size, it is an economic and technological powerhouse. Much of the chips and software that power the Internet and social media originated in Israel - something to remember the next time some douchebag on Facebook calls for a boycott of Israeli products.
All my life, I’ve heard how Israel has made the desert bloom - David Ben-Gurion’s famous directive. Now I have seen it... and it is real.
I expected to be moved, to be touched emotionally by the experience of being in this country that is simultaneously both so old and so new. I did not, however, expect tears to spring to my eyes unbidden at random moments. When we sat at Shabbat dinner in Tel Aviv watching the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea. When we said farewell to Shabbat in a Havdalah service at the beach. When I saw the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi - the Western Wall - for the first time, my prayer book falling open to a hymn I used to sing to my grandfather as a child. And when, standing at the Wall, I chanted the Eil Malei Rachamim prayer for SWMBO’s sister, the sister I never knew.
Whatever my expectations were, they were blown away.