Later, on the Airplane…
It is Sunday early morning. I am somewhere in the sky between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles International. The world flies by at some 504 miles per hour (according to the seatback trip update) as we sit cooped up in an El Al plane. I recall an old physics brain teaser: if you were riding in a closed, windowless train box car on a frictionless train track, how would you know when you arrived at your destination? We would break our heads trying to discover the answer. Of course, we never guessed correctly because there is no answer. In that situation, you cannot discern either when you are moving or when you are stopping. Think about it. The air within the boxcar is motionless within its closed system. The frictionless track ensures that you feel no movement from the outside. Its like that old question: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise. We face an uncomfortable reality: if our senses cannot immediately perceive something, than how do we know if it is real?
I suspect I focus on these conundrums because in just a few hours (3 hours 38 minutes, again according to the seatback trip update), we will land again in Los Angeles and quick enough return to the world as we once knew it. Having spent ten glorious days in Israel, we now depart for home. I wonder if my experiences there – the utter joy and elation of being in and part of this holiest of lands – will be sealed off, as in a closed boxcar. If I am no longer in the forest (Jewish National Fund forest, perhaps?), will I still hear and feel the experience? I now wonder how we can really sense what is happening in Israel and continue to live with that holy history in my heart? Said differently, I am asking myself the same question I asked our trip participants just before Havdala on our last Shabbat: what will I do in the weeks to come (beyond reviewing pictures) to keep this Israel experience and my connection to Israel alive and well?
What makes traveling to Israel so special?
For the Jew, traveling to Israel is not like taking a vacation to Greece or to Mexico. Though each can be historically and culturally interesting, and can provide hours or weeks of relaxation and enjoyment, trips to Greece and Mexico do not generally claim the soul of the Jew in the way that Israel does. For the Jew, to travel to Israel is to simultaneously experience history and holiness. In Israel the reconstruction of our people’s ancient past provides signposts pointing toward the individual’s future. Though a tourist in Israel may be enjoying the nightlife or mall-life of Tel Aviv, his mind can never really separate from the city’s historical significance as the first modern Jewish city outside of Jerusalem. Floating in the water of Dead Sea, (its 30% salt content lifting you up), she is regularly returns to the eerie story of Lot’s wife, who looked back to witness the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and was turned into that pillar of salt. Shopping for beautiful art in the northern city of Tzefat, this tourist cannot help but relive the cosmic connection between the visionary creativity of these artists of modern times and the inspired imagination of the sixteenth century Jewish mystics who rewrote Jewish spirituality in these same hilltops. Go down south, try to flee the “meaningfulness” of Jerusalem and the north, and even a jeep ride up Machtesh Ramon yields another example of Israel’s distinctiveness: that this huge machtesh (crater that is not really a crater) is unique that it is the only geological formation of its kind in the world. Go hike a wadi – An Avdat, for instance – and you begin to wonder which of the rocks lining the road might have been the one that Moses struck, and which of the Ibex were descendants of the mountain goats that so captured the inspiration of the Psalmist.
Or travel to the Northwest of the country to the seaside city of Nahariya just below the Lebanese border. You might expect to find lightness or quiet beauty in this beach town, or lahefech (the opposite) a trembling anxiety in the aftermath of the Lebanon 2 (this summer’s yet-to-be-named war). Yet even in Nahariya, the post-war stories are unbelievable. What inspired the (initially derided) decision of the Western Galilee Hospital’s head build an underground hospital complex that just happened to save the lives of thousands this summer? What guided (or misguided) the katusha rocket to fall exactly between this heavily populated apartment building and that Beit Knesset (synagogue) so that it harmed no one? Where did that amazing 14 year old post-Bar Mitzvah boy find the strength to carry on after his aunt was the first to be killed by katusha in Nahariya? The answer might be found in the same inspiration that leads him to work as a shaliach tzibur (musical prayer leader) at the local progressive synagogue Emet Veshalom.
Israel is filled with amazing stories, spiritually moving sites, and poignant historical places. It touches the heart and transforms the soul. Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech HaOlam, Shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, vihigeeanu lazman hazeh. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Guide of the Universe, for giving us life, for keeping us in life, and for bringing us – ME – to (and through) these special moments.
We are almost back home to Los Angeles, and I am already planning the next trip! (Probably an adults-only trip, four to five star experience for 8 days in February 2008 – interested? Email me/Rabbi Paul Kipnes).