Taking Turns Holding Hope: Shlach 5783

Fifty truths


1. This place is where the Jewish story began. 

2. There are so many essays I want to write, but every sentence needs a page of footnotes.

3. Every time the kaleidoscope of my heart turns, the pieces of this place make a new pattern: breathtaking and intricate, complicated and real. 

4. My place in the chain of generations: twenty-five years ago I visited the Western Wall with my mother (may her memory be a blessing), and now I have done so with my son. 

5. In Tzfat, many doors are painted blue to offer mystical protection. Also walls, ceilings, headstones. Blue evokes tchelet, the heavens and the sea, the vision of sapphire floor beneath God's throne.

6. There are so many broken shards here, and so many hidden sparks to uplift. 

7. I do not believe that God has a physical address. God's presence goes with us everywhere, in our wholeness and in our exile. 

8. We've been directing our hearts and our prayers toward or through this place for thousands of years. That leaves a spiritual imprint both on the place and on us.

9. Those two truths might seem contradictory, but they're not. 

10. I had forgotten how powerful it can be to glimpse parts of our sacred story in the archeological record. To walk where our spiritual ancestors walked. To feel we are a part of their story.



11. To me this place is a miracle, a refracting lens for emotion and for spirit, a heartbreak. 

12. Jerusalem is the only city where I've ever lived on my own, rather than with my parents (now gone) or my spouse (now no longer my spouse) or my child.

13. The Romans slaughtered us for not bowing to Rome. The Crusaders slaughtered us for not converting. Hitler slaughtered us not because of our beliefs, but because he saw us as subhuman.

14. I love this place independent of that history, but the history is also always present. 

15. The stories in Tanakh (the Hebrew scriptures) land differently when one can see the topography of spring and desert, valley and hill.

16. Even the names used for places, neighborhoods, and structures here convey identity and politics. Settlement or neighborhood? Security fence or separation wall? 

17. To really describe this place of promise, maybe I would need God's voice: conveying all possible meanings and nuances at once.

18.  At the Great Mosque in Ramle one might sit on the floor, press palms to the lush carpet, and ask God for peace and wholeness for this place and its peoples. Of course, one might do that anywhere.

19. Everyone is on top of each other here. Different communities might be only a stone's throw apart. I've known that for years, but when I'm away I forget just how true it is.

20. In her poem "Jerusalem," the poet Naomi Shihab Nye travels from "I'm not interested in who suffered the most" to "it's late but everything comes next."



21. In the Pool of the Arches, an 8th century underground cistern, shafts of light pour down from skylights onto still waters plied by small rowboats.

22. The moniker the White City has nothing to do with the color of the buildings, though I still think it could. 

23. Foods to which many nations lay claim, a non-exhaustive list: falafel, hummus, that chopped salad of cucumbers and tomatoes. 

24. It's hard to stop wondering which different choices could have led the peoples of this place to a just and lasting peace. 

25. The name Tel Aviv simultaneously evokes both past (a tel is a manmade hill, created through thousands of years of human habitation) and future (aviv means spring). 

26. I thrill at the sight of bougainvillea and oleander, fig trees and date palms, pomegranate trees and grape vines, even the purple thistles that bring a spot of color to the desert scrub.

27. How good are your flavors of ice cream, O Jacob; your mint-lemonade with arak, O Israel!

28. Doris Haifawi, a Christian Arab Palestinian Israeli woman who claims all of those adjectives and who welcomes visitors into her home, wears the kind of fancy slip-on sandals my mother used to love.

29. During the First Rebellion against Rome, Yifat was reduced to rubble. Nearby Tzippori surrendered, which is how Judah ha-Nasi survived to write down the Mishna that became the heart of Talmud.

30. I never liked the story of the rebels at Masada who chose suicide over defeat, but now I realize they were at the end of a failed rebellion: they knew what had become of their fellow Jews. 



31. The black birds with orange streaks on their wings are a kind of grackle, and they like pretzels.

32. Every day that I am here in this place, I thank God that I am here. Every day that I am here in this place, I remember that there are people who yearn to be here and cannot be.

33. I love the fact that after centuries of being "only" a tongue of sacred text study, our holy language is again spoken in streets and marketplaces. 

34. So much water is diverted from the Jordan to sustain the peoples of this place that the river is now small, like the Rio Grande. At Qasr al-Yahud the water is cold even on a 110-degree day.

35. King Hezekiah's underground water tunnel, chiseled into bedrock in the late 8th century BCE, is a good place in which to pray Ps. 118:5: מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ  / "from the narrow place I called to You!" 

36. The many small cats at Kibbutz Degania Bet near the Kinneret are extremely friendly, but I wouldn't advise petting the street cats in the Old City of Jerusalem.

37. Riding an electric scooter along the bike path between Tel Aviv and Yafo at night is both terrifying and exhilarating.

38. There are parts of the Judaean desert that seem so barren and windswept, they evoke the way I imagine I might feel on the surface of Mars.

39. Things that call to me in the market, a non-exhaustive list: olives, apricots, fuzzy green almonds, whole fish on ice, burlap bags of spices and tea, round cakes of halvah sparkling with pistachios.

40. I love to hear the muezzin's call echoing from every minaret, the tolling of church bells, the happy songs of the Breslover Hasidim, Hebrew songs and prayer accompanied by acoustic guitar.



41. The ibexes at Ein Gedi are almost the same color as the land. Some of them climb trees.

42. Every single time I enter Jerusalem after being away, I weep.

43. Rosemary grows into bushy shrubs here. I want to crawl into one and make a home there.

44. 187 days of Arabic on Duolingo are not enough. 

45. On this trip, the only person who hassles me about wearing a kippah is an older lady with a Russian accent, loading purchases from a homegoods store into the trunk of her car.

46. I wish every breakfast of my life could include burekas, hummus with cucumbers, labneh and zaatar, and watermelon with feta. Some of these are easier to replicate at home than others.

47. I love seeing mezuzot on (almost) every door.

48. The first thing that breaks me at Yad Vashem is the Dan Pagis poem Written in pencil in the sealed freight car. The facts are too terrible: my heart shutters. But poetry slips in through the cracks.

49. The moment I take my pick to the soft earth in Tel Maresha, I find potsherds, fragments of charcoal, and bits of bone. Remnants of ordinary life from the time of the Maccabees, 2200 years ago. 

50. I fly home with the dust of the land under my fingernails.