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Erica Schultz Yakovetz

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Sun and Stone and Sky

Ten days in the Land of Israel. My first time there, at age 32. A group trip, organized – principally by me – for the young adults of my Cambridge, Massachusetts, synagogue.

Afterwards, people kept asking me "How was it?", and I would not know what kind of answer they expected me to give. "Great," I said. "Amazing. Mind-blowing." Responses too general to have meaning, but the experience was impossible to encapsulate in any way that would make sense.

Here are a few of the things it caused me to ponder in my heart: The purpose of life. The purpose of Jewish life. My purpose in life, Jewish or otherwise. How "Am Yisroel", the nation of Israel, is a different proposition from simply "the Jewish community". Mythology: standing in a place where the very bones of the earth below your feet are text and history. Art. Prayer. Language. Ritual. Architecture: sun and stone and sky. Conservation: living with less of everything, wasting less of everything, making more of what is there. Environment: wholeness, rawness, everything sun-bleached, less processed and more real; life on what is still a frontier in a real physical sense. Ruth amid the alien corn. Health, or the purpose of a human body: what it means to hike up mountains every day on a steady diet of fruit and vegetables, drenched in sun like a sabra, and fall into bed every night gorgeously exhausted instead of merely brain-fatigued. Shabbat, the Sabbath: six days of work, one day of rest, each making the other possible. Politics. Sociology. Destruction. Creation.

At the Tel Aviv airport, having cleared the baggage claim and security and emerged into the lobby, a few of us stepped outside to finally make the traditional blessing on seeing the land of Israel. It was three in the morning. We walked out onto the pavement until we could see the sky and smell the spice on the air. I found a strip of bushes planted in front of the taxiway, pressed my fingers into the dusty soil around them, and said the Shehecheyanu. We were there.

On the bus to Jerusalem, the others slept, but I could not, watching the highway roll by with weirdly familiar names on it. There was a pang in my heart that I could not place. Not joy to be here, not excitement, not even fear, only an unnerving strangeness. What was I – who had converted to Judaism almost ten years earlier – doing here? Where was the tribal blood in my veins that had called me this far? Was I going to turn out to be a foreigner after all?

Then we reached the Jerusalem city limits, and I saw a large road sign angled toward us, set into the hillside: BRUCHIM HA-BA'IM. Welcome: Blessed are those who come. I turned to watch the sign recede, and at its back, forming a right angle, I saw the parting blessing: TZEITCHEM L'SHALOM. Farewell: May your going-out be toward peace. These are formulaic phrases in Hebrew, but they resonate down the millennia; they are the blessings one offers to the angels said to accompany every Jew home from synagogue on Shabbat. I could not have imagined a place where the very language of public life was so permeated with the Jewishness that I knew, built on its archetypes and ringing with its images. And this was when the tears came welling up from my heart. Strange as it might be, I was also going to be at home here.

There was more, much more, later, but the rest of it is commentary.

What struck me most, coming and going, was how much time it turned out I had already spent in this place – in the text, where my head is so much of the time. Reading from the Torah every week, we visit with its characters like living relatives, flawed but treasured. The land is a character, too, in the text, and I had walked around it with them in my head, and now here I was in the physical place: mythical no longer, but made of dust and stone and water and fruit. It was as if you could get on a plane and fly to Rivendell. This is the very tree, that the spring. Much the same sense of mythology come to life had drawn me out of the Midwest to Boston fifteen years earlier: Lexington, Concord, Walden, Salem, Gloucester, Cape Cod, the stuff of literature transubstantiated into everyday life. In Israel it is Jerusalem, Capernaum, Galilee, Gilead; the Mount of Olives, Mount Tabor, Mount Meron, Mount Zion itself. If anything ever proves to break the spell of Boston on me, it will have been this: walking among mysteries even older and more ineffable, given an earthly habitation and a name.

On our second day, a few hours before we would leave Jerusalem for Tzfat, we toured the Kotel tunnels, near what is left of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. And I knelt within a hundred yards of the Holy of Holies, the peak of Mount Moriah, the true heart of Jerusalem. I tucked notes into the wall with prayers of supplication, one for a friend and one for myself. But when I pressed my cheek and hand and forehead to the wall there, I could not hold any prayer in my heart, just the blazing awareness of history and Presence. This was the spot, and awe my only prayer.

It was not until the last day, back in Jerusalem a few hours before our return flight, that our group prayed outside at the Western Wall itself. The sun was down. I approached empty-handed, waiting to see what would arise in my heart; then I went back to the communal bookcase (there are bookcases blithely set up outdoors all over Israel, at least in the summer, displaying such perfect trust in the dry weather that I was amazed) for a prayerbook, because of course the ancient words were going to be the right ones. I came close to the wall and quietly read off the Evening Service, immediately behind the row of women whose hands and cheeks were pressed to the cool stone. Just as I finished the Shemoneh Esreh, a space opened up in front of me, and I moved in to touch the wall and close my eyes and proceed by heart with the very prayer that seemed most fitting: Aleinu. It speaks of the kingship of God, signaling its origins in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, but became so popular that it was incorporated into the regular daily prayer services:

And we bend the knees and bow and give thanks
Before the King, the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He.

I had come all the way across the world to be in His presence, and I was there to acknowledge Him. It did not matter whether the Presence dwelt physically in that place any longer; the consciousness of it, flowing through me, was enough.

When I finished that prayer, it was past time to return to the bus, but my service was done.

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