Two disclaimers. First, I cannot avoid experiencing Israel against the background of seven years of memories living here a quarter century ago. Secondly, it’s late at night and I risk exhaustion, and perhaps coherence, in order to not lose these thoughts before writing them down. Less an essay of detailed thought, but, as titled, only first impressions.
The most striking feeling is the pulsating energy which seems to radiate from everyone I encounter. Really, more like from everyone I even see on the street. No, not everyone is happy and glowing, but the vitality, the חיות (khi-yoot), life energy is impossible to not notice.
It reminds me, returning to more than twenty-five years ago, of when I would photograph extensively in the desert and here, in Jerusalem, on the edge of the desert. It’s hard for plants to find the water to survive, but those plants that do grow burst with life. I see in many of my old photographs that they would literally pop from the ground with the force of longing to thrive. Spiritual explanations describe the energy that flows forth from Eretz Yisrael and it just does. It’s palpable.
I was walking out of the Old City after visiting the Kotel (Western Wall of Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount) for mincha (the afternoon prayer), leaving Sha’ar Yafo, Jaffa Gate, into the modern city, as I saw and heard ambulances fighting through almost total congestion to rush to aid the victims of the terrorist attack that murdered a three-month-old baby. I realized later that I must have been at the Kotel at the exact same time that family was, when they joyously brought their daughter to her first and only visit there.
I missed, for the most part, the “intifadas” (race riots) when mass-murder terrorist attacks against innocent Jews became common. I missed completely all the wars when civilians, including those in the country’s center (i.e. Jerusalem, as well as Tel Aviv) were subject to random missile attack, forced to rush, terrified, into bomb shelters. I never before experienced first-hand the solidarity of support and commiseration for the families of the dead as well as for the other victims who were “merely” injured.
I talked with friends about their attending the funerals several months ago for the “lone soldiers”, the young people, many from the US, who had come to Israel without families in order to serve. When I read about the enormous turnouts for these funerals, I was hard-pressed to really, at a gut-level, understand the phenomenon. I admired the people who did attend these funerals and I was proud that my people, in the abstract, would do such things, but I felt these last couple days that I, myself, lost a close family member.
And I’m proud that those very few people who felt compelled to respond with protests against Hamas and the PLO (PA) who sponsor and encourage murder, as well as Israeli government policy which seems to allow it, turned even one of their protests violent. Filled with pain and, yes, with anger, for the most part our people conducted themselves as menschen, as human beings with ethical values.
I also spent a full day in the ultra-orthodox ghettos of Jerusalem. I was hit with the realization that the Jewish people have, largely, out-sourced our religion, or at least “authority” over it, to people who, for the most part, live in the eighteenth century and in a very different, far-away, land. I remember, years ago, a sense of admiration for their persistence, but today I mainly felt sadness for them and for all of us. I was struck with a strong experience of the timelessness of The Creator and the futility of tying Him to any specific historical period. God is alive today and our challenge to merge with Him as co-creators, striving to bring completion and perfection to the world, cannot be met exclusively, or perhaps not very much indeed, with methods and techniques uniquely vital to have preserved us in exile in the past.
I have no idea how I’ll join the effort to refocus the authentic path, by which I mean based only on our blueprint of Torah and Mitzvot and not on our own egos and narcissism, to one of Eretz Yisrael, of living once again in our own land and in the times have brought this miracle into being. But I do know that finally, after millennia, we can return to creating rather than merely (and I don’t by any means underestimate the difficulty and immense value of the millennia-long life-and-death miracle of preserving ourselves, as I also greatly value the wisdom generated and transmitted to us by those efforts) surviving. We’re living in nothing less than a God-given opportunity and we have no right to waste it.
And I wonder, without even hints of answers, how we’ll enlist all of our people, including those living so far in the past as well as those living so far (spiritually and ethically) from any current engagement at all. Because we’ve been told by our Nevi’im, our Prophets, and our Chachamim, our sages, that we can only succeed if all of us succeed together (but not uniformly).
And, as a much older man than the first time I was here, I see the new generations and rejoice that while I must, of course, do my part, it’s not on me and not on my generation to be a solo act. A great relief with which to look forward to Shabbat. May it go out to all of us around the world on this very special Shabbat aimed at bringing the entire Jewish people, world-wide, together in a deeper experience of Shabbat.