Everyone I see should be smiling. A few of them are. Most of them aren’t, and I feel sorry for them, caught up in the distractions of earthly existence and overlooking the miracles that surround them.
Such is the human condition: the eyes betray the soul, and the heart grows deaf to its own inner voice, which vanishes into the rumble of routine that drums out the exhilaration of each new moment.
It should be easier here at the eye of the universe, and indeed it is. But easier is a relative term, and a hundred pounds might as well be a hundred tons when our muscles have atrophied from disuse. Just the same, in the absence of spiritual discipline, spirituality itself remains a cliché, a meaningless abstraction or, at best, a mere footnote in the narrative of life, an asterisk relegated to indices of the Sabbath, the Festivals, and the House of Worship.
Such an insidious lie. Such an insipid deception.
The Jewish liturgy begins each day with a series of 15 blessings acknowledging the gifts of fundamental existence and identity. How fortunate we are to have eyes that can behold the beauty of our world, limbs that can carry us to the corners of the earth, minds capable of discerning light from dark and good from evil; how reassured we are to commit ourselves to a higher purpose, to recognize that path we are meant to follow, and to trust the guiding Hand that gently steers us toward the fulfillment of our destiny; how much reason we have to rejoice that we are able to master our own passions, to summon the strength to meet failure with determination, and to discover new inspiration everyday amidst the monotony of life in the material world.
Yet still we forget. Even here in this place where heaven and earth kiss, even here at the focal point of human history, human nobility, and human aspiration. Too much light can blind even more effectively than too much darkness.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, the center of Creation, and in the ancient village of Tzefat, home of the greatest kabbalists of the last 500 years, the tension between the past and the present gives way to a supernal harmony that radiates from every rock and tree, that grows stronger as you turn every corner and pass through every archway. The voices of ages gone by whisper always in your ear, if you remember to listen for them.
You walk on stones laid in place by lost generations, bisect streets named for prophets and kings, for sages and milestones from biblical history; you enter synagogues founded by luminaries of scholarship and piety from the distant past. In the early morning light, you make out the silhouette of a chassid, adorned in a style unchanged since the days of his grandfather’s grandfather. As he draws closer, you see in greater detail his long coat, his broad-rimmed velvet hat, his beard and sidelocks. He draws closer still, and you see he is talking on a cellphone,
On your way back from morning prayers, another chassid passes you, this one astride a scooter navigating the narrow streets and dodging pedestrians.
You leave the cities and travel north to Tel Dan, where the headwaters of the Jordan River flow forth from springs fed by the melting snow of Mount Hermon. Here you find landscapes world apart from the rugged slopes of the Judean hills and the sprawling sands of the southern desert. Lush greenery and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers provide a cool pavilion for the serenade of singing rapids.
This truly is a reflection of Eden.
Along the trail, you pass through the gates that separated the Kingdom of Judah from the Kingdom of Israel after the ten tribes seceded during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, 28 centuries ago. It was here that the wicked King Jeroboam placed border guards to prevent his people from making the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to observe the Festivals. Nearby, you discover the site of the altar believed to be where Jeroboam erected a golden calf to pacify his people’s yearning for intimacy with the Divine, leading them instead into idolatry and, eventually, to exile and oblivion.
A stone’s throw from this site of national tragedy lies the northern border and the trenches dug to repel the Syrians who, in 1964, hoped to divert the waters that are Israel’s lifeblood. When the British and French divided their respective mandatory territories in 1923, they literally drew a pencil line across their map. Surely they had no inkling that the 130 meters represented by the thickness of that graphite delineation would prove such an enduring source of strife for decades to come.
In the northern town of Katzrin, you meet David Zibell. After a mere two years in the country, the Montreal native is already producing Israel’s first whisky in his Golan distillery, assisted only by a single, part-time employee.
Returning south, you arrive at the ancient Roman capital of Caesarea. It was here that the sage Rabbi Abahu founded his talmudic academy in the third century, escaping Roman oppression by hiding in plain sight, right under the noses of Israel’s enemies. Even 17 centuries ago, people could be counted on to grow blind to their surroundings. One wonders if the current residents have grown indifferent to the impossibly blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Eventually you return to Jerusalem, where contradictions abound.
Makhaneh Yehudah, the open air marketplace known simply as the shuk, assaults the senses with a mélange of smells, sights, sounds, and cultures. The aroma of fish, cooked meat, roasted nuts, dried fruit, freshly baked bread and pastries, middle eastern spices, cigarettes, and beer are punctuated by the shouts of vendors and shoppers in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Arabic, Russian, French, and Spanish, as well as the perpetual rattle of coins from cash registers and the cups of beggars.
The main thoroughfares and side passageways teem with people — especially on Friday afternoons in preparation for the Sabbath — from devoutly religious chareidi women with their long-sleeves, long skirts, and covered hair, to the most secular Israelis and tourists in short-shorts and tank-tops. Little children, octogenarians, and parents pushing single and double strollers weave through the congested concourse in chaotic symbiosis.
On the other side of town, under the shadow of the Old City walls, the Mamilla Mall provides an alter-ego, a glittering Fifth Avenue in contrast to the earthy egalitarianism of the shuk.
Here, upscale shops and cafes draw a similar variety of people, albeit without the frenzied crush of human flesh, from black-hatted chareidim to religious Arabs, from tourists to Israelis of every type. Curious pairings abound: a Muslim woman wearing a hijab over a neon pink blouse and tight jeans; a meticulously attired seminary girl in the company of a modern-looking young man; a chassid in full regalia playing the Sultans of Swing on acoustic guitar.
Crossing the intersection of two major boulevards near the center of town, your eye is drawn to a young, model-perfect blonde, all the more noteworthy in her oversized mirror sunglasses and the jet-black uniform of the “supercops,” the elite, SWAT-trained, rapid response police officers. One hand rests easily on the stock of an M-16 rifle hanging at her hip.
Drifting into the older residential neighborhoods, you zigzag your way through narrow streets and garden walks, never knowing exactly where you are but never quite lost, especially when you don’t really care how you get to where you’re going or what you might find along the way. Turn one corner and happen upon a tour group of Parisians, a band of machine-gun-toting soldiers, or a trio of Coptic priests. Turn another and discover a mural by Solomon, the city’s most famous street artist, on the retaining wall of a single-family home beneath their laundry lines.
Everywhere construction cranes tower overhead while the sound and dust of pneumatic hammering fill the air, as if the entire city populace is striving to fulfill the thrice-daily benediction beseeching the Almighty to rebuild Jerusalem in preparation for the advent of the messianic era. In some places the changes are dramatic, with massive luxury apartment complexes and commercial centers sprawling over city blocks and soaring toward the heavens. Elsewhere the innovations are easy to miss, as neighborhood buildings remain unchanged at eye-level while new stories creep slowly upward.
And amidst it all, the hum of life goes on, from the break of dawn to the embers of dusk, with seven year old children leading their younger siblings by the hand to school and sixty year old men leading their fathers to synagogue.
Even the irreligious cannot escape the ancient culture of Torah that defines this land. Divinity resides in the stonework underfoot and in the sapphire sky overhead. It inhabits the daily language of the street, in which profanities are all borrowed from English and Arabic, and in which casual queries of How are you? are met not with fine, thanks, but rather with Thank God. It is etched upon the spiritual DNA of the people who taught the rest of the world the principles of moral virtue and spiritual vision.
Indeed, a new exhibit in the Israel Museum — adjacent to the Shrine of Book, which contains the Dead Sea Scrolls — presents the Nano-Torah, all 1.2 million letters of the Jewish Bible inscribed by laser on a gold parchment smaller than the head of a pin.
The sages of the Talmud teach that the Almighty looked into the Torah and created the universe, that the verbal expression of the Divine Will formulated the genetic coding of all Creation. Under a microscope, you can see the tiny letters that constitute the genesis of human existence and which established the template for human wisdom. Before your eyes, the ancient past merges with the elusive future, like the 2000-year-old Roman amphitheater outfitted for a modern sound-and-light show.
But really there is no contradiction, no paradox. The timelessness of eternal wisdom never becomes outdated, never ceases to be relevant, never goes out of style unless we turn away from it to embrace the fads and fancy of superficial society that become obsolete even before they’ve fully taken hold.
Suspended between time and space, between heaven and earth, between the far corners of the universe, an ancient people live in a modern land, thriving amdist the tension between the spiritual and the material without attempting to resolve it.
The true believers among them, unable to ascend the mountain of their God, wait in the shadow of the Wall of Wisdom, intoning holy words beneath hallowed archways, chanting to the heart of the world, singing their song of hope and joy in anticipation of the redemption they know will come.
The ancient Egyptians, the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome lay in ruins. The Crusaders and the Inquisitors have come and gone. The Persians and Parthians are chapters in history books unread except by historians, while the Mamluks and the Almohads have vanished from the face of the earth.
But the People of the Book remain, prosperous in their own land, more vibrant and alive than ever. Every day they rise anew to grapple with the challenge of hearkening to the exhortations of their souls and the echoes of eternity.
From this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine.
All photos taken by the author with his Galaxy Note 3.