this a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (3/28) reflecting on our recent trip to Israel –
The image of an altar is at the center of this morning’s Torah portion. The text is mostly a description of an ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons, preparing them for service to the Israelite community as priests. The ritual is conducted around an altar, with three sacrifices offered, and the sprinkling of blood, both onto the altar itself and onto Aaron and his sons. It is not surprising that the altar would be a central image – as an object, it was a crucial component of the ancient sacrificial system, that was practiced by our ancestors until the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed, some 2000 years ago.
The altar that our ancestors used for their worship is described in great detail in the Torah. It was to be made of stone, un-hewed, to be of a certain size, and perhaps most interestingly to have four horns, one at each of its corners, emerging from the flat surface of the top. Just a little over a week ago I was in Jerusalem with the 47 people who traveled on the Beth El trip that returned this week, and we had the opportunity to spend an hour and a half or so in the Israel Museum, one of the great museums in the world, and certainly containing one of the finest antiquities collections anywhere. As I wandered around the museum I rounded a corner, and standing right in front of me was an altar, found at the excavations in the south of Israel, in Beer Sheva, constructed exactly as the Torah describes it – the stone construction, the dimensions, and most noticeably the four stone horns sticking up from the corners.
That altar in the museum is about 3,000 years old, and coming face to face with it, the very week when we began reading the book of Leviticus, with its focus on the sacrificial system, reminded me of the concrete reality of the Bible, the historical memory of the text, in a way that simply cannot happen here in the States. Of course if you’ve been to Israel you know these experiences happen on an almost daily basis. The apartment where Joseph Caro wrote the Shulhan Aruch is in Safed. The stones of the Roman streets where Rabbi Akiva walked are still in Jerusalem. The ancient synagogues, the villages from the talmudic period, the list could go on and on. One does not read about Jewish history, or study Jewish history, in Israel – one lives it, walks on it, touches and feels it, lives and breathes it. There is nothing else like it.
And if ancient Israel doesn’t overwhelm you, modern Israel certainly will. I’ve been to Israel seven times in the last 10 years, and each time I arrive the skyline of Tel Aviv has changed, new sky scrapers emerging one after another after another. The sleek light rail now runs noiselessly in Jerusalem. A high speed train is being built so commuters can get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in about 25 minutes. We visited an Israel tank unit that was stationed on the Lebanese border, and the young soldiers proudly told us their tanks were the most advanced in the world. Google and Intel have strong presences in Israel, and all over the world people use apps – like Waze, for example, the popular traffic and direction app – that have been created by Israelis in Israel.
But in my mind the moments that stay with you, the moments that touch you in the deepest way, are the human moments, the interactions with people that remind you of the special spark and spirit in the people of Israel that have made all of what I described above possible. Let me briefly share with you three such moments that we experienced.
The first was election day. We were in Tel Aviv, and we took a walking tour through the city that day. Election day is a holiday in Israel – most businesses and museums are closed. There was a festive atmosphere in the air as we walked through the streets. Polling stations were buzzing with activity, and as we walked by campaign workers handed us flyers praising one party or another. Everyone was excited, invested in the election, talking about the parties and candidates, and in true Israeli style holding no punches. Some wanted this candidate, some wanted that candidate. Some were Bibi fans, others not so much. What was striking about it to me was how different it felt than an American election day. There was a sense of joy to it all, and in a way it felt like a celebration of the country itself, and an affirmation of its democratic character and values. And maybe that is why close to %80 of Israelis voted that day. This was Israel at its best, expressed through its people – vibrant, filled with energy and joy, with a palpable spirit of optimism and hope in the air.
Vignette number 2. We visited the city of Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, and spent a morning at Netzach Yisrael, a Masorti, or Conservative synagogue there. We were welcomed warmly, and sat watching the congregation’s rabbi and its teachers conduct a morning learning service with the pre-schoolers. They prayed, they sang, they laughed. The teachers put on a wonderful mini-play about Moses that completely captivated the children. Few things bring joy to the heart like the singing voices of young children, and in this case, with their enthusiasm, and of course with everything in Hebrew, everyone in the group was touched. Afterwards, we spent time with members of the congregation who generously shared their stories with us. There was a woman in her 90s who made aliyah from New York now almost 40 years ago. There was a young man from Cuba who made aliyah just a few weeks ago. And we were treated to a wonderful surprise – Hannah Deoul, a young woman in her early 20s who grew up at Beth El and had her bat mitzvah here, came to meet us. She made aliyah 6 months ago, lives in Ashkelon, and who was recently named coach of the under 19 Israeli women’s national lacrosse team. She was beaming from ear to ear as she told us about how much she loved being in Israel, and as a rabbi who was at her bat mitzvah not so many years ago, I can tell you our entire congregation should be proud.
Last but not least I return to the Israeli tank unit we met in the north. These young soldiers, 18 and 19 years old, flocked around us as we asked them questions about their jobs, their backgrounds, and their families. They were gregarious, happy to talk, and probably glad to have a brief break in their daily routine. They were in turn playful and serious, with the souls of boys, silly, jumping in front of one another when we took pictures. But they have the responsibility of men, guarding their country at its northern border, a responsibility I can assure you they take seriously and perform with great distinction.
They invited us to climb on top of their tanks, which a number of us did, although we were told to please not take pictures. Dr. Bor took out his clarinet and played some Israeli music, and then the Cantor, who was standing on one of the tanks, spontaneously began to sing Hatikvah in his powerful voice. Suddenly everyone joined in, our congregants, Jews from Baltimore in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s, and the young Israeli soldiers, singing together. We knew in that instant that although we live in different places, and have had in many ways very different lives, we are truly connected as part of one people – Am Israel – sharing a hope and dream for a future of peace for all people. As you may imagine, there was not a dry eye.
So there you have it. A brief snapshot of our trip, and perhaps of Israel as well. May the hopes that we all have for her truly be fulfilled. And one day soon, may she know a world where the hearts of all people are turned towards one another in peace.