More Stories from the Desert (Parashat Balak)

After some days in the desert, we arrive in the City of the Angles. I know that some of my ‘NorCal’ friends will cringe, but I like LA a lot, as do the other 13 million some who live around here, and who opt to all be on the freeways at the same time, or so it seems. Our visit is unusual: we’re not going to see Universal Studios or Disney Land; no stop at LACMA or La Brea tar pits; no drive along the beautiful Sunset Boulevard to look for the actors and other glitzy stars. We’ll skip those and many other fun attractions, but we will go on a three hours tour to the Museum of Tolerance.
At times I wonder, perhaps sacrilegiously, if that is the true holocaust. Not only what happened 70 some years ago but the fact that it’s etched and re-etched into our psyche. A day earlier, we visit Hoover Dam, and a group of kids get separated into another elevator. It’s not even a matter of 5 minutes before we meet up again, but I already have images of other cars carrying kids off; not to mention when the guide asks us to line up against the wall.
One of our participants is not feeling well this morning, and opts for an extra nap on the soft benches of the Hollywood Museum’s movie theater. I stay behind, watching two hours of the same three documentaries looping around endlessly about Maksymilian Faktorowicz (1872-1938), the founder of the famous cosmetic company, developer of modern cosmetics industry and the one who popularized the term “make-up”, better known as Max Factor.
The film started from wherever it was, which was not the beginning, so it took me a while to figure out that Maksmilian was Jewish; a kid who was an apprentice in a pharmacy, a wigs shop, and a barber shop, created an answer to a need others didn’t even realized they had and now can’t live without.
We’re reading a seemingly crazy Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2- 25:9) about a king and a magician who are trying to win a war they didn’t have to be in, against the Jewish people, by manipulating curses. So strange! If they want to beat the People, why this whole show? Why not just fight? The people are at the end of their 40-year journey; probably tired of everything – the views, the food, the schlep. With some simple tricks, they can probably be overcome.
But that’s not what the confrontation is about. It’s not a simple battle. The Moabites are the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, now facing Abraham’s offspring. The struggle is over the rightful spiritual path, and so it’s done via words. Further: maybe coincidentally, the last war was against the Amorites, led by their king, Sichon, both coming from different words in Hebrew for speech (amar and sach).
Words are our thing. Words – speech – are the bridge between thought and action. We teach that the world was created through 10 sayings; and later, in Sinai, it was 10 “statements” that forever changed the world. The ultimate battle therefore, is not in bow and arrows, but in words. Balak and Bil’am are doing all they can to curse the people, but somehow, curses turn to blessings.
How? Not by anything. No magic potion, no abracadabra, no orchestrated sacrifices. Just by being who we are.
In the beginning, at the creation story, G-d sees his creation and says, it is “good”. What is the meaning of this “good”? there was no moral or ethical judgement regarding the light, earth, plants etc. But rather, like we say, ‘this is a good table’, namely, it fulfills the mission for which is was created. So too nature fulfilled its role perfectly.
So maybe here too: in order to reverse a curse, we need not do anything “special” – in this story, we don’t. When Bil’am eventually says, ma tovu – “how goodly are your tents oh Israel”, the Children of Israel don’t do anything “unusual”. Like Shakespeare who said, “to be or not to be”, they just “are”. Maybe it means – being who we really are, is what can change a curse to a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Water in the desert, then and now

Traveling with a group of teens through the (Arizona) desert. We just left our first attractions at the Salt River (hey guys, bathrooms anyone before we go?) and stopped at a gas station to get refreshments (bathrooms anyone?) and now on the road from Phoenix to Sedona (2 hours to go) when the inevitable happens: “Michal, I need to go to the bathroom. Can I use the bathroom on the bus?”
“I’m a little tired”, says one of the teens, when I show up with my “cheer-leading” good morning at breakfast before we head to the Grand Canyon. “Can I not go on the hike today?”
“We need stuff from the store! We need to talk and hang around in the lobby! We…”
Over and over, especially on such a trip, we have to evaluate: How legitimate is the complaint? How valid the request?
In this week’s Torah reading of Chukat, we read (Numbers 21:5-6):

ה וַיְדַבֵּר הָעָם, בֵּאלֹהִים וּבְמֹשֶׁה, לָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: כִּי אֵין לֶחֶם, וְאֵין מַיִם, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה, בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל. 5 And the people spoke against God, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul is tired of this light bread.’
ו וַיְשַׁלַּח יְהוָה בָּעָם, אֵת הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים, וַיְנַשְּׁכוּ, אֶת-הָעָם; וַיָּמָת עַם-רָב, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. 6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

But just a chapter earlier we read the famous incident of Moses hitting the rock, which – right or wrong – he did in response to exactly the same situation: the people complaining that there is no water. That time (Numbers 20:1-13), Moses and Aaron prayed on the people’s behalf and G-d Himself told Moses to get them water, which means– their complaint was completely valid!
The midrash tells us that while traveling in the desert, along with the people, there traveled a well, so that they always have water. That well was on behalf of Miriam. Therefore, when Miriam died, the water source stopped. Perhaps Moses and Aaron were mourning their sister’s passing and didn’t notice what happened? One way or another, once they realized that there actually was no water, they did what they could to provide the people’s basic needs.
I am not getting into the whole – speak to the rock / hitting the rock debate. I just want to point out two very similar situations one chapter after another, when the people ask for water. Why is one of them answered with water and the other one, with snakes and death?

There is a one word that makes the difference: in 21:5 they add the description to the bread, better yet in Hebrew and much more forgiving in the English translation: here “the light bread”, better – “that nothing bread”, or per google translate, “the bad bread”. And that’s a whole different thing.
Further, right before calling the manna, G-d’s bread, a bad / nothing / light bread, we get a glimpse of their spiritual state (21:4):

ד וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר, דֶּרֶךְ יַם-סוּף, לִסְבֹב, אֶת-אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם; וַתִּקְצַר נֶפֶשׁ-הָעָם, בַּדָּרֶךְ. 4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.
Literally: “and the people’s soul was short along the way” – they were impatient and had it. We saw that “kotzer” – shortness of soul or here “impatience of spirit” – long ago, when we were slaves in Egypt. We should know already that “shortness of soul” leads to trouble, as we have no bandwidth to deal with anything:

ט וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. 9 And Moses spoke so unto the children of Israel; but they hearkened not unto Moses for “impatience of spirit”, and for cruel bondage.
It gives me great comfort to know that that Torah allows for valid complaints. Right or wrong, pretty or not, they don’t have to be submitted politely. It’s ok to cry out when we hurt; it’s ok to ask, even demand, for what’s rightfully ours. “Thy will be done” is not our path. When there is no water, we can, and even should, stand up and speak out, loud. Whining though gets a push back: you don’t like the flavor of G-ds bread? That’s too bad. But if you’re really thirsty, I’ll do all I can. And how to know which is which? Yes. Some days that’s easier than others.
Water is a constant – in life, in the desert and  throughout this portion: the rock, the complaining, and now we are introduced to a well: אז ישיר ישראל… עלי באר “Spring up, oh well”, says the text (Numbers 21:17-18). A well, metaphorically, is not water hidden inside a rock, which nothing short of G-d and a miracle can get out. It’s something people create in order to reach into depth beyond us to bring up a lifegiving supply. Many poetic midrashim compare the water to Torah, and likewise here, the Torah is like underground water, hard to access, while the commentaries, what we call the Oral Torah, is like the well, a vehicle for us to reach down and draw up life.

And with that, we’re off to Glen Canyon Dam to learn more about water in the desert…

Shabbat Shalom.

The very grand Grand Canyon and Colorado River below


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The Salt Covenant, Now & Forever

A famous folktale of unclear origin tells about a king who asked his three daughters to describe how much they each loved him. The oldest said, like gold (or bread, or the heavens and earth and the whole world); the second said, like silver and jewels (or water, or the sun, moon and all stars); and the third said, like salt.
The enraged king commanded to kick her out of the palace, but just before she left (or some time after, when he was invited to her new palace…), she made a feast for him without salt. “What’s this disgusting stuff”? he called, dismayed at the tasteless food. “That’s to show you how much salt is important, and how bland like is without it”.
Salt made its way into linguist expressions. In both English and Hebrew, we can call someone “salt of the earth”, when referring to a person who is thoroughly decent, hard working and instrumental to his peers. The metaphor appears in the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament as part of a discourse on salt and light (Matthew 5:13). The salt’s saltiness is described as essential and that quality as needed in relationship between people (having salt as part of And having peace- Luke 9:50).
And in this week’s reading – G-d promises Aaron and his descendants a “covenant of salt” – ברית מלח, a forever covenant (Numbers 18:19), per Rashi, like something which never spoils; something that not only is healthy (in measure), but causes health to others; a covenant of absoluteness and immutability (Rav Hirsch).

The reading is called Korach, after one of Moshe’s cousins who seeks to take away his leadership. Korach’s name, unusual as it is, is spelled kof.resh.chet – ק.ר.ח.. Rabbi Hirsch points that the same root is used for the word for balding (karcha – קרחה: check Leviticus 21:5), a smooth interior of a garment (karachto, check Leviticus 13:55) and frost (kerach, Genesis 31:40), which is also the word for ice in Modern Hebrew. The root means “cohere”, which the dictionary says means- 1. to stick together; be united; hold fast, as parts of the same mass. 2. Physics (of two or more similar substances) to be united within a body by the action of molecular forces. 3. to be naturally or logically connected: 4. to agree; be congruous.
According to kabala, the ideal balance between thought and action is hinted in the letter heh – ה. The letter heh ה is made of three parts: the top – for thought; the right side – for speech and the left – for action. Notice, that the left side is shorter than the others and that it stands sort of “under” the top, indicating that action is subject to thought.
Each of the letters is Korach’s name is very similar to the heh, but is different, and how it’s different is significant to what happened and what we can learn.
The letter kof ק is like a heh ה except the left line goes down lower than the right, indicating a situation when those who act are not under those who think, which drags the former lower.
The letter resh ר is like heh ה except it has no left side at all, parallel to Korach’s demand to separate thinking from doing.
The letter chet ח is like heh ה, except the left side is closed, making all three aspects – thought, speech and action – equal.
Korach demanded conflicting things, pretending to want to be “equal” as in “kulam kdoshim” – כולם קדושים, everybody is holy, and yet, asking to be the leader, unique above everybody. Korach is considered the prototype of divisiveness. His criticism, even if it had some valid points, is not constructive. He is not interested in fixing or improving things. It is all about glorifying himself and only himself. Hence, his priorities are mixed up; his “gang” is united by who they are opposing, not by positive input and desire for anyone’s well being; and their “togetherness” is only temporary. He is a role model for how not to be, how not to do things and thus is not sustainable. Like ice (kerach – קרח), Korach and his group break apart and melt away when light shines on them.

Shabbat Shalom.

Giv’ati – Salt of the Earth – טקס כומתה בגבעתי, 2017, מלח הארץ בלי מרכאות

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Spying in the Land of Israel

The Torah portions in the middle of the Book of Numbers are, for me, possibly the greatest gift the Torah has given us. Those are the portions of the biggest mess-ups of our People. And yet, without them, what would we be left with?

Imagine, if the Children of Israel always listen to God; imagine if they always obeyed and did just the right thing, if they never complained, if they followed all instructions. What would they leave us? We would be left with a clear guidance to be perfect; no option to make mistakes, and no idea how to correct and save ourselves from our faults and blunders.
it could have been easy for G-d to lead the People straight to the Holy Land. After all, He is G-d, and the People are considered one of our greatest generations, if not the greatest. This is the beginning of nationhood: they just opted to leave slavery and go for freedom; they were redeemed with the greatest miracles and got the Torah with sounds and wonders. It should have been no big deal for G-d and Moses to pull a little further.
Further: so they slip a bit here and there, they complain; they rebel; so what, really? Think of how many slips and mess-ups we accumulate on any given day, let alone over 18 months, in the desert, away from home, camping in tents, with the same old food day in and day out… Last week we read that they complained, and we all shook our heads in “disbelief”: ‘oh no, they complain’ ‘oh no, they miss Egypt’… Imagine if anyone documented every time we complain…
Today, I’d like to suggest that, most of all, the Children of Israel did us a great service. They could have gone straight into the Land; Moses could have given better directions; G-d could have provided some variety in the diet… but our Torah would have become irrelevant; it would have been dealing with people and situations we can’t relate to, and are meaningless to us. More than they “messing up”, we need them to do so, for us.
It is us who need to know that when we “miss the mark”, which is the literal translation of the Hebrew, chet, sin, there is a possibility for us to correct. There might be a detour, and it might take us longer, maybe even 40 years longer, but it won’t deter us from continuing our journey to the Holy Land.
What do we see when we look? What do we see when we step out? When we come to Israel? Is it the not-helpful bank teller or the phone saleswoman who offers us cookies? The stressful news of this and that, or the amazing revival and spirit of learning throughout the Land?
What makes us notice certain things and completely miss others?
In this week, the spies are sent to “tour” the Land, coming back with a positive report which quickly turns negative. What made them give such a report?
An explanation is offered at the end of the Torah portion when we are given the mitzvah of tzitzit, placing a string on our clothing, so that we won’t forget the commandments and wonder after our “heart and eyes” (Numbers 15:37-39). Wait, heart and eyes, in that order?? Shouldn’t it be backwards, first we see with our eyes and then our heart follows?? But the Torah uses the same verb for the spies journeying as the heart wondering – latur, suggesting that we actually see with our hearts. What we see, is not necessarily an objective “truth”, but rather, a picture of what’s inside us.
There is another string this Shabbat, and that one shows up in the haftorah reading. Joshua and Caleb, a very different team of spies, come to Jericho and meet Rachav the zona. In grade school, we learned that she was not a prostitute (zona in modern Hebrew), but instead, a woman “selling food” (mazon); well, who knows. One way or another, she opts to change her ways and help the travelers. Joshua hands a red string to hang from her window, so they know which one is hers. That string he calls – תִּקְוַת חוּט הַשָּׁנִי – the hopeful scarlet thread.
The turning point for the original spies is the moment they say, “efes” (13:28), here for “but”, but literally meaning zero. How could they have gotten so low, to feel like nothing?
Well, we can and even the great princes of the Tribes of Israel can feel this way. It happens. The question is not if we sometimes feel down but if we have a way out. The greatness of the Torah is that it offers us a way out, a string to remember what’s important, a rope to climb, a way to know that even if the path takes longer than expected, we will get there.
Shabbat Shalom.

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shabbat shalom: going up, with a friend

יא  וַיְהִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי–בְּעֶשְׂרִים בַּחֹדֶשׁ; נַעֲלָה, הֶעָנָן, מֵעַל, מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת.
11 And it came to pass in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of the testimony.
יב  וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַסְעֵיהֶם, מִמִּדְבַּר סִינָי; וַיִּשְׁכֹּן הֶעָנָן, בְּמִדְבַּר פָּארָן.
12 And the children of Israel set forward by their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud abode in the wilderness of Paran.

Why did Bnai Israel set on their journeys on the 20th of the second month of the second year? (Numbers 10:11-12)?
As we learn in the Book of Deuteronomy, the journey from Mt. Sinai to the border of the land (Kadesh Barne’a) is a journey of 11 days (Deuteronomy 1:2). The idea was to reach the Land on the first day of the third month, one year after the arrival at Sinai. Had that plan worked out, we would have entered the Land on the first anniversary of the Giving of the Law, strengthening the connection between the Torah (how to live) and the Land (where to live it). Our entry would have coincided with the time of harvest (Katzir) and first fruit (Bikurim), with its future connections to the Temple. However, due to the various delays, the People arrived at Kadesh Barne’a later, in time for the grape harvest. They were exhausted and worried, sent the spies, then fell for their demagogy on Tish’a Be’av, postponing their entry by decades.

This week’s reading marks that pivotal point between the journey that should have ended in no more than eighteen months. Instead, it lasted for 40 years. The Torah portion should have been named something like “the disaster”. Instead, it is called “Be’ha’alotcha”, erroneously often translated “when you light the lamp” when it really means “when you bring up”, from the root a.l.h.ע.ל.ה same as going up to the Torah and going to the Land of Israel.
Our sages tell us that the book of Numbers is really three books: first, chapters 1-10:34), and last, chapters 11-36. In between them, there are two verses (chapter 10:35-36) which the sages deemed as the second book.
It is easy to understand the theme of the “first book”, which centers on the last preparations and the final stages of the journey, including organizing the traveling camp and completing the mishkan. Similarly, it is easy to understand the theme of the “third book”, which includes all the stories of the “delay”: the complainers, the spies, Korach and his mutiny and more.
What are the two verses in between and why are those considered the whole “second book”? They will most likely look familiar from this week’s Torah service:

לה  וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה:  קוּמָה יְהוָה, וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ, וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.
35 And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, O LORD, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.’
לו  וּבְנֻחֹה, יֹאמַר:  שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
36 And when it rested, he said: ‘Return, O LORD, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel.

That was supposed to be the whole journey: the ark will travel and rest. The Children of Israel, led by Moshe, will travel safely and uneventfully. No enemies, no trouble. It’s but a small distance. They’ll arrive shortly. The end.
Interestingly, in every Torah scroll, these two verses are separated by two upside down letters, two upside down nun’s. This was possibly done to accentuate the tragedy, as if to say, look! we were so, so close!
What happened?  Was it Moshe who was tired and heartbroken from the situation brewing in front of his eyes which led to his inability to enter the Land, who lacked in his leadership skills?  Were the People, in spite of being at Sinai, in G-d’s presence, and receiving the Law, not ready?
And yet, the Torah portion of this tragic turning point, is called “Beha’alotcha”, literally, “as you bring up”, lighting the menorah. Indeed, we like simple, quick stories, 90-120 minutes with “they lived happily ever after” caption smeared at the end. But, the journey is rarely that simple, and rather, often, much more complicated than we initially expect. Even when the path is clear, we fall short, have regrets, change our mind, or get scared. Nevertheless, the Torah reminds us, our direction is still, always upward, to the light.
There is one more peculiar detail in this parasha. In Numbers 10:2 we find:

ב  עֲשֵׂה לְךָ, שְׁתֵּי חֲצוֹצְרֹת כֶּסֶף–מִקְשָׁה, תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם; וְהָיוּ לְךָ לְמִקְרָא הָעֵדָה, וּלְמַסַּע אֶת-הַמַּחֲנוֹת.
2 ‘Make thee two trumpets of silver; of beaten work shalt thou make them; and they shall be unto thee for the calling of the congregation, and for causing the camps to set forward.

Creating an instrument for calling is, of course, extremely useful when rounding up around two million people for a journey, but why trumpets? Why not a shofar, for example?
The Magid of Mezritch explains that chatzotzrot, חצוצרות , trumpets, means – chatza’ei tzurot,   חצאי צורות , half shapes. It is symbolic of the fact that every person is a half who finds his or her completion by connecting to another. We read that the People camped as one, and traveled as one. That too, depended on their “shape”, on their formation. Like a huge machine where every part needs to be connected correctly to the right part, and only then, movement is possible, so it was with Bnai Israel.
The Kabbalists teach us that movement is an expression of light and wisdom. Those are things we aspire to, but detours must be expected. The Torah did well to teach us that this can happen to the best of us, from Moshe on, to one of the greatest generations to ever live. But it also taught us how to prepare for the detour: know yourself. Connect with one another. Build a whole. Keep moving towards the light, upward.

Shabbat Shalom!


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(Some) counting is a sign of love

This week we’re starting the Book of Numbers. As is obvious from its (English) name, we will hear a lot of numbers. Each tribe will be counted. And counted again. Why? Who cares if the tribe of Judah had 74,600 people and the tribe of Benjamin 35,400? We know that the final count, without the Levites, was 603,550 (men, of army age), so let’s say “about 600,000” and call it a day! Why the details? Why the precision?

This is also the end of the Count of the Omer. For almost 49 days, we’ve counted each and every day. Is counting some kind of a sport we enjoy? Rashi explains: מתוך חיבתם לפניו מונה אותם – out of his love to them, he counts them. Counting is a sign of love. We don’t count things we don’t care about. No one says, ‘I have about so and so many kids’. If one is a teacher, you know how many are in your class. When traveling, one would never say (I hope!), ‘I might have left some kids behind, I don’t know how many’. Likewise, things we care about, we schedule with precision. We know when and where. If you really want to meet, you don’t say, ‘I’ll see you in CA sometime’, but rather, ‘can you do lunch next Tuesday’? Whether days or people, we count each one, because each one – counts. This continues with the precise date our portion opens with:

א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד: בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:

But then, why not just count the whole people together? Why that division into tribes? We’re out of Egypt, “free people”! Aren’t we done with it?
The Torah does the same “trick” we’ve seen before: yes, we’re one, but no, that does not mean we’re all the same. Oneness and sameness are – not one and the same. Our oneness is made of distinction. So we see in chapter 2:2:

ב אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ. 2 ‘The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own standard, according to the ensigns; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.

Each tribe with their own flag, symbol, colors; and each with their own location in the camp. And yet, all together “parked” around one unifying “center piece” – the mishkan. The verb used here, yachanu, camped (or as I translated, “parked”) can connect us to another place we saw the same root: When Israel stood at Sinai, that time the verb was in the singular: vayichan sham Israel (Exodus 19:2), while here – in the plural. Which was is it? Yes again. Our uniqueness has meaning as long as we have our togetherness; our togetherness has meaning as long as we have our uniqueness. This is still trוe today. The tension between the individual and the community (partnership, family, etc) will go with us throughout life, and balancing it – a work of art.

This opening of the Book of Numbers is always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. First, we separate between the curses /consequences of last week, and the Giving of the Torah. We are also in the desert, and the desert is an open, magical place, where bread comes from the heavens, and water – from the ground, in complete contradiction with how we’ll live in the Land and anything we’ll see later on. This is the mindset we enter as we near the Giving of the Law: that we matter as a whole, and as individuals; and that something amazing and important is about to happen; something without which we’ll never be who we are; something that will forever change human history forever.

אֵין לִי קִיּוּם בְּלִי הַבְּרָקִים וְהַקּוֹלוֹת שֶׁשָּׁמַעְתִּי בְּסִינַי
I have no existence without the lightning and thunder I’ve heard at Sinai
Zelda (Israeli poet) 1914-1984

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Shavu’ot Same’ach!

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Still crazy after all these years…

We’re six years old and the school year is almost over. 1st grade: a red backpack on my back, a lunch pack hanging from my neck. A tight pin in my hair. T-shirt. Maybe shorts, or a skirt. “Comfortable” shoes. It’s a pretty straight route from home to school. My mom walks with me up the stairs, waits for me to cross the street and waves good bye. I’m a big kid. I know the way by myself. I know how to handle myself. And I definitely know what to do that morning in early June when the siren is sound. We just practiced it for Yom Ha’shoa. And Yom Hazikaron. When there’s a siren, wherever we are, we need to stand in attention, bow our heads slightly, and remember our heroes with somber faces. We practiced. We won’t let anyone down. Other kids stand still too. But wait! This siren is different!! People hurry us towards us, waving their hands excitedly, motioning us to run to the school and find shelter. There is no shelter. We sit in the hallways, away from the windows that might shatter.
At home, we have a partially empty “machsan”, sort of a storage “cave” under the house, but not underground, with one dusty orangy light bulb dangling from the ceiling. All the neighbors assemble, huddling together. Every so often, someone walks out to look at the sky in an effort to guess what’s going on. One neighbor brings a “transistor”. He wiggles the antenna as we try to listen to news – rusty, crackly, broken up voices say things we don’t understand and no one explains. My mom is pacing in the semi-darkness worried: her parents live in a moshav right near what was then the Jordanian border. We did visit not long before, to help dig trenches in the orchard, my mom begging her father to come to Haifa, which he, of course, refused.
My other grandma who lives next door, is not much different. I notice she does not come to the shelter. And I panic. During one of the calms between the sirens, my mom sends me to see what’s with her. She sits near her green, felt-like board; her cards stretched in front of her, trying to figure out which one to put on top. “Omi, omi”, I call out (yes, in German), “you have to come to the miklat (shelter)!” She doesn’t budge. I inched forward to check in there is room for the 2 red hearts. “Omi”? I try again. “I survived World War I, and World War II’, she says, “Came to Israel and lived through the War of Independence. And the Sinai Operation. I am not going anywhere. If He wants to take me now, He can come right here”.
He didn’t. Not then.
Soon it was all over. Names we heard of only through Torah stories became places we could go visit. At the end of the summer, our parents took us for a day trip to see Jerusalem and the famous sites: buildings with bullet holes in Mt. Scopus; the views to the Dead Sea; the houses and stones (so many stones!) of Mamila; the Kotel – a crowded space near a tall stonewall with people everywhere, people in tears, everything feels a bit delirious. We’re told to put a note, and we do. We still do, still ask for mostly the same things. So what. We’re standing next to a home we had 3000 years ago. If things take a little longer then we expect, that does not mean they won’t happen.

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