Israel: Where is God in This? (Mariko Gordon)
Rabbi David often asks me “and where is God in all of this?” So when asked to write about the trip, I thought I would share the places in which I found God.
God was to be found in nature.
We are viscerally wired to feel peace when we hear water and birdsong. Birds give the all clear — that there are no predators nearby, while the sound of water means relief from thirst and from hunger — fruit, greens, and game are plentiful. Although greenery is pretty, when it is found in the desert it transcends the beautiful to become the miraculous. For me Ein Gedi, where David once found refuge, infuses the word “oasis” with new meaning — an oasis is not just a bit of greenery in a desert landscape, but a place that engenders gratitude so profound that it nuzzles joy itself. How could one not be grateful to the core for the many blessings of an oasis in the middle of the desert? shade — respite from the sun — water cooled air — respite from the heat — bodies sated with food and drink and souls feasting on a sensory banquet after the deprivation of the desert — the chittering of birds, the cascade of pebbles dislodged by an Ibyx, the fluttering of a cloud of butterflies enlivening a bush, the shocks of color nestled among the green, the rustling of leaves, the roar of the waterfall, and the prick of the thorn bush.
God was to be found in the mundane.
Svod (Tzfat) is the home of mystical Judaism, a place where Rabbi Luria held forth, leading his congregation out to greet the Shabbat bride in the fields. Perched on a hill, his synagogue is teeny, and well worn — not a dilapidated well worn, but the well worn that comes from love and daily use — the softened edges of your grandmother’s wooden spoon that you always reach for first in the kitchen drawer, or the bald patches on the Velveteen Rabbit. The synagogue feels in such constant use that there’s barely time to give it a fresh coat of paint, much less make sure that the paint lines are tidy. The ark is just shy of gaudy, made of ornately carved and painted wood and, being too tall, bends at the neck in order to fit, sprawling over part of the ceiling — whether it was a second hand ark for a larger space, someone measured wrong, or someone made it wrong, it didn’t seem to matter at all — the mystics made do with the ark they had, folding it into the space they had, and in so doing ended up creating what was to me a symbol of irrepressible faith, of a faith so bountiful it refuses to be contained. And back to the contrast prosaic and the divine — high up on a pillar sat a locked metal box containing the matzoh that will become the afikomen at next year’s Passover. HIgh up on an entry wall sat a card swipe — whether for security or for donations I do not know. The divine and the mundane — can they ever really be separated?
One other highlight for me was tagging along with Rabbi David to buy klafim, because I was not going to go to Svod and come home without one. The sofer was from Argentina — he had a gentle energy, big brown eyes, and moved with a measured grace befitting his calling. His calligraphy was simple and his energy was pure.
God was to be found in the destruction.
Learning about the Second Temple and its destruction, then going to the wall to place prayers from members of Beth El into the cracks of the wall was another moment of experiencing the divine. Not so much because of the contrast between what existed before its destruction and what little is left today, but because the sense of loss of the ground zero of Jewish spiritual life hung so palpably in the air. Yet the without the loss of the temple and the scattering of the Jewish people many of the things that make Judaism what it is today would not have happened. By this I mean the keen ability to create sacred time and space that transcends place, the elimination of other practices of the Temple era such as intercession of a priestly caste, animal sacrifices, and so on. The richness that is Judaism would not be possible without the loss of the temple — within destruction lie the seeds of creation — a cliche perhaps, but true nevertheless. I was struck at seeing how raw and real the loss still feels today for so many people, and how for so many others praying at the the temple wall meant coming home.
To walk below the retaining wall of the mount, on a rock path people from the era of the second temple walked on, an area actually closer to the remnants of the temple than the retaining wall itself, was a moving experience. Above, what’s visible is the conflict around who gets to be the arbiter of Judaism today, and what is the role of women in Jewish religious life, civil rights etc. Below, nearer to the actual temple remains, prayers and petitions are also tucked into crevices between the building blocks of the temple, and men and women are not segregated.
These are but a few of the places and experiences in which I saw God in all of this.