Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 7, 2020 / 12 Shevat 5780
Reminders: On February 19th at 7 pm, world-renowned historian, Benny Morris will be speaking at CNS. Professor Morris was one of the first of Israel’s “new historians” who gained access to previously classified documents. These told a much more nuanced version of how the state came to be in the early years of 1948 and on.
This Monday is Tu b’Shvat, or the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It is the New Year of the Trees. At the conclusion of this months Oregon Board of Rabbis meeting, we all had the opportunity to watch some trees being planted at Shaarei Torah, our sister Conservative movement congregation.
Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs touches upon our upcoming community Israel trip, and offers some reflections on the life of Kirk Douglas, including a trip he took to Israel over 30 years ago.
It is just a bit under six weeks until our Portland community heads to Israel on our PDX Israel 2020 trip marking the Federation’s Centennial and I am getting excited. Nearly 400 people are going, of whom Neveh Shalom has over 70 people, which is pretty amazing and a remarkable testament to our kehilla. Some of our folks will even participate in a group b’nei mitzvah ceremony at Robinson’s arch, a part of the Western Wall.
If you are going on that trip, I have two requests for you.
First, please download the WhatsApp program on to your smart phone. This will allow us to stay in contact without incurring long distance charges. In fact, WhatsApp is an Israeli software platform that allows over 1 billion people in 180 countries to communicate for free by voice or text.
Additionally, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a title of REGISTRATION FOR ISRAEL TRIP. Include your cellphone number in that email, as this will be how we can stay in contact with you. We will create our own CNS WhatsApp group. That way, if people wish to gather during an unscheduled trip slot, we can make sure everyone is notified.
Climbing Our Mountains: Remembering Kirk
Most American Jews have some sort of story or connection to Israel. Some are ardent Zionists and recognize how miraculous the return to our ancient homeland is. Others have traveled there once or twice, on their own personal pilgrimage. There are also Jews who have no connection to Israel, or feel distant from it. That, too, is a story of connection, although a counterintuitive one—a tale told through absence. Sometimes, these are actually the most profound and moving of narratives, especially when that absence is later filled with joy, commitment and meaning.
I want to share with you one of those stories, because it changed the trajectory of a person’s life, ultimately enriching his heart. The individual is Kirk Douglas, who died this past week, and the story is found in his book “Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning,” which made it into print in 2001.
I met Kirk the year before, when he visited the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. He must already have been 83 or so, and remained quite the raconteur. He entertained a group of us rabbinical students with how he found his own way back to Judaism. Like many American Jews, his connection to religious Judaism was tenuous at best, in part because his Jewish education ended at an early age.
There is a way that his experience mirrors so many of ours. He also told us that his story was hardly atypical, and that one of our duties as rabbis would be to reach out and teach a passionate Judaism so that new generations would not be as divorced and alienated from their culture and religion as he had been. He wanted to work through us to ensure that people would not lose hold of their precious legacy. He was already in his later years, and felt some urgency to transmit this message to us. Little did he know that he would be blessed with another twenty years.
I would like to think that all of us in the room that day have endeavored to fulfill an old man’s request, each in our own way.
I hope that you will enjoy and be moved by this story as I was and am. And for this week’s Shabbat table talk, why don’t you reflect on these questions:
- Did you also have a phase where you grew distant from Judaism?
- When did you gain most of your Jewish knowledge? Where you a child or an adult?
- Are there areas of Jewish learning that you still engage in?
And for my non-Jewish readers, please substitute your own heritage or background into those questions. For maintaining identity and a sense of family history in America presents challenges to many of us.
Climbing the Mountain
I met Rabbi Aaron… by the Zion Gate and [we] walked through the Jewish Quarter.
I said, “Look, Rabbi, I want you to know that I am not much of a Jew. Judaism lost me at age fourteen.”
What he said in response staggered me. He pointed out that no rational adult would make a business decision based on what he knew when he was fourteen. No one would decide whom to marry based on whit he knew about love and relationships when he was fourteen. But lots of people seem satisfied to dismiss religion based on what they learned – or didn’t learn – at fourteen.
He was right, and I was one of those that stupid.
I was stuck back at age fourteen, staring at a picture in my Hebrew book – Abraham with his long beard bent over a frightened little boy, in his hand a long knife. That boy looked a lot like me. Okay, so Isaac didn’t die, but he came close. I bet he didn’t go for a walk with his father after that. Tell him that it was only a test from God.
That’s what I was remembering as Rabbi Aaron took us up to the rooftop of his school. He kept talking in a low voice as the sun continued to sink. The rays bounced off the gold of the Dome of the Rock, the icon of Islam dominating this ancient Jewish city….
As my eyes traveled around the Old City, the rabbi pointed out the Moslem Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter. I could feel the holiness of the city, so important to so many. All these religions were rubbing shoulders with one another and hating the friction created by such closeness.
Yet it all began with one man-Abraham, the first monotheist. The three religions that now make their home here all claim him as father. They are all based on the Torah. Jesus studied Torah; Mohammed studied Torah. But I had never studied Torah. It was about time. And it was there-as the candles of Jerusalem were lit like stars-that I made a vow to do it.
As we left the rooftop, I kept thinking: I have been a Jew for over seventy years and I know so little about Judaism. Why am I still a Jew? I pushed those thoughts out of my head as we walked through the dark alleys to the rabbi’s home.
I met his young wife, a former parachutist in the Israeli army, and his five children. We ate a delicious meal and sang songs with the rabbi beating time on the table. Through the window I could see other houses lit by the warm light of candles and could hear the same songs echoing in the night. They were happy songs. I felt good.
That night I felt that I had come home. The light of the Shabbat candles transported me back seventy years. I could see my mother’s face as she lit them each Friday night. I could hear her voice, just before she died: “What day is it?”
“Don’t forget to light the candles….”
I made plans to start studying the Torah with the young rabbi the next time he came to America.
He told me that, in English translation, there are only 350 pages in the Torah. Not so many. I thought if God is a patient God, maybe he’ll give me enough time to learn the things I need to know to understand this book that has made Jews the conscience of the world. Maybe I will understand why people hate us.
The next day, I took a tour through the tunnel along the foundations of the Temple. Archeologists had dug this tunnel, barely wider than a sewer pipe, to expose the entire Western Wall….
The tunnel is as close as a Jew can get to the majesty and holiness of the Temple originally built by King Solomon. You feel like a rat burrowing into the history of your ancestors buried by the debris of so many conquerors.
As I walked slowly, following my guide, Tova Saul, a young religious girl who came from Pittsburgh to settle here, I let my fingers caress the huge blocks of stone.
We came to an archway, cemented in by the Arabs, where a door had once led to the top of the Temple Mount. This is how the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. As Tova was reciting some interesting facts about the archway, suddenly all went black. And I mean pitch black. The electricity was out. I didn’t know what to do. I could hear voices of people calling to each other as they groped for the exit. When the lights go out, Israelis always worry. Are the Arabs attacking again? Are Scud missiles flying? The tunnel had only one way out then, and it wasn’t easy to leave the way you came.
I was standing in what, for a Jew, is the holiest spot on earth.
I decided to recite the only prayer I still remembered in Hebrew: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohainu Adonai Ehad.” Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One!
The lights came back on. “You want to leave?’ Tova asked, anxiously looking to see if the temporary blackout had frightened me.
“No,” I said, “let’s go on.” We continued down the passageway until we came to the end.
“This is it,” Tova said, pointing to an exposed piece of rough stone in front of us. The stone was no longer part of the smooth wall. This stone was something else.
“What is it?”
“This is the bedrock of Mount Moriah.”
I looked at this black stone enshrouded with so much mystical meaning.
She finished it for me. “Yes, this is the bedrock of the mountain where Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed.”
The picture from my Hebrew school book flashed into my mind. But, to my surprise, it no longer frightened me. I wasn’t sure why. Something had happened to me here that I didn’t quite understand.
It was very quiet in the tunnel, dimly lit, cool.
Tova’s voice was barely above a whisper: “This is where it all started.”
I couldn’t speak. She was right.
This place represented the beginning of my doubts. And, at long last, the end of them.
Here in the dark tunnel, touching the rock of Mount Moriah, I grew up.
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