Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mah Zeh Achim?

By Susan Esther Barnes

The most holy place for Jews is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the place where our Temple once stood. It is said God's presence in the world emanates from this place. It is where Abraham brought Isaac; it is where God spoke and created the world.

For the almost 2,000 years of our exile, we yearned to return to this place. Throughout those long years, when the land was in the control of others, the closest we could get to it was a small piece of the retaining wall that forms a rectangle holding up the hill on which the Temple used to stand.

This accessible piece of the wall is West and South of the Temple's former location, which was about half way between the North and South ends of the wall surrounding the hill. The Holy of Holies, the most sacred place within the Temple, where the presence of God resides, was on the West side.

Although Jews are now in control of Jerusalem, we are still not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, still not allowed to pray near the old Temple site or the Holy of Holies. I am not advocating a change in this policy.

Untold thousands of Jews continue to come to the Western Wall to pray, where the men and women are divided by a barrier and women are not allowed to sing aloud or wear a tallit (prayer shawl). It is crowded with people. There is always someone there praying, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

But recent excavation has opened a path along the base of the Western Wall, heading North. It leads to a place that is clearly marked as being aligned with where the Temple used to be. This is the closest any Jew can now come to the old Temple site, to the Holy of Holies, to the source of God's presence in the world.

So who is allowed to walk this path to this special place? Just the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem or other dignitaries? Only the most devout? No, it is open to everyone.

So it must be crowded, right? Bursting at the seams? Humming with life and prayer? No. Even though anyone can come here; men and women, children and families; wearing a tallit or not; singing aloud or not; this Holy place stands as empty as a forgotten tomb.


Mah Zeh Achim?
What is This, My Brothers, My Sisters?

You have been separated from your beloved for many years. Your heart aches for her, you long to embrace him again, and though you know your love is reciprocated, despite your best efforts you are kept at a distance.

She dropped a scented kerchief to you, and you cling to it as you pray by her outer courtyard, calling to her.

He sent you a love letter, and you write down your deepest fears, your secret dreams, on little scraps of paper that you leave by his outer gate, hoping he will discover them there.

But what is this? The outer gate has been opened to you, for the first time in all your years of longing you may enter. And although you still may not approach her front door, and though you may not enter his home, yet you have been given a chance to come closer to the dwelling place of your beloved.

What is this?

She begs you to draw nearer, yet you stand aloof. She calls out to you, yet you do not hear. "What is this?" she cries, "Why have you abandoned me?"

"Why do you linger yet in the street outside?" he wails, "Have you clung so long to your kerchief and your letter, have you spent so much time adoring the place to which you have been coming all these years, that you have forgotten why you ever started to come there at all?"

"My beloved," she whispers, "Has it been so long you have forgotten it was me you once loved, and not the cold, hard stones?" She aches for you to abandon your worship of the wall and to draw nearer, to return to her.

My brothers, my sisters, wake up. Open your eyes.

Mah zeh achim?

What are you doing?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Primal Fear, Primal Awe

By Susan Esther Barnes

An interesting semantic issue comes up at least once or twice a year in our synagogue Torah Study group. There is a Hebrew word used often in relation to our feelings toward God which is generally translated as "fear," but an alternate translation for it is "awe." Substitute the word "awe" for "fear" and everything changes. Or nothing does.


I am deep in King Hezekiah's winding ancient water tunnel beneath the City of David in Jerusalem. The water comes part way up my shins. The ceiling is so low in places even I, at only 5 feet 4 inches tall, have to duck. The walls are inches away on either side, sometimes less than that. There is no room to pass; no way to turn back.

I am carrying a light stick to negotiate my way following the line of people in front of me. We are moving faster than the people behind us. Looking back, I can no longer see the light of the woman trailing me.

On a whim, I stop and wait until the person in front of me, too, disappears from sight. I hide my light stick beneath my clothing and descend into utter darkness. The echos of the voices of my group reverberate against the limestone walls, intertwining around me, then continuing on as if I don't exist.

I place the fingertips of my left hand against the rough surface of the ceiling. I use my left elbow to discover the location of the damp left wall, and my right elbow to negotiate the wall on the right, as my right hand covers the light stick it grips beneath my clothing.

I step forward into the darkness. After a while, my left elbow suddenly loses contact with the wall. I swing it out to its full extent; all it meets is empty air.

On one level I know this is just a man-made tunnel, going in one direction. It is perfectly safe; even small children are allowed in here. I cannot get lost.

On another level I imagine a huge cavern opening up on my left. The thrum of my heart responds to the irresistible pull of a primal fear. I still hear voices, but I am alone here in the dark, my light is gone, and I cannot see a way out.


Later, I say my prayers at the Kotel. As I back away, the stones in front of me appear to grow eerily, filling my restored sight.

I begin to cry, then sit, hunched over, on the steps nearby, sobbing. It is a primal thing. Hineini, I am here, fully present, in this place we yearned for over the hundreds, almost thousands, of years of our exile.

The echos of the voices of the ancient mourners for Jerusalem reverberate against the limestone walls, intertwining around me, then continuing on as if I don't exist. I am full of awe.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Only on a Plane to Israel

By Susan Esther Barnes

Please accept my apologies for typos. I'm not used to this keyboard yet and I have a very limited amount of time!

This is my first post from Israel, baruch hashem.

I'm on the plane from JFK in New York to Tel Aviv. I have the aisle seat, and in the window seat is a born-again Christian woman named Debbie from Florida who wants to engage me in a running monologue about her cell phone and whatever else springs to mind.

Presently I notice, hovering nearby, a pale young man with a beard, a black hat and tzitzit (fringes worn by Orthodox Jews). I glance at his boarding pass and see he has the seat between Debbie and me. I stand in the aisle and gesture toward the seat, but he looks anxious and simply walks further down the aisle without saying a word. I suspect the trouble is his religious beliefs prevent him from sitting between two women.

I hear another man similarly dressed say to him, "I would help if I could," and eventually the young man wanders back. I gesture toward the seat again, but he says, "I can't sit between..."

Clearly, at this point I have a choice to make. I booked the flight months ago and I want the aisle seat, where there is more room and I have easy access to the restroom. I believe in respecting, and making reasonable accomodations for, the religious beliefs of others. The phrase "Don't put a stumbling block before the blind" pops into my head, and I realize I just don't want to enable this behaviour. Maybe if he sits between two women for one flight he will realize it isn't a disaster.

The flight attendants announce a few times that the flight is full and everyone needs to sit down so we can leave the gate. Eventually, the doors are closed and the flight attendant tells the guy to sit in his seat. He refuses. The flight attendant insists, and instead the guy walks toward the back of the plane again.

Shortly, up walks a frum (Jewishly observant) woman named Dinah, who says she traded seats with the anxious young man. At first I feel a bit guilty, but as Debbie regales Dinah with tales of how she heals herself and others with the "Word of God," I am glad I was selfish and kept my assigned seat. Dinah, God love her, is a kind and patient woman who treats Debbie much more kindly than I think I would have been able to if I were sitting next to her.

I smile, because it all means without a doubt I'm on my way to Israel.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Distracted Driving

By Susan Esther Barnes

Earlier this week I was driving to work when I saw something out of the corner of my left eye. I glanced over, and discovered a couple of thin, shiny threads directly to my left. I swiped at them with my hand, successfully removing them, thinking that would be the end of it.

A couple of minutes later, I saw something moving out of the corner of my left eye. I looked over again, and saw a tiny spider ascending an invisible piece of web. I understand how helpful spiders are, eating mosquitoes and other flying pests, and yet they, especially large spiders, freak me out. Many years ago I saw the movie “Arachnophobia,” which was the only time I actually lost control in the movie theater, instinctively pawing the air in front of me as scenes of spiders filled the screen.

I consoled myself with the fact that this was a tiny spider, as well as with the idea that it was simply making for the safety of the top of the inner car door, where it would likely cower in fear until after I exited the vehicle. Alas, it was not so.

No, this critter was in no way intimidated by my presence or my recent destruction of its earlier strands. As I sped down the freeway at (actual speed has been omitted so as not to incriminate myself, but truly I generally try to stick to no more than 5 or at most 10 MPH or so over the speed limit, and have so far – knock on wood – never been pulled over), this brave tike just went about its business, building its web on the inside of my car window.

Needless to say, this activity was a bit distracting, but I just couldn’t bring myself to kill it, and it never occurred to me to pull over on the side of the freeway to evict it, so I just kept glancing over at it to make sure it wasn’t going to try to use me as one of the anchor points for its web.

Unexpectedly, this experience with the spider turned out to be prophetic of how my week would feel.

It felt like the week was speeding by. While normally I have intense powers of concentration, focusing so much on my work that I tune out everything around me to the extent that sometimes I don’t even notice a colleague calling my name, this week I was decidedly distracted.

As the week rushed by and I tried to concentrate on the task at hand, other thoughts kept popping into my head. Lists of things I needed to do at work, items I wanted to remember to pack for my trip to Israel, the last few items (snacks!) I wanted to buy at the grocery store this weekend, kept ruining my concentration.

While I worked late every evening to make sure I didn’t leave a pile of work for my colleagues while I was gone, and while my mind darted from one thing to another, it became clear that my blog would suffer.

I wanted to write about Judi, who fell in Chicago and hurt her leg so badly she will be in a care center for weeks and in rehab for months after that. I wanted to talk about how delivering a meal to the sick is different when it’s someone you know.

I wanted to write about Rose, whose signature is on my ketubah as a witness to my marriage. Rose, 93 years old and one of the most active people at the synagogue, who is back in the hospital after having a cancer tumor removed, and then developing an infection and abdominal seepage after she was discharged from the first hospital too soon. Rose, who for years has said she’s not afraid of death, who says her first thought upon awakening is, “Oh! I’m still alive!” Rose, who told me last weekend that as they wheeled her into the operating room she suddenly realized, “I don’t want to die.”

Usually when I want to write about things like this, I can feel some semi-conscious part of my mind going over it again and again, picking out words and phrases, harrying it mercilessly until I know it’s time for me to sit down and let it flow onto paper.

This week, the thought process would start, then get derailed, then sputter along a bit, then get dropped entirely for days, then peek up again only to be pushed aside. It was as if all week a little spider just on the edge of my sight kept pulling my thoughts off the road.

At least I have a reason to be distracted. Next week, in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Now I'm Excited to be Going to Israel!

For those of you who read my last post, I am now officially excited to be going to Israel. I woke up a half hour early today and couldn't go back to sleep because of it. Ok, maybe part of it was stress about the number of things I want to get done between now and when I'm scheduled to leave, but no question part of it was due to the fact that in less than a week I may actually be setting foot for the first time in the holy land.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why I'm Not Excited To Be Going To Israel

By Susan Esther Barnes

A week from Monday, about a week and a half from now, I’m scheduled to board a plane for my first visit to Israel. A lot of people know about it, because it’s a synagogue trip, so it’s been in the synagogue’s weekly emails and the rabbi who’s leading the excursion keeps mentioning it.

People keep asking me, “Are you excited?” clearly expecting me to say, “Yes!” but the honest answer is, “No, I’m not. At all.” It’s hard for me to say this, though, because people want to know what I mean by that. They want to know what’s wrong.

Is it because I’m afraid of terrorism? Is it that I don’t like airplanes or long trips? Does it have something to do with the flotilla, or Gaza, or the Middle East conflict in general? No, it is none of those things. The simple answer is, it’s because I spend most of my life living in the present.

Some people spend much of their time dwelling over events in the past, reliving moments gone by, trying to figure out how they could have done things better. Although I do try to learn from my mistakes (as well as from my successes), I don’t spend much time thinking about what has already happened.

When something that happens particularly strikes me, I will think about it, sometimes maybe even obsess about it, as I pick the words I’m going to use to write it down. But once I’ve gotten it onto paper, especially once I’ve posted it on my blog, I usually let it go and don’t think about it much any more.

Similarly, some people spend much of their time thinking about the future. These people are great planners. If they were going on a trip to Israel they might read books about where they’re going, maybe watch some Israeli movies, or look at maps or other information online.

For people who like to spend time in the future, planning for the trip and anticipating what it might be like in advance is half the fun. I am not one of these people. I’d rather just show up and see what happens when I get there. I’d be perfectly happy not even seeing an itinerary in advance. This is especially easy to do when going with a tour group like the one the synagogue arranged.

Of course, this tendency not to plan for the future has its drawbacks. Sometimes I walk into a meeting and suddenly think, “Oops, I should have brought such-and-such with me.” It also means when someone asks me in a job interview, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” my honest answer of, “I have no idea; I’d like to see how things unfold,” generally is not what they’re hoping to hear.

Yes, I am a creature of the present. This state of being has some definite advantages. I believe one of the reasons I’m good at helping out at the synagogue is I spend most of my time paying attention to what is happening in the moment. Therefore, I’m more likely than some others to notice if a congregant needs a prayer book or a tissue, or the rabbi needs a cup of water, or a visitor is searching for the restroom; so I’m in a position to help get them what they require.

It can also lead to some degree of frustration. When I was studying for my Master’s degree I was in a cohort of people who preferred to spend most of their time in the future. For instance, if the professor mentioned a paper that would be due at the end of the semester, they would ask endless questions about what should be in the paper, how it should be formatted, how long it should be, etc. The whole time I would sit there thinking, “That paper isn’t due for a long time yet. I’m not concerned about that right now. Can we just get on with the class at hand?”

It can also lead to confusion. I’m supposed to be going to Israel in a week and a half, for the first time. I very much want to go. So how can I not be excited? People react as if there’s something wrong with me.

So here it is, all you future folk: I’m not excited because it’s still a week and a half out. I have a lot of things in the present to take up my time and to get excited about between then and now, including two Shabbats, which are almost always the highlight of my week.

If you want to see me being excited about Israel, talk to me when I’m on the plane, or as I step onto the soil of the holy land. I can assure you, when the time comes, I’ll be bouncing off the walls. But right now I’m not excited about the trip. At all. And that’s okay, because all it means is I’m being me.