40 Days

I still remember, so clearly, the moment that I first thought up this blog. I was in my parents’ apartment, thinking of packing in the weeks ahead, trying to brainstorm anything to get myself excited about the year to come. At the time, I largely dreaded coming here. I was afraid. I was leaving so much behind. Oh sure, I’d learn some Hebrew and explore some new spots, but would I have a community? Would I come to feel at home? Would I learn enough to make it worth being away for so long?

The year isn’t over yet, and I don’t think I’ll really have clear answers to all of these questions until I’ve had some time in the States to process the whole experience. What I know right now, though, is that the States aren’t that far away anymore. I started this year counting 40 weeks. (As it turns out, it’ll be 40-less-1, but I didn’t know that at the time. No false advertising intended.) From 40 (ok, ok, 39) weeks I’ve come down to 40 days. In 40 days at this time, I’ll be on a plane from Paris to Reykjavik, somewhere in the middle of my middle leg of what will be a 27 hour journey from Tel Aviv to San Francisco.

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This is from my flight back to TLV from Rome back in February

I can’t help but think about the 40-days-in mark. It was October 15– the day before the start of sukkot. Everything still felt so new then. I had had only a few weeks of classes at the Conservative Yeshiva, the rabbinical student consortium had yet to begin, I was months away from any of this years’ visitors arriving in Jerusalem, and the now oh-so-grownup kittens looked like this:

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Now, my Conservative Yeshiva semester is long over and my BINA semester will end in 5 weeks, the rabbinical student consortium has only 4 more sessions, all of my wonderful visitors have come and gone, and instead of seeing my kittens every day at school, I see these chickens:

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And how much has happened in the days between the first 40 and these last. Wonderful things like forming the friendships that have sustained me here. Terrible things like the loss of my Grandfather. Opportunities for learning– a few in the classroom, certainly, but many beyond it. Room for experimentation with my own religious practices. Travel within Israel. Travel to Europe not once but three times. Visits from my family and other dear ones. A move from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Many visits to the beach.

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My time here is definitely not done. I have over a month of class left. I’m hardly in the “get packed up and ready to go” stage. And, it’s a relief to have gotten this far. There have been a few moments over the course of my time here when I’ve wondered if I would still be in Israel in June. Times when I was so homesick or so worried about my health or so tired of Israel’s difficulties (the few that I experience as a woman of Ashkenazi descent, that is) that I didn’t know if I would manage to complete my studies here. I thought I might decide I had to go home early.

Life happens, and it’s not impossible that something could cause me to leave between now and June, but I feel confident in my own commitment. I have lasted this long. I can last another 40 days.

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especially with my handy-dandy crazy calendar

(On another note, here are some pictures from the last few weeks.)

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Shabbos Blessing- Week 19

וַיְכַ֤ל יַעֲקֹב֙ לְצַוֺּ֣ת אֶת־בָּנָ֔יו וַיֶּאֱסֹ֥ף רַגְלָ֖יו אֶל־הַמִּטָּ֑ה וַיִּגְוַ֖ע וַיֵּאָ֥סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו׃
וַיִּפֹּ֥ל יוֹסֵ֖ף עַל־פְּנֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ עָלָ֖יו וַיִּשַּׁק־לֽוֹ
וַיְצַ֨ו יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶת־עֲבָדָיו֙ אֶת־הָרֹ֣פְאִ֔ים לַחֲנֹ֖ט אֶת־אָבִ֑יו וַיַּחַנְט֥וּ הָרֹפְאִ֖ים אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
וַיִּמְלְאוּ־לוֹ֙ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם כִּ֛י כֵּ֥ן יִמְלְא֖וּ יְמֵ֣י הַחֲנֻטִ֑ים
 
When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel. It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming (Genesis 49:33- 50:3)

Tomorrow morning, Jews in synagogues around the world will study the portion of “Vayehi,” the last chapters of the book of Genesis. Joseph, after decades spent away from his beloved father, has been reunited with his father, his brothers, and their families. Jacob gives parting words to each of his sons and dies. He is embalmed for that magical number of 40 days, and the brothers settle in Egypt, putting down roots that will not be removed for hundreds of years. From 71 people– Jacob’s 12 sons and their families– the line of Israel grows into the people of Israel suffering under Pharaoh’s whip. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

At the end of each of the Five Books of Moses, what we call the Torah, there’s a tradition of chanting the words “Hazak hazak v’nithazak– be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!” We have reached the end of one significant part of our journey. We are moving on to another.

Tomorrow we will finish the book of family within Torah and we will move on to the book of peoplehood. Really, Genesis is about one family. We begin with the very first humans, and we follow their line, first through Seth to Noah, then through Shem to Abraham, and from Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob. But then, our lines become too many to track. We know that Moses and Miriam and Aaron are descendants of Levi, but the Israelites whom they lead from bondage come from each tribe. Family is still important in the book of Exodus, but it is not the focus. Peoplehood is.

This week also marks the end of a book in my life. A week from today, I will be on a plane to Barcelona. I will have moved out of my apartment here in Jerusalem. I will have completed my last final– a 10-page paper on some element of the Oslo Accords that I’m still narrowing in upon. My first semester, this first half of my time in Israel, will be over. Next shabbat, when we begin the book of Exodus, I will be beginning a new book of my own.
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The Jerusalem Campus of “Hebrew Union College.”

This morning, I found myself in a workshop at HUC on “Expressive Kavannah.” Kavannah is an important piece of my Jewish life– the focus or directionality or intention of prayer and other experiences. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect in the workshop, but I had heard that it would involve creative expression, and that usually interests me, so I gave it a shot. Our teacher spoke of blessings and of gratitude and linked them in with Jacob’s parting words with his sons. We had space to move, to meditate, and to write, and then we had space to create. Our teacher provided various materials and set us loose.
I am a creator, but I am not a visual artist, and this was freeing for me, because it allowed me to express however I wished instead of being tied to an ideal of what my work “ought” to look like. I ended up with this:
img_9719 This week, I guess you could say that I crafted my own blessing. This image is all about groundedness and exploration. The colors, moving from top right to bottom left, represent a sunset over water, shore, earth, and sky. The strings on top, diverging and then connecting on both ends, represent the underlying support structures that allow me to feel safe enough for risk-taking. The ends are my foundations and the center my explorations.

I am reminded, whenever I am grounded enough to see it, that I am held, but often enough, when I’m flying, it is hard to see the ground. It is hard to remember that I am connected to supports no matter how far from them I go. Last week, loved ones were here in person. I remembered that I am held because I felt it physically. This week, I must remember that my family and other dear ones are still with me. I hold their hearts and they hold mine.

Sunset is still early, and I have more travel plans to make. So, for one last time, Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.

I lift my eyes to the hills

“Yes, I grew up here,” the man replied, nodding vehemently in response to the question, gesturing towards a far-off, fenced-in settlement in the south Hebron Hills.

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He had been standing with our group, and, until he started to speak, I hadn’t known that he wasn’t a part of it. Our morning had been spent mostly on the bus. This was our first stop, on a hilltop where we could note the invisible green line in one direction and dotted Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages in the other. I knew a few of the group participants but not the majority, so his face didn’t stick out. But this man wasn’t a rabbinical student or one of our Israeli facilitators. This man was a resident of an unauthorized Israeli outpost that could not possibly seem unauthorized to him.

“What he’s been telling you,” he said, referring to our Israeli guide, who had been explaining differing law enforcement practices for Israeli and Palestinian communities. “It’s not true. I’m afraid for my life, afraid to go out. We have to live behind fences to stay safe. They throw stones. I have friends who have died. Stones are not a joke.”

The man’s eyes spoke worry and concern for his future on the land he knew as his own. He was in his mid-20s at least. He had parents and sisters, friends. He grew up there. He knew no other life. How could home be unauthorized?

We thanked him for sharing his story and got back onto the bus.

Down the road in Susya, life was split. On one side, an Israeli settlement, this one authorized, rose up with houses, paved roads, a yeshiva. On the other side, there were tents. Not cute camping tents. The sort of tent that you set up when it’s your only living option, because in return for the army not demolishing your tents, you’ve agreed not to apply for building permits.

A car with yellow plates– an Israeli car– drove up as we were getting off of the bus. Two young men rolled down the windows and called out jovially: “ברוכים הבאים לסוסיא! Welcome to Susya! מה נשמע? How are you?” They drove on to the settlement. We walked towards the tents.

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Children were the first to notice. A few small boys and one very small girl came running towards us with calls of “hello.” We walked along the dirt paths and were ushered into a crumbling cement-walled structure with a canvas roof, where a man named Nasser Nawaja (you can read his NYT op-ed from last summer here) told us his story. While he spoke in Hebrew, and our guide translated, the children stuck their heads in through windows and the open door. One particularly rambunctious boy clambered up the side of the building and stuck his head in between the top of the concrete wall and the roof, grinning broadly.

Later that afternoon, as we planted olive trees donated by Tru’ah, that same boy ran around with a pick ax, wanting to dig every hole himself. He was 10 years old– just big enough to be at the top of the kids’ pack without being so big as to be at the bottom of the adult pile. He was at his height of confidence, his handshake close to a high five, his eyes bright with knowledge and void of fear. It was easy to imagine this child one day hefting a stone to defend the land he knew as his own. I feared for him.

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We sat in the sun in hevruta–study pairs–looking at the week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8). The Torah is nearly over. After 40 years of wandering the desert, after the turning over of a generation, the Israelites are about to “come to the land that Adonai [their] God has given [them] as an inheritance, that [they] will possess it and settle in it” (Deuteronomy 26:1).  The land flowing with milk and honey. The land that the Israelites would come to know as their own. The land that established native peoples, whom the Torah instructs the Israelites to dispossess, knew as their own.

I read the holy words of our holy book and looked out at a 10-year-old Palestinian boy riding a donkey over the dusty ground. I read the holy words of our holy book and looked across the road to homes where Jews were doubtless busying themselves preparing for shabbat.

We got back onto the bus.

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I found a pair for last week’s donkey! Git on the ark, you two!

“I have a question for you,” our guide said as we wound our way back towards the main road. “What can we do to help this conversation in America? Why don’t people talk about it?”

How can people talk about it? I’m afraid to write even this much, even though I’m writing only about what I experienced, even though I’m not assigning blame, even though I’m not saying what I think should or should not happen. Anything regarding this tiny slice of so-sacred land is steeped in emotion and history and, too often, blood. As a future rabbi, a person who wants to be able to serve Jews wherever they might fall on the religious/political spectrum of belief about this place, any form of writing about this land is terrifying. And yet, these stories deserve to be told, and so I will tell them.

We came to a quick stop when army vehicles blocked the road. An Israeli soldier in tactical gear, an M-16 slung across his chest, stepped up to the door of the bus. Our guide’s perfect native Hebrew accent got him answers. There had been a stabbing in a nearby settlement. The assumption was that a Palestinian had stabbed an Israeli settler, but the soldier didn’t tell us that much. He looked too warm in his uniform, tired, ready to do anything other than stand in the middle of this road. Where were we headed, he wanted to know. ירושלים– Jerusalem–our guide told him. He nodded and stepped away. A moment later, other soldiers waved our bus, with its yellow plates, on through the block.

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In Jerusalem, I celebrated a vibrant, soulful shabbat service at Nava Tehila and then headed home, overhearing other shuls at prayer and shabbos tables in full swing. There was a magic to it, to the Jewish community in all its variety marking, through open doors and windows, the holiness of the moment. I felt safe as I walked the streets, fearing neither stones nor soldiers. I pray that, soon and in my lifetime, such peacefulness will be possible for all who know this land as their own.

Welcome to the Ark

 

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks. 

“For My part, I am about to bring the Flood—waters upon the earth—to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish. But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female. From birds of every kind, cattle of every kind, every kind of creeping thing on earth, two of each shall come to you to stay alive. For your part, take of everything that is eaten and store it away, to serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did. (Genesis 6:13-22, courtesy of Sefaria)

Well shit. I mean, you gotta give the guy credit for going with the flow– for dealing when the world was literally (or, well, biblically, anyway) washed out from underneath him.
Noah walked with God. We know that from earlier in Torah (Genesis 6:9, to be precise). We know that he was a good guy, maybe the only good guy, in a time with few redeeming qualities. At the same time, it isn’t as though he was actually that special. Sure, he was a descendent of Adam and Eve, but so was everybody else. Sure, he was blameless in his age, (says 6:9), but in an age full of blame, that might only have gotten him so far.

Really, we don’t know why Noah, of all people on earth during its dark beginnings, was chosen to carry on the human line. God could have started over (anybody remember Lilith?), or God could have plucked out some friends for Noah beyond his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law. God didn’t. Instead, God gave God’s orders, and Noah, the good walker alongside that he was, followed right along.

And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth. In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, And the floodgates of the sky broke open. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights(Genesis 7:10-7:12, courtesy of Sefaria

It can’t have been easy. Construct a floating box, get in the floating box, make your family follow you into the floating box, collect 2 (or 14– it gets confusing– read Genesis and you’ll see what I mean) of every animal to hang out with you in the floating box, and wait.

Before I started rabbinical school, I spent a year living in rural southwest China, where there was a distinctive wet season. It rained for part of at least 40 days straight. It was tough. I wanted blue sky as much as I wanted indoor plumbing. DSCF3642I felt trapped by the seemingly endless damp that seeped into everything from my clothes to my hair (oh my poor hair) to my motivation to leave my home and connect with the local community. Rain is tough. Hanging out in a floating box while it’s raining is tougher. Hanging out in a floating box during the flood–the mayim mabul (מים מבול) aka “the water that wore out everything, cast everything into confusion, and brought everything down from the heights” according to Rashi— yeah, that’s toughest. God didn’t tell Noah what awaited him in the box or what would await him on the other side. As much as we modern humans  like to complain about God taking a big step back from the old interventionist mentality, we might have the better end of the deal here. Who can say? All I know is that, if I were Noah, the Torah would have needed an extra chapter or two to record my flipping out about the flood, the floating box, and the general uncertainty of everything that would happen as a result of both.

A few weeks ago, I found myself flipping out about something else. As a rabbinical student, you see, I am required to go study in Israel for an academic year. When I tell people this, they often respond with something along the lines of “Oh my goodness, you must be so excited!” or “What an incredible opportunity!” or “Wow, I wish I could go with you!” But here’s the truth: I don’t want to go. It’s not that I don’t see the value inherent in studying there, or appreciate the chance to improve my Hebrew (and hopefully Arabic), or even feel some eagerness to live in a new culture for the first time since returning from China five years ago. No, I don’t want to go because I don’t know what’s coming, and I’m afraid of being alone and of being separated from the majority of my classmates (who, for a variety of reasons, are not being required to spend a full academic year studying in Israel). As this summer has slipped closer and closer to its end, and my flight to Ben Gurion has evolved from an abstraction to something very real happening very soon, I have found myself growing closer to panic. Recently, I sat down at my calendar and counted weeks. How many weeks would I be in Israel if all went according to plan?

40 weeks. I would be in Israel for 40 weeks.

I don’t know how to describe exactly what feeling came over me in that moment. All I know is that I felt a sudden peace with the uncertainty to come. The number 40 matters in Judaism. 40 days of the flood. 40 days of Moshe receiving revelation atop Mt. Sinai. 40 seah of water in a mikvah. 40 weeks of gestation. 40 years in the desert.

40 isn’t just any number. It’s a number that marks transformation, an entry into new existence. Learning that I would be spending 40 weeks in Israel helped me to see my time studying there as a time of transformation in line with that of my literal or mythic ancestors. Israel is going to be my ark, my floating box that will lead me to something new. I am going alone, but I am going with a tradition. In that, there is comfort.

 

So stick around. I’ll be writing about 40, about Noah, about Moshe, about Torah, about Israel, about Palestine, about being a 29-year-old female rabbinical student who speaks better Mandarin than Hebrew (for now– if that hasn’t changed by June I’m gonna have issues), about baking without an oven–oh, and about Judaism too, I imagine. If you know me in real life, this will probably be your best way to see what I’m up to in the Land. If you don’t know me in real life, I hope this gives you some food for thought in some form or another. For now, time to pack. The ark floats in a week.