He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.
– Jeremiah 17.8
Thus the prophet Jeremiah speaks of the one whose trust is in God.
On a quiet hilltop in the heights of Rosh Pina in northern Israel, overlooking the Hula Valley and the Golan, there is a small stone monument carved with the beginning of this verse from Jeremiah. It stands within a lovely little park at the scenic overlook, as if in silent watch over the hamlets and villages in the valley below. There is a tree and a few brightly colored benches, which offer visitors a quiet place to sit and think for a few minutes, as they take in the exquisite expanse.
Written on the monument is the following, with the caveat that I have rendered the two last lines not literally, but in a way that makes the most sense to me in English.
THE BE’ERI LOOKOUT
(followed by the verse from Jeremiah)
In memory of BE’ERI (BARRY) OVED, zichrono liv’rachah
Born 19 Sivan, 5742 – June 10, 1982
Killed in a terrorist attack on the #37 bus
on Moriah Boulevard, Haifa,
1 Adar II, 5762 – March 5, 2003
BARRY, you were a well of fresh water for us;
Your beaming smile of grace will remain with us forever. . . .
Throughout Israel, there are quiet monuments similar to this one, though in its simplicity and quietude, this one is particularly moving. At his funeral, Barry’s sister Limor said: “He was modest and shy, and gave all he had to everything he did.” A Staff Sergeant in the Army, Barry was in Haifa to visit his grandparents, when he boarded the No. 37 bus, along with Christians, Druze, and Jews. 15 people were killed on that bus, 8 of them children under the age of 18. There was also another soldier killed with Barry, who was 20. Barry was laid to rest in the Rosh Pina Military Cemetery.
It seemed particularly meaningful that we happened by this overlook on this past Sunday, as the country marked the observance of the 9th of Av – Tishah B’av. It is the day that memorializes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and then, became the assigned date as well for numerous other disasters that followed. Tishah B’av is traditionally observed as a day of fasting and mourning. Reform Jews have never observed this fast, by and large, because at least ideologically, we have not considered ourselves to be “in mourning” for the Temple, and don’t particularly hope to see it rebuilt anytime soon. . . . Nevertheless, Reform Jews as well, over recent years, have developed a keener sense of historical identification with these events, and the observance of Tishah B’av, at least in some form, has come into the Reform consciousness much more palpably. In addition, it is virtually impossible to be here in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem where the Temple once stood in all its splendor, and not be aware of the terrible destruction that took place here, plunging our people into a state of exile and depression. Certainly we New Yorkers can relate, when we remember what we went through on 9/11. As the ruins of the Twin Towers covered the streets of Lower Manhattan, so did the huge stones of the Temple and its precincts cover the broken streets of Jerusalem. And certainly, Tishah B’av as a day of commemoration of disasters that have befallen our people is a day for us to take into our hearts, regardless of the fine points of our modes of observance.
The quiet little park dedicated to the memory of Barry Oved reminds us of all the victims of hatred and fanaticism whose lives have been so wastefully cut short in the name of – – something-or-other. . . . Whether Jew, or Muslim, or Christian or Druze, or the appropriate counterparts elsewhere in the world, humanitarians and peace-loving people everywhere have been hurt and brutalized. Yet, the quietude of this park can also remind us of our capacity for good – our aspiration not to tear down but to build; not to hurt, but to comfort; not to dominate, but to live in peaceful coexistence.
This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu – the Sabbath of Comfort. “Comfort, O comfort, My people. . .” says Isaiah. Perhaps the overriding message of Tishah B’av is to reject destruction and brutality and instead work to build a just and peaceful society.
Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem. . .
Comfort, O comfort, My people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. . .
A voice rings out:
“Clear in the desert
A road for the Eternal!
Level in the wilderness
A highway for our God!
Let every valley be raised,
Every hill and mount made low.
Let the rugged ground become level
And the ridges become a plain.
The Presence of the Eternal shall appear,
And all flesh, as one, shall behold –
For the Eternal God has spoken.”
– from Isaiah 40.1-5
With a free evening from Hartman this past Monday, Steve and I treated ourselves to a performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) at the International Convention Center, known to most as “Binyanei Ha’uma,” which is across from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. The IPO usually performs at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium at the Cultural Center of Tel Aviv, but since last night’s performance was in Jerusalem, it saved us the drive. Maestro Zubin Mehta conducted the orchestra, along with the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir and an assemblage of magnificent soloists, in a concert performance of Giuseppi Verdi’s opera, “Un Ballo In Maschera” (A Masked Ball) – a story of palace intrigue and affairs of the heart. Verdi originally intended the protagonist to be the King of Sweden, but the court censor nixed that idea, and relocated the story to center around the governor of Boston, MA, in the 18th century. Admittedly, a pretty ridiculous premise; but Monday’s performance was absolutely gorgeous, with magnificent singing and playing all around.
The great conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted the first performance of the IPO on December 26, 1936. Originally called the Eretz Yisrael Symphony Orchestra, the name was changed to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with the formation of the state in 1948. The orchestra was founded by violinist Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish Jew who had fled from the Nazis to Palestine. Its general manager was Leo Kestenberg, a German Jew forced out of Germany by the Nazi regime. In fact one of the primary intents of the orchestra was to provide professional opportunities for many Jewish musicians forced out of Europe and elsewhere, as the world moved closer to conflagration. During WWII, the orchestra played no fewer than 140 performances for Allied soldiers, and in 1942, arranged a special performance for the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade of El Alamein. Since that time the IPO has played numerous performances for IDF soldiers all over the country.
In 1988 Leonard Bernstein was named the IPO’s Laureate Conductor. Seven years earlier, in 1981, Steve and I had the pleasure of attending an outdoor concert of the IPO in Jerusalem, which Bernstein conducted. In honor of Former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolek, the program included a segment of Viennese Waltzes by Johann Strauss. It was an incredible moment – sitting in a valley known as the “Sultan’s Pool,” packed to the gills with enthusiastic music lovers, just outside the Old City Wall, which was specially illuminated for the occasion, listening to Strauss waltzes conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Now what could be better than that?!
Honorary Guest Conductors of the IPO have included William Steinberg, Kurt Masur, and currently Yoel Levi. In 1968, Bombay-born Zubin Mehta became the orchestra’s Music Advisor, and in 1977, its Music Director. Mehta was born in the same year as the orchestra. Next year they will both celebrate their 80th birthdays. Mehta and IPO have a seemingly organic relationship, and he has earned the respect and affection of all its players.
An interesting controversy arose in July of 2001 during a performance of the IPO conducted by the Argentinian-born Daniel Barenboim, who lived in Israel for a number of years as a young man. At a certain point during the concert, Barenboim announced to the audience that he intended to conduct the orchestra in a performance of Richard Wagner’s “Overture to Tristan und Isolde.” In the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938, the orchestra adopted an unofficial ban on Wagner’s music, because of Wagner’s own rabid anti-Semitism, and because his music served as a personal inspiration for Hitler. When Barenboim announced his intention, he acknowledged that many people there might be offended, particularly survivors of the Holocaust and/or their descendants. A 30-minute heated debate ensued in the theater, and a number of people walked out in protest. The music was played anyway. But then in May of 2012, the IPO announced its decision to lift the ban on Wagner’s music, and on June 18th of that year, held a program dedicated to a discussion of Wagner, which it called: “An Academic Musical Encounter: Herzl – Toscanini – Wagner.” The IPO concluded that with the passage of time, and the expanded understanding of Herzl and Toscanini’s own more positive relationships with the music, the artistic value and lush beauty of Wagner’s music no longer should be banned from its programs.
In April of 2013, the IPO played a concert in Warsaw, Poland, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The concert began with playing of “Hatikvah,” sung by the Polish National Opera. The Israel Philharmonic playing Hatikvah. . . in Warsaw. . .
Can the wounds of history be healed? Perhaps that is a question that cannot be answered categorically. But there have indeed been times when human beings have found a way to live, even with those wounds, in the ultimate pursuit of peace. In these two particular cases, it was through the potential for human creativity and the universal language of music. On Monday night in Jerusalem, Steve and I heard an Israeli orchestra, with soloists from Spain, Albania, the United States, Germany, Russia, and Italy, led by a conductor from India, performing the music of an Italian composer. At least within this context, we may find a note of consolation and hope.
In the Jerusalem Hills, about 40 minutes outside of Jerusalem, not far from the city of Beit Shemesh, Kibbutz Tzor’ah and the Forest of Eshta’ol, there is a fascinating place tucked away in an aura of solitude. This is Beit Jamal, named for Rabban Gamaliel I, the Nasi (President) of the Sanhedrin during the 1st century CE. Apparently the great sage was buried in this place, but in 1873, what were believed to have been his remains were exhumed and re-interred on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
On the grounds of Beit Jamal is the first meteorological station in Israel, which is still in operation. But more central to the site is a monastery that was established in 1919 by an order of Salesian monks. There is also a group of sisters there, though they are not part of the Salesian order. Rather, they belong to the Sisters of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and Saint Bruno.
The sisters live an ascetic life, and are completely devoted to God. They go about their daily activities in complete silence, except for the two times a day when they gather in the chapel to sing beautiful hymns of praise, in French, Hebrew and English. Each sister remains within her own little cubicle during these services. They don’t look at each other, and they hear only the sonorous chanting of the Psalms and hymns as their voices rise together. They have no idea how many sisters are there at any given time, nor if there are visitors sitting in the back and listening to their beautiful prayers. They pray five additional times every day as well, but these prayers are in solitude. Once a week, however, on Sundays, they do talk and laugh with each other. They leave the walled enclosure of the convent and stroll through the peaceful olive groves of Beit Jamal. During the week they bake bread and prepare food for their community, and create exquisite pottery as well, which fills their gift shop. But to encourage detachment, each piece is done by four different sisters: one shapes the clay; the next draws the outline of the design; the third colors the piece; the fourth fires and completes it. In the photos below are two examples of their beautiful work, displayed by yours truly.
This past Sunday I traveled with my colleagues from the Hartman Institute to visit Beit Jamal. I believe it is the first time that so many rabbis (27 of us, plus two of our teachers) have visited the convent at one time. The two sisters in the photo below are Sister Yedidah (left) and Sister Karin (right). They are both from France. They told us that God had called them to come to this monastery and serve Him in complete devotion. They do not travel anywhere, even within Israel – not even to the Galilee or Bethlehem, two of the most central places in the life of Jesus. They remain at Beit Jamal, in constant and complete devotion to God. The sisters were respectful and courteous, and responded to all our questions with honesty and candor. At one point the question of sin and sinfulness came up. We know that before partaking of Holy Communion in the Catholic rite, one must engage in Confession. We spoke with them about the tremendous problems and challenges that we face every day in the world outside the convent. In such complete isolation, we wondered, what are the challenges of their lives, and what are the areas in which they fall short of their aspirations? Sister Yedidah assured us that they are subject to the same human failings as anyone else. They experience jealousy of each other at times. They can become impatient, arrogant, angry, petty and greedy — pretty much the same characteristics that ALL of us deal with – the human failings which we confess particularly during Yom Kippur each year, when we look deep within ourselves, and try to refocus our own lives as we aspire to better behavior.
My colleagues and I left Beit Jamal on Sunday evening profoundly moved at meeting these sisters and attending their communal service (at least by sitting in the back and listening). We were astonished at their devotion to the contemplative life, and the complete focus and beauty of their prayers. But, for sure, it is a world apart from the one that Jewish tradition embraces. By and large our “statutory prayer,” if you will, is a combination of history, theology, human aspiration and Jewish peoplehood. Nevertheless, there are indeed meditative qualities to parts of our prayer services, particularly in the form of niggunim, or wordless melodies, that tend to repeat over and over again to help us focus and “loosen up,” if you will. And indeed, there are those in the extreme wings of our community who believe that sitting in the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, is their only responsibility in life, apart from the very large families they create. Mainstream Judaism, however, has never glorified withdrawal from society. On the contrary; it is our direct involvement with society that marks our tradition – our commitment to Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, through direct participation in societal efforts. It is our relationships with others, and our personal and communal interactions that enhance the joy and value of Jewish life. Nevertheless, Sister Yedidah and Sister Karin helped us to remember that while our way may be right for us, it is not the only way toward holiness.
Our leader on this trip was the author and journalist Yossi Klein-Halevi, who is a valued faculty member of the Hartman Institute. His involvement with the sisters of Beit Jamal came about through his search for pathways to holiness in the Holy Land, particularly among Christians and Muslims. His book “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden” reflects his spiritual journey. Aside from the chapters I have read thus far, which are characteristically beautifully written, I find the title of Yossi’s book quite intriguing. If we could imagine the entrance to the Garden of Eden, what would it be like? While our answer may be different from that of the Sisters of Bethlehem, our quest to find meaning and beauty in our lives is a human aspiration at its core. This past Sunday, our visit to Beit Jamal showed us another pathway to realizing this aspiration.
A story from the Chasidic tradition….
A certain rabbi lived in a small village with his wife and children. One Shabbat his friend came to visit, but the rabbi was nowhere to be found. Suddenly the friend noticed that the rabbi was in the bedroom, tied up on his bed. Aghast, the man rushed over to the bed to help his friend. But the rabbi told him: “Every Erev Shabbat I tell my wife to tie a rope around my hands, and then tie another one around my feet. And I spend all of Shabbat tied up in bed.” The friend could hardly believe his ears. “Why on earth do you do that?” he asked in disbelief. “To make sure that I don’t do even the slightest thing that would violate the Halakha (Jewish Law) of observing Shabbat.” The friend shook his head in disgust and said: “My friend, forgive me, but you are an idiot. You go to such absurd lengths not to transgress the Halakha of Shabbat, and in so doing, you deprive yourself and your family of the joy of celebrating Shabbat! You have missed the point completely.” Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, the spiritual leader of Beit Tefila Yisraeli, told this story. And he reveled in the people all over Israel who are longing for the opportunity to celebrate the Oneg – the joy – of Shabbat, without feeling tied up by their hands and feet by the rigidity of the Ultra Orthodox Rabbinate. And indeed, they were there with us on the deck that evening – hundreds of them – singing and dancing, smiling and clapping. There were instruments, kids, ice cream cones, dogs and cameras – all reveling in Oneg Shabbat – the joy of Shabbat – in the spirit of Progressive Judaism.
I heard this story this past Friday from Rabbi Esteban Gottfried at the Kabbalat Shabbat celebration of Beit Tefilah Yisraeli. Beit Tefilah Yisraeli is a congregation that speaks to the needs of non-Orthodox Israelis, and operates in a distinctly Israeli idiom. It gathers every week during the summer months on the deck at the Namal – the Port of Tel Aviv – along with Israelis from all over the country, and visitors from abroad as well. During the colder months, it meets at Alma Hebrew College in Tel Aviv – the liberal, pluralistic yeshiva founded and directed by Former Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon.
Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, originally from Buenos Aires, is a 2012 graduate of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. To date, almost a hundred Israelis have been ordained at this campus. They have spread out all over Israel, and have helped to quadruple the number of Reform congregations and gatherings just within the past decade. The politics of Israel presents a formidable challenge to liberal Jews in Israel. Nevertheless, seeing is believing. While the Ultra Orthodox Rabbinate tries to tie the hands and feet of the country, many Israelis are clapping and dancing in the spirit of Oneg Shabbat. This past Friday, at the Port of Tel Aviv, Steve and I clapped and danced along with them, as we welcomed in Shabbat, and the sun set over the Mediterranean.