Israel was all abuzz as last week ended. We are in the middle of an exceptionally cold, and better, an exceptionally wet winter, and the big question on everybody’s lips (on their chapped lips, as per “Groundhog Day”) was: Will Jerusalem see its first snow in four years? The city was prepared for the possibility, and most people eagerly anticipated a white Shabbat.
The snow didn’t come to Jerusalem, although it was plentiful in Israel’s north. For my family it didn’t really matter though, as we were spending Shabbat in Be’er Sheva, the Capital of the Negev (desert). And for all that Jerusalemites were disappointed at the anti-climactic snow-less rainfall, the rain in Be’er Sheva, was truly a gift from above.
Be’er Sheva receives about 150-200 mm (6-8 inches) of rain per year, and 20-40 mm (0.8-1.5 inches) per February. So you can imagine how significant it was that on Friday and Saturday alone the city received a whopping 28 mm! A friend of mine said that unlike most of the country, when it rains in Be’er Sheva you really feel the blessing.
As wonderful though the rain was, it didn’t compare with the Bar Mitzvah that brought us to Be’er Sheva.
The youngest son of an old (well, my age) college roommate is now officially a man. The beauty of it, besides celebrating a simcha, was the mini-reunion of several of my closest friends. We are a group that were friends in college in the States 30 years ago all living in Israel for many years now. We have stayed in touch throughout and this Bar Mitzvah was a fantastic excuse to see the people that are as close to family as I could have outside of my actual blood relations.
So there I was at the synagogue on Shabbat morning – pouring rain outside, lots of love and warmth inside, and as often happens in such situations, the rusty wheels of my brain started turning.
I was listening to the weekly Torah portion, Mishpatim, which we read one week after the portion containing the Children of Israel receiving the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai. From last week’s extraordinary spiritual “high”, this week we were brought us back “down” to the mundane. Last week we had the Big 10 all-encompassing Commandments, this week we focused on the detailed rules of how to live our daily lives. And while the 10 Commandments are fairly self-explanatory , many of the laws listed this week are so vague that they were the basis for generations of rabbinical discussions recorded in the Talmud (for example, the large body of laws for separating milk and meat as a facet of eating Kosher stems from the commandment not to “boil a kid in his mother’s milk” which we read this Shabbat).
The 10 Commandments contain an excitement, the “Wow factor”, while the “down to earth” laws are our daily reality – what we study, learn, and struggle to understand in order to live our lives as good and decent people. If last week was the celebration complete with thunder and lightning and God Himself addressing the nation, this week we were back on the bus going to our nine-to-five desk job.
And that reality, that daily commute to the office is what really matters. It is the practice after the big victory, the marriage after the wedding, and the dirty diapers after the excitement of the birth. Without the day-to-day observance of the laws, the 10 Commandments would have been meaningless.
Which brings us back to the Bar Mitzvah service in which the young man read the Torah, gave a short lesson from the reading and marked the transition into his role as an adult member of the community. The Bar Mitzvah was all about the fanfare, but the next day when the glorious celebration was done, he woke up and followed the laws that observant Jews live every day.
And it brings us back to the rain. We rejoiced over the much needed water, yet we know that the real significance of this lovely rain will only be felt in six months – when Israel is in the midst of the annual 8-month dry period.
During the Torah reading, the prayer service and the Kiddush (food and socializing) afterwards, I reflected on how the Bar Mitzvah, the Torah portion and the pouring rain were three perfect manifestations of the same heavenly template. Suddenly, my thoughts were rudely interrupted by an air-raid siren, which eventually put everything together for me.
Thankfully, the rocket from Gaza which fell on Be’er Sheva on Saturday just before noon landed in an empty field causing no injuries or damage. But for a few minutes, the celebration of the Bar Mitzvah and the wonder of the excessive rainfall took a backseat to the daily reality that Israelis, particularly those in the south, must endure.
I have to say that I was amazed at how calm everyone remained. The locals, of course are used to it, but those of us from the relatively safer, quieter central Israel and the several guests from overseas all managed to file in a somewhat orderly fashion (by Israeli standards) into the synagogue’s bomb shelter, and when there was no more room, those who were outside (myself included) made their way to a safe alternative away from the windows and lying down on the floor.
After a few minutes, the “excitement” of falling missiles was over, and we went back to cakes, drinks, and chatting; in other words, our life was back to its “normal” routine.
And that fit into the aforementioned “cosmic template” perfectly.