When my friends and I rolled into Tzfat in our cumbersome purple bus, I first marveled at how our bus driver navigated through the tight turns of the city’s cobblestone streets. Watching him steer our bus through Tzfat was like watching a cruise ship perform figure 8’s in water. We expected the day to be pretty simple – check out one of the “spiritual capital of Israel,” learn some more stories about Jewish heroes, pick up souvenirs along the way, and demolish some falafel.
Little did we know our day would be, well, slightly more taxing than that. It wasn’t enough to scare me off Birthright, but there was a twist in the day’s plans. We walked into the old city part of Tzfat, and we noticed that our “volunteering” part of the trip entailed working to beautify some of the walkways, a multi-year project encompassing the work of different birthright groups.
We threw on gloves and picked up hoes and axes, looking more like lost members of the Village People than professional laborers. For a half hour, we worked in the sun (like our ancestors), hacking away at weeds, rocks, and other undesirables that clogged the old city.
I might not have been the most efficient worker Israel has ever seen, and I didn’t enjoy sweating in modest, Tzfat-appropriate clothing. But I did appreciate the lesson at hand – realistically, I don’t know if I’ll ever come to Israel again. I start my job search in a few months, and in my field (television journalism) I don’t get much time off. Why would I bother working for something I’ll never enjoy? What good is it for me to toil in the sun for an Israeli walkway I might not ever see again?
After we worked, we read a story in the Talmud about a sage and a 70-year old man. The elderly gentleman planted a fruit tree in the ground. The sage asked if the old man would ever enjoy the tree’s fruit, and the old man didn’t answer the question. Instead, he noted that the world was full of trees when he was born, planted by men who knew they’d never enjoy them. The 70-year old said he entered a world full of trees, and wanted to make sure his grandchildren could reap the fruits of his labor (no pun intended).
I’m approximately decades decades away from reaching 70, but this was a similar situation for me. I doubt I’ll ever see this walkway again, so what use is there for me to break my back outside? I realized how much I had walked that day, and how many people must have worked hard to clear those paths. Just as Israelites had done before me, I would work to clear roads that would benefit others. I received no direct benefits from helping to clear the road, except for the small satisfaction that people get when they help others.
People before me cleared roads that I use every day, so the least I could do was to help clear out debris from the old city in Tzfat and continue Birthright’s efforts to clean up the walkway. There was some time in the city that I didn’t spend buying candles and noshing on fried chickpeas, but it was interesting to have this feeling that I contributed to Israel… even if it was just my removing some junk from a small walkway.