Leaving Jerusalem, even for an evening, is a strange feeling. Descent and ascent, more air, breathtaking and sometimes-complicated views. I’m on an intercity bus like any other (with WiFi!), but the driver and other passengers speak Hebrew. In the States, that would make me turn around in wonder. So why shouldn’t it here? But I do wonder: Does it ever occur to those whose first language is Hebrew that the digital screen in the front of the bus animates words found in the Torah and in the Talmud, interspersed with names of modern prominent Jews?
I hosted a parlor meeting with Anat Hoffman during a recent shul trip to Israel, and when I asked her why, as a human rights activist, she fights as a Zionist (a question I face often, in different contexts), her one-word answer was simply amazing: Hebrew. She looked at me and said,
Do you realize that we have brought back our ancient language, that Jews have reclaimed their heart’s map and built upon it? There are words missing that we get to work to create out of our own history? There’s more than that in it for me, but Dayeinu, that’s enough reason for me to love our home in Israel. (my paraphrase)
I had thought about the miracles of modern Hebrew, but to hear her say that Hebrew would be a sufficient rationale for the State of Israel was very powerful. The late, great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, one wrote that early Zionists may have felt that Hebrew was a secularize-able language, but he warned:
Woe to those who forget that in the coals of our language burns a latent fire, ready to regain its power if and when exposed to the air. (my paraphrase)
He was likely referring to the quote from Pirkei Avot (2:15):
Warm yourself next to the fire of the Sages, but be careful not to be burned by their coals, for their bite is like a fox’s bite, their sting is like a scorpion’s sting, their hiss is like that of a fiery serpent, and all their words are like burning coals.
Here on a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, with an amazingly green landscape on either side, alive thanks to the same Zionist intention that laid the pavement upon which we’re driving, burnt tanks preserved on the highway shoulder bearing testimony to the battles we have been forced and continue to fight for our very lives, I pause. I wonder at the intensity and influence of the Jewish hearts’ map, the Hebrew Language. I am proficient enough to get by in ancient texts and on the street. (My first undergraduate class at the Jewish Theological Seminary was taught in Hebrew by the graceful Dr. Avram Holtz, who one explained that his literary Hebrew seemed strange to my ears ‘because, Menachem, you speak falafel Hebrew!’ I took it as a deep compliment.)
The tanks we pass are called Merkavah tanks, a reference to the chariot (merkavah) scene in Chapter One of the Book of Ezekiel, where crackling energy surrounds and pervades amazing celestial creatures and shapes. That crackling energy? ‘Chashmal,‘ which became the modern Hebrew word for electricity.
So, when Israelis pay their energy bill, they make payment using crackling language. And when Israelis join the tank brigade, even though the tanks are no longer Merkavah models, they fight within sacred vessels. And when Israeli society undergoes its constant social reformulations, the language used can bite, sting, and burn. It can also elevate, bless, and inspire.
Perhaps no word in any language is neutral, but for a Jew, this place, this beautiful, sacred, holy, complicated place we call home is pervaded by intense words. And Jews without deep steeping in Hebrew are simply speaking a different language in their hearts. It might be arguable that the current intense struggles of American Jewry with the State of Israel are, in part, traceable to the languages our hearts know best.
Three examples from this bus:
The front seat on every Israeli bus is reserved for those who need assisted access. How is that indicated? With a verse:
Rise up in the presence of the aged (Lev. 19:32)
What isn’t included on the sign is the conclusion of that verse:
show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am God.
A sticker half-remains on my window. It reads:
Teshuvah is the only Teshuvah.
The word play works better in Hebrew, but roughly translates as: “Repentance is the only answer.” It’s the kind of language I’ve seen in Ghana among communities heavily influenced by Evangelical American Christian missionaries and culture. (I also recently encountered this kind of language – in English and in Tigri – in Southern Tel Aviv, among the African Asylum Seeker community.) It, frankly, isn’t the kind of language an English speaking invested Jew typically uses or hears. But in a modern Hebrew society with religious undertones, it works.
Finally, as I was boarding the bus, there was a no smoking sign. The familiar symbol of a cigarette with a red circle and line featured a curious caption: “No smoking. Violators will be pursued.” But that final phrase featured language from the Yom Kippur Kol Nidrei Prayer, as the word for ‘violators’ was ‘avaryanim,’ among whom the prayer leader on Yom Kippur counts her or himself.
So, here I sit, on a Hebrew bus on a Hebrew highway with a Hebrew ticket stub in my pocket and Hebrew thoughts in my Hebrew heart. I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is where I count myself, bitten and blessed, burnt and inspired, crackling and alive.