Before following along with our Jewish friends saying grace after meals on Shabbat, I never noticed Psalm 126, even though as a Christian, I had read all the Psalms a few times before I came to know Israel. Then at every Shabbat meal, I looked forward to singing shir hama’alot (Psalm 126). I couldn’t articulate why, but the text made me happy. It was only after six months of being invited to Shabbat or holiday meals at least three times a month – my husband and I are well taken care of by our Jewish friends – did I discover that my excitement rose when we got to “אָז יֹאמְרוּ בַגֹּויִם הִגְדִּיל יְהוָה לַעֲשֹׂות עִם־אֵֽלֶּה” (Then they said among the nations, the LORD has done great things for them). It makes me happy because that is our story, that’s why we are here in Israel.
It was 16 years ago, right around Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), when we came to Israel with a tour group. I didn’t really want to come. I reasoned that prophet Isaiah said that one day, God would bring about the New Heaven and New Earth, and surely there would be a New Israel also, so why should I bother to see a troubled place that was on CNN all the time. But somehow, we ended up on El Al and landed in Ben Gurion airport. And it was almost immediately that we felt there was something different about this place.
As the late afternoon sunlight turned the Jerusalem Old City Wall golden, our tour bus inched up Derech Hevron like a snail, the tour guide shouted loudly, “traffic jams are great because that means people are coming back!” Where had they been? I was totally clueless. The tour guide took great pride telling us Israel’s modern founding history. Are we really looking at what the prophets wrote 3000 years ago? We marveled at everything that was in front of us.
In the morning, our tour guide greeted us with his hearty laugh, “did the construction wake you up this morning? Welcome to the restoration!” Then we heard about how the swamps were drained and how the desert bloomed; we saw the green hills and the fruit trees and tasted the good fruits and vegetables. We would never have guessed this place was desolate just 70 years ago. We were like dreamers – what reality was this?
By the end of the trip, we were convinced God was doing something amazing, with His people, to fulfill the words out of His mouth. We knew we wanted to participate in this reality; we didn’t want to miss out.
16 years since that trip, after quitting my hi-tech job and selling our house, I have volunteered in Israel on volunteer visas for all together five years now. My husband has kept his job and telecommutes between Jerusalem and Kansas City so we can still have a paycheck to pay for the high living cost here. Through these years, we got to befriend many remarkable Jerusalemites. We learned true friendship and what it means to be part of a community. We watched Judaism in action, and that corrected many misconceptions we had. Though we keep our identities as gentile Christians, we get to enjoy the riches of Judaism through our Jewish friends who are always mindful of us. We have come to appreciate the diverse outworkings of Jewish identity and the high cost of being a Jew. And we in turn, are committed to combat anti-Jewish sentiments whenever and wherever we encounter them. This whole journey has been an incredible gift from God.
So if you recite shir hama’alot, please remember us, two people – and I am sure there are a lot more out there – from the Nations who have recognized that God is doing a great thing with you. Even though there are difficulties and growing pains, we are in awe of the progress Israel has made and believe in a bright future for Israel. Happy 68th Birthday, Israel. Thank you for being a light to us!