A Serious Sojourner’s Perspective on Jerusalem

In Jerusalem one learns

To walk in the shadows, to avoid

The piercing heat of summer.

 

One climbs her hills and

Descends into her valleys,

Singing psalms of joy and despair.

 

Jerusalem is a doleful mother

Who greets you by asking:

Where have you been until now?

Why don’t you visit more often?

 

It is a city of foundations and funders,

All of whom think they are here to save

Her from herself while she knows

Only she can save us from ourselves.

 

Jerusalem is a divided city

Without borders, a city of walls

On which people leave

Day-old bread and worn out clothes.

 

Jerusalem is a city in which

Nothing is discarded

Here people feed stray cats

And honor beggars.

 

No one comes here

Without being laden

By heavy baggage

And ancient memories.

 

Jerusalem calls to me even

When I am in distant lands.

Wherever I am, I turn to her.

 

There are shadows in

Jerusalem and there is light.

 

My wife and I do not like to think of ourselves as ‘tourists;’ though I guess in the eyes of those who live in Israel we are nothing more than the pesky visitors of whom Yehuda Amichai wrote: “Visits of condolence is all we get from them. /They squat at the Holocaust Memorial, /They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall/ And they laugh behind heavy curtains /In their hotels.” (Translation by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt)

We show up in the summer to the see the sights and soak up the atmosphere before returning home. For me, however, ‘tourist’ has bad connotations. When Moses sends spies la-tur et ha’aretz, “To spy out the land,” (Number 13:17) the tribal agents return with a negative report that has disastrous results for the people of Israel. Though the words tourist and tur are not linguistically related, it’s hard not to think of ourselves as modern day spies, outsiders looking on from a distance before passing judgment.

Over the years we have visited Israel as regular but serious sojourners rather than as tourists. We do not come to “see the sights” as much as we come to spend time with family and friends. Israel also provides us with a unique sense of belonging and connection that we just don’t have in North America.  As a rabbi and a committed Jew, the time I spend in Israel also provides me with an opportunity to engage in some serious study.

Israelis can’t understand why we have not made aliyah. I find it surprising that Israelis who are so family-minded cannot understand why we wouldn’t be willing to leave our families and particularly our parents. We are not so different from them in this regard. Family is important to us. We know the price that friends who have come to live in Israel far from beloved family have made to be here.

Still, we feel a deep sense of connection to the land and the people if Israel, and we try to come often and stay as long as we can. I believe that these periodic visits gives us a unique perspective on Israel. We no longer come to ‘sightsee’ when we are here. We come simply to be, to become part of the land for a period of time. It’s not even about having ‘experiences’ while we are here. It is participating in the ordinary day to day activities that are meaningful to us: going to the makolet to buy fresh rolls in the morning, having coffee at our favorite café, or buying flowers for Shabbat. We might do these things at home but they feel different when we are here. Most of all, there is something special about breathing in the air of Eretz Yisrael.

It’s the ordinary and every day in Israel that are special to us. First, there are the people that we have met here over the years who have become an important part of our lives. Some are friends who had the courage to pull up roots and make a new life in Israel. Others are people who have lived here for decades and have contributed to this land. Everyone I meet here has a story to tell – and I am inspired by their stories.

Second, we come to Israel because of the power of the Hebrew language. At home, Hebrew is the language of prayer and Torah study; in Israel, it is part of our lives. I guess we could speak Hebrew in North America, but it just wouldn’t feel the same. The birth of Hebrew as a modern language continues to be one of the most inspiring aspects of this land. Seeing the language in which I pray on a cereal box or in the daily paper reminds me that Judaism is more than a religion – it is dynamic way of life, a language of a people. Speaking Hebrew, as hard as it is for me, strengthens my identity as a Jew.

Finally, I love being in Israel because it is a land of great aspirations. In the Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals, we thank God for the land of Israel, “the first blossoming of our redemption.”  Israel is a land where people dream big and are open to acts of greatness.  Despite all the issues and conflicts that Israel faces today, I see a land in which people are truly living a life of tikkun olam, working to build a better world. How is it that the larger world does not see this? It could be that my perception of Israel has to do with spending much of my time in Jerusalem, but I think it is true for the country as a whole.

In the end, what makes Israel so special to me are its people. Do I get annoyed when someone nearly knocks me over on the bus or is rude in uniquely Israeli way? Of course! But where else in the world are there signs on the public buses quoting the Bible, “Before the elderly you shall rise.” (Leviticus 19:32), reminding people to give their seat to the elderly? Where else are streets named after prophets and poets? Israel is extraordinary simply because it is. If I cannot be a full time resident I am glad that I can at least be a serious sojourner for a month in the summer.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Greenspan is the spiritual leader of the Oceanside Jewish Center for over twenty years and is chaplain of the Oceanside Fire Department. He is a graduate of the Joint Program of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University and was ordained at the Seminary in 1980. Rabbi Greenspan has been a congregational rabbi for almost forty years, serving synagogues in New York, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. He is active in interfaith affairs and is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Nassau and Suffolk Counties. He has translated a nineteen commentaries on the Haggadah over the past two decades. Many of the translations can be found online at Sefaria.com.
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