Cairns, Australia is one of the mains gateways to the Great Barrier Reef. I had promised myself that if I ever got to Australia again, I would have to go – it was one of God’s wonders and how could I not see it if I were so close?
Like many of the world’s wonders, the Great Barrier Reef is a magnet for explorers from around the world. And the two-hour boat ride from Cairns to the snorkeling site did not disappoint. One of my fellow passengers was a Belgian journalist stationed in Sydney. Somehow, we began to speak, and when I told him that I was from Israel, his eyebrows raised.
“What do you think about Jerusalem?” he asked. The context for this question is critical. It was three weeks after two Israeli policemen were shot on the Temple Mount. In response, Israel set up metal detectors at the entrances (just like it does in shopping malls and movie theaters). The Muslims, in protest, refused to pass through the security devices and prayed outside the Temple Mount, setting off a brief, but bizarre international crisis. It was in context of that incident that the journalist asked his question.
“You’re not going to like my answer,” I told him. “And you probably won’t even understand it.” He gave me a puzzled look.
“When I walk the streets of Jerusalem, I see the footsteps of my ancestors. I see Abraham with Isaac on the way to that fateful moment. I see Jacob fleeing his brother. I see David making the riskiest and most important move his political – moving his capital from Hebron. I see the Assyrian army besieging it, Jeremiah pleading with the Judean kings to try to save it, and the Babylonians destroying it. I hear Ezra’s powerful speeches and Nehemia’s valiant efforts to rebuild its walls. I see the place that nearly a hundred generations of Jews yearned for, but could not get to, the place from which Jews were barred from entering by its various captors, the city scarred by a barbed wire fence after our enemies unsuccessfully tried to erase us from the earth and then to throw the survivors into the sea, and which was finally reunited after a war for our very survival. Jerusalem has been the heart of the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years, and has been in my heart since before I was born.”
“As a Jew I do not live in my past, but I live with it. I live in the present and dream about the future, but with no past I have no present or future worth living for.”
“As a post-modern Western liberal, I do not expect you to relate to anything I said. You live very much in the present, maybe in the future – and that is why I do not expect you to understand.”
He paused, took in a deep breath, and said: “Yes, you are right. I do not understand.”
* * *
As the siren for Yom Hashoah sounded this morning I was reminded of this conversation. The stark images of a world destroyed contrast with the present reality in Israel in ways that no fiction writer could have imagined. Yet Yom Hashoah in Israel is a regular work day. We pause in the middle of that day, where we are busy building a Jewish culture and society, to remember where we came from, but then to go back to what we need to be doing. We dare not be stuck in our past, wallowing in our misery, but we also dare not forget it.
A wise person once noted that the best gifts we can give our children are roots and wings. The roots ground us, literally and figuratively with the deep memories of our past, while the wings ensure that we are not trapped in that the past.