Ice Coffee and Eternity
I just spent nearly two weeks in Israel with my seniors. Fifty-two teens, 17 and 18 years old – what could possibly go wrong? (The answer is: anything. Literally, anything could go wrong. It didn’t, but it could.) Some of the teens are classically Shomer Shabbat, most not. Most of the teens have been to Israel before, but some have not. Some seniors deeply skeptical about religion and G-d and all that. Some deeply faithful and inspired but Torah and Israel and Shabbat and all that. The first night we were together I spoke to the madrichim that the tour company paired us with (all of whom are great) and I said that we have, essentially, three goals for this trip: 1) positive Jewish experiences that make the students want to engage Jewishly in the future, 2) a connection to the land of Israel not just as a cultural, political and nationalistic entity, but as a part of our spiritual heritage, 3) positive social growth among the students and connection to the grade as a whole. With some kids we can do a lot more than just “positive Jewish experiences” and with some teens “part of our spiritual heritage” will be a stretch. But those are our goals.
For me, some highlights were going to the Kotel with the prayer notes that younger students from our school had given us to bring on their behalf; a few silly moments of dancing late one Wednesday night; and singing together at “Slow Shira” as Shabbos faded away and we watched the sun dip into the Judean mountains. It’s not unusual for me to talk to the teens at that Slow Shira towards the end of Shabbat. I always spend time thinking about what to say and how to say it, but I also try to not over-prepare and be open to the moment. Sometimes in the moment, I’m inspired to share something I hadn’t intended. Or I have a memory of something I hadn’t thought about for years. I just assume that those moments of inspiration are whispers of divinity and that someone here needs to hear them (maybe me.) That happened on this Shabbos. We sat in a semi-circle watching the sun go down, singing the songs we have been singing together for years about faith and trust and gratitude, and if something could be objectively beautiful, this was it. And then seconds before I was going to stand up and share some inspiring words of inspiration, I remembered a conversation I had with a prospective parent to our school, probably 10 years ago. I remember we were in my office and the parents saw my smicha from Ner Yisrael, and the dad asked me, “What’s a nice yeshiva guy like you doing in a place like this?” I know what he meant. Most people teach in schools that are more homogenous than mine; all one gender and more or less, all the same level of religiosity.
As I stood up on that patio overlooking the Judean mountains, with the sky fading from gold to purple to black, I shared that quip from the parent so long ago. And I said to the kids, “The answer is, right now. A nice yeshiva guy like me is teaching in a place like this because of right now. Because in this moment we are all connected to Shabbat to Israel to Faith and to each other and it was my greatest honor to be part of it.”
Not every part of the trip was singing Ani Maamim or swaying at the Kotel. Some of it was water hikes, eating chocolate and drinking that ice slushie stuff Israelis call “ice coffee.” So good! But I have to say, I’ve come to see the great holiness in those ordinary moments in Israel.
I think there is an insight into this idea – that ordinary moments in Israel take on aspects of the sublime in Israel – embedded in this week’s haftorah. As is often the case, the drama and majesty of this week’s haftorah is obscured because all we see is a snippet of the story. I think that when the haftorahs were organized it was assumed that people would be so familiar with the text that they would get it. My vague impression is that is no longer the case.
The story of the haftorah is pretty straightforward. Hashem says to the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) that soon his uncle Shallum would come to him and ask Yirmiyahu to buy a field from him that has been in the family. In fact, Shallum does come and make that request and the prophet pays the money, has the contract written up and filed with the government. Then he offers up a prayer of complaints to G-d that seems a total non-sequitur, where he says that G-d had promised this land flowing with milk and honey to Israel, and now the Babylonians are here to conquer it. The simplicity of it all belies the deep drama actually unfolding.
This story is taking place AFTER the siege of Jerusalem has begun and only weeks before the city walls will be breached and the Temple destroyed. When Uncle Shallum comes and asks Yirmiyahu to buy the field, he’s asking Yirmiyahu to pay full market price for a field that subjectively has no value. The monarchy is on the brink of collapse. The people are about to be murdered and exiled or enslaved en masse — how much would that field be worth? How much would a field in Georgia have been worth during Sherman’s march to the sea, with Union troops closing in and a mile wide swath of destruction nearing, and the near certainty that the Confederacy was about to break? How much would an apartment in Haifa have been worth on June 1, 1967 (the Six Day War started on the 5th) when all the nations around Israel were talking about her destruction, about the streets running deep with the blood of Jews, with the UN “peacekeepers” pulling out of the Sinai, and the general sense that there might not be enough people left to bury all the deceased? That’s the same type of moment it is when Shallum comes and asks Yirmiyahu to buy this field. And I think it’s clear that if Yirmiyahu hadn’t been told by Hashem that that this was going to happen and that it was His will that the field be bought, the prophet would have told his uncle that his tray table and seat back were not in the upright and locked position, or that he was one donut short of a dozen, or that he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. I don’t know exactly what he would have said but I’m sure the gist of it is that he would have told him something that means, “You’re crazy; I’m not buying that field.”
But he does. Because Yirmiyahu does what Hashem asks even when it’s difficult. And he does it 101%. He pays full price. He does it in a fully legal contract. He ensures that the contract will last for generations as proof of his purchase. He does everything possible. But he doesn’t like it.
That’s why he turns to Hashem in prayer and in 10 verses he says, “You know Hashem, you made a lot of promises, and a lot of stuff happened, but why am I the guy that always gets ripped off?” “They have brought ramps to the city to capture it … The city has been delivered into the hands of the Chaldeans . . . What you declared has happened . . . yet you said to me . . . Buy a field for yourself with money and designate witnesses, yet the city has been handed over to the Chaldeans!” Super not cool.
The haftorah doesn’t really give us Hashem’s answer. That happens over the next 25 pesukim. And to really understand Hashem’s answer you need one nearly kabbalistic piece of background information. Sometimes as part of a prophecy, the prophets are asked to do something — tie up sticks in a bundle, or lay on the ground, shoot arrows, marry a prostitute, break a jug, that sort of thing. (Ok, the “marry the prostitute one” is a big debate if he really did it or experienced in a prophecy that he did it, but I included it because I like the flow it allowed the sentence.) What is the purpose of this prophetic act? The Ramban in Chumash says that when a prophecy becomes attached to an act in this world it moves from the realm of “potential” to the realm of “actualized.” That is, once it has an act associated with it, the prophecy is already, “real” or “done”. It can’t be undone. It must reach a full completion. Hashem promises that the Jewish people that they will return to Israel. And not just as halfway refugees. They will return to a full relationship of love with Hashem, and fully connected to the land, and people will buy land and plant crops and raise families, and go about the mundane parts of life, that take on aspects of the sublime when done in a land that is an expression of our connection to Hashem and Torah and eternity. And Yirmiyahu’s act of purchasing this land cements this prophecy as definitive. It has to happen, because it has already started.
I notice that Hashem is not saying to Yirmiyahu that one day the people will come back and have prophecy, or they will come back and learn Torah, or come back and live in spiritual ecstasy. He says, one day the Jews will come back and bride and grooms will sing, and people will have flocks, and buy and sell land, and live happily doing the mundane things that make up life. While we all pray for the great and final moment of redemption, right now we have water hikes and ice coffee in the land that where Sarah and David, and Ezra, and Yael, and Matisyahu, and Hillel lived and walked. And that’s something too. Maybe, it’s a lot.