People of the road
It’s January 17, 2023, and we’re about to hit the road.
“It’s going to be almost impossible to make the rendezvous on time,” my husband says from the other room, as he gathers his coat and his wallet. “I think we should just drive straight there.”
Google Maps agrees with him. The city of Ariel — and, with it, the bulletproof bus our friends arranged to transport friends from the rendezvous point to their son’s bar mitzvah in Har Bracha — is just too far.
“I’m googling the road to Har Bracha,” I say, switching apps. The road passes through Huwara, a Palestinian town. Will we be safe? “Wait, no… Well, I can’t see any news from the past few months. Seems safe enough.”
* * *
When you’re on a road, all the other roads you ever took are present in your body’s memory. We swing just so, and I recall the time we drove down Machtesh Ramon’s switchbacks on our honeymoon. A mountain gives way to a sudden cliff drop, and a jerky ride from our trip to Scotland comes to mind.
Sometimes, the memories are even older. Our people have been on many roads for quite some time.
“This must be the road that the Levite man and his concubine meant to take, at the end of the Book of Judges. When they were heading to his home on Mount Ephraim.” I say as we inch our way out of Jerusalem and into the Tribe of Benjamin’s ancient territory. I try to envision it — to imagine away the traffic, the asphalt, the electric lights. “He didn’t want to stop in what’s Jerusalem today because it wasn’t an Israelite city yet,” I add for my son’s benefit. “He wanted to seek hospitality among his Israelite brethren. You know what he found instead, right?”
We turn with the road, and suddenly there is Benjamin’s wolf, sigil of the tribe, howling on a modern day sign. I think of the woman’s body, torn to pieces. I think of the old adage, and how, sometimes, Homo homini lupus est (“a man is a wolf to another man”).
The road goes on. Checkpoints and barbed wire fences surround us. I feel the usual constriction in my chest — the pain that comes whenever the expansiveness of memory clashes with the reality of this land, the land I love.
Can’t it be different? Can’t we live together here, in peace?
Can’t we share this land, so rich in our oldest, deepest memories?
Childish hopes, I tell myself, and bite my lips together.
The road goes on and on.
“This might well be the path Joseph took, too, when he sought his brothers,” I say sometime later.
And it really might. Topography shapes history, and whatever it is about this particular route that inspired modern empires to build a road here is likely to have shaped travel back in ancient times as well. Benjamin’s hills are morphing into Samaria’s (Shomron’s) peaks around us, and I think of a young man setting out to Shechem under their shadows — setting out to check on “sh’lom echav,” his brothers’ peace.
His road led him past his destination, I remember. Past Shechem and into the valley of Dothan, where he found not peace but violence. And then into a pit and down to Egypt and onwards to a fate of servitude… and power.
You never know, when you’re on a road, where it might lead you. Your goal — your destination — it’s not really yours to set.
We drive on, and every name we see is a little jolt of memory. Shiloh, where Samuel started his prophetic journey. Eli, named after the doomed old priest who guided him. Shomron, where King Ahab built an idolatrous empire.
And Shechem, of course. Shechem, with its history of broken promises and violence. I think of Dinah, and of the Shechemite women who became widows and grieving mothers when Dinah’s brothers avenged her.
I think of bodies, torn.
* * *
“We’re very close, now,” my husband says as we drive on through Huwara. There are Palestinian license plates everywhere. Most storefronts sport signs in Arabic. Here and there, a business name appears in Hebrew, too.
One business is named “Ha-Shalom,” peace, and I smile. I remember those years, back when I was a child in the Oslo era, when places named “Ha-Shalom” popped up on every corner. “Ha-Shalom” bypass, “Ha-Shalom” kiosk, “Ha-Shalom” hairdresser, “Ha-Shalom” garage.
Those names seemed like a cruel and bitter joke later, when buses exploded and children bled and we drove from one funeral to another, accompanying friends on their final mortal roads. Back then, the signs brought to mind Jeremiah’s bitter words: “They offer healing offhand, For the wounds of My poor people, Saying, shalom shalom ve-ein shalom — All is well, all is well, When nothing is well.”
Seeing the name now, on this road, feels like a “shalom” — a hello — from a different era.
I wish that I could hope.
We leave Huwara behind, and drive up and up the mountain where our ancient ancestors read God’s promised blessings, His bracha. We enter modern-day Har Bracha, hug our friends, and dance with them.
I look at the shining faces around us. I think: We made it to our destination! Not only us, in our car, but generations of our people too. We traveled on so many roads, in so many places. We fought so hard to come back to this land, to our roots. And here we are, happy in Israel again, surrounded by so many brachot, so many blessings.
I close my eyes and hold my brethren’s hands.
* * *
Later, the bar mitzvah boy speaks — beautifully! — about a famous disagreement between the sages. Rabbi Ishmael thought there is value in work. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai recoiled at anything that could displace Torah-learning as the one true pursuit of value. Our friends’ son offers different classic interpretations for this disagreements, and I think to myself: Probably both sages thought that Torah is the destination. Perhaps Rabbi Ishmael simply knew that there is also intrinsic value in the road.
Our friends speak, as do their parents. I look at their family — a living chain of tradition, love, and memories. Each generation gifts the next its past and passions.
We may have made it to the land of Israel, I remind myself. But as we pass our stories to our children, our national journey, our road, leads on ahead.
* * *
It’s another day, and that road we drove on all those months ago is right here in the paper, under red headlines. Two brothers smile on the newspaper cover, but they will never smile again, not in this world.
Their mother, Esti Yaniv, said: “We have a huge hole in our heart; nothing will ever fill this hole — not construction, not protests, nothing… This hole will remain, and we will learn to live with it and to live with it in joy and to continue and to draw strength from you and our children.”
And I think: This road of ours, it’s hard.
I think of our friends’ son’s speech, all those months ago, in the very yishuv where Esti Yaniv mourns today. I think of how we continue our ancient journey by learning ancient texts and offering new insights. What else can we do but journey on though history, despite — perhaps because — of all this grief?
But the newspaper displays another picture. Houses are burning — right there, by the side of that same road.
My brothers, my sisters, is this reckless violence to be our old road’s destination? Is this really the route we want to take?
My brothers, my sisters, let not our ancient road turn into a nightmare version of the one we once envisioned.
Wherever I travel, physically or emotionally, I travel with you, my people, for we have long been the people of the road.
Let us be worthy of the best of the Jewish journeys that led us to this moment.
Let us bequeath our children a good and worthy road.
* * *
God — You, Who create shalom in your heavens, please create shalom here, too.