Today, I am grateful to have rediscovered a twofold blessing.
First of all I am thankful to my congregation and its leaders for recognizing that its rabbi must renew his learning and refresh his spirit every year. I do so by attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual rabbinic conference. I am here in Jerusalem. It is a blessing to learn with some of the Jewish people’s leading scholars and to sit among colleagues who share my commitment to learning and devotion to questioning.
It is as well a blessing to find myself again in the city of Jerusalem. I live in an unprecedented age. Despite this country’s many difficulties, challenges and frustrations few Jewish generations have been privileged to live in, or alongside, a sovereign Jewish nation. In some ways Israel is just a country, and like every other nation a home to its citizens. In other ways this place is about our reengagement with a dream.
For millennia we only dreamed about returning to the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel. And now with relative ease I travel back and forth. Few generations have had such an opportunity. Through the vast majority of our history most longed for this place but few touched it. Until now! This is a privilege that must never be taken for granted.
Walking Jerusalem’s streets I become reacquainted with my blessings. I uncover my ancestors’ hopes. I find myself again dreaming. That is part of the reason why I keep coming back. The dreaming reorients my soul. It redirects my steps.
On our first day we rediscovered an ancient text. Moses Maimonides authored a compendium on Jewish law in the 12th century. In this Mishneh Torah he discussed the direction to which we should pray. “A person standing in the diaspora should face the land of Israel and pray. One standing in the land of Israel should face Jerusalem. One standing in Jerusalem should face the Temple.”
Regardless of where we find ourselves we orient our prayers toward the land of Israel and in particular the city of Jerusalem. It is the organizing principle around which our prayers revolve. We can never be lost if we recall where Jerusalem is located. For most of the disorienting centuries of Jewish history we turned towards a mythic Jerusalem. We longed that we might one day return.
Look to the east and you can find direction.
Maimonides continues: “A blind person, one who is unable to determine the direction, or one traveling on a boat should direct his heart toward the Divine Presence and pray.”
This surprises me. The sun rises in the east. How can one be so unsure of the direction? Cannot the sun’s warmth be felt in the morning—even by the blind?
Cannot the ship’s navigator shout out the direction to his passengers? Apparently ocean travelers become easily lost. The sea is disorienting. We cannot rely on the senses but must instead look to the heart. The open ocean is confounding in its vastness.
The land again diminishes from view. How do we find direction? To where do we direct our prayers?
I continue walking Jerusalem’s streets.
The navigator shouts.
I am blessed.
I recall verses from the incomparable Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:
And there are days here when everything is sails and more sails,
even though there’s no sea in Jerusalem, not even a river.
Everything is sails: the flags, the prayer shawls, the black coats,
the monks’ robes, the kaftans and kaffiyehs,
young women’s dresses and headdresses,
Torah mantles and prayer rugs, feelings that swell in the wind
and hopes that set them sailing in other directions.
Even my father’s hands, spread out in blessing,
my mother’s broad face and Ruth’s faraway death
are sails, all of them sails in the splendid regatta
on the two seas of Jerusalem:
the sea of memory and the sea of forgetting.
Traveling on these seas I rediscover the rhythm of my steps. Hopes and dreams fill the sails. They carry us.
The poetry fills my soul. The generations nurture me. We sing about this very place. Sure it has its problems. Sure it sometimes even drives me crazy.
And yet I can walk along its streets.
I discover another Israeli poet. Avot Yeshurun writes:
All the rivers
the sea and the sea
is not full
the rivers return
to the rivers
This is the secret
of tide and ebb.
This is the secret
of the Torah of longing.
It is the dreaming, and the yearning, which reorients.
I awaken, renewed and singing my prayers. My heart is in the east.
“Mah tovu ohelecha Yaakov…How fair are your tents, O Jacob.” (Numbers 24)