This was the last morning in the park. It’s actually quite a small park, just a strip of green next to the road. There are the obligatory monkey bars and horses on coils and a plastic and steel castle with ladders and small slides. Nothing fancy. Also a few of the exercise stations that dot playgrounds nowadays.
And the trees. There a huge brosh (cyprus) tree at the entrance to the park, the kind that has a thick trunk and thickly dark interior spaces inside of the branches. I sometimes feel that if I would climb into that interior darkness, it would lead me to another world — it is dark and mysterious inside. There is a row of silvery green olive trees parallel to the road, and a fine, strong pair of mulberry trees at one end. The park is called Mulberry Park because of those two trees that give their dark fruit in the late spring and make a purple mess on the benches and anything else underneath their sprawling branches.
This park has been my Shabbat synagogue for the past nine months, and today, the first day of Pesah, was our last day of davening there. Our fight against the Coronavirus seems to have been largely successful, and we are reuniting with the group that has been praying inside the Bet Knesset on Shabbatot, a group perhaps more sensitive to the weather conditions outside, or more wedded to the building, or perhaps not willing to expose themselves to the added distractions of the physical outside while trying to focus on the spiritual inside.
Davening in the park has been challenging and lovely. I remember the first Shabbat evening there that I suffered from the cold and the wind, wrapped up in my coat and thick scarf and hat and still shivering and the Shaliah Tzibbur did all he could to race through the service without losing its rhythm and continuity. I was wiser and more prepared the following Shabbat: “gatkez” (long thermal underwear) became a regular part of my Friday night dressing regimen. Even when the late afternoon was sunny and warm, heat always fled with the sun in these higher altitudes: dark and cold became synonymous.
Rain was not a problem, usually. If it started raining while we were praying, some would go home and others would try to stick it out. I was among those who sought refuge from the rain in my house and finished my davening there. Our community rabbi recommended not praying in the rain — sometimes the obvious becomes wisdom. No negative judgment is intended upon those who stayed there and got wet as they swayed to their inner spiritual breezes.
One of my favorite Shabbat evenings happened on such a rainy Friday, when I didn’t even attempt to go to Mulberry Park. This was relatively early in the plague, when fear and prudence kept the synagogue completely closed and uncertainty made family life closer. Davening at home that evening in my living room with a roaring fire in our wood heater was a cozy pleasure, and even more so when my wife and two daughters joined in the singing and reading. The Covid wolf was prowling our streets, but our home was tight and close.
Pesah last year with just the four of us was a unique treasure. I was worried that perhaps my daughters might not take the Seder as seriously without the normal chaos and pleasure of our family. Our family does not need to be “extended” to be extensive — this year, six of my eight children were with us with their children, and we were 28 around the table for Seder. But that year we held our Seder on low tables seated on cushions, learning and singing, eating singing and enjoying: celebrating our Seder.
Friday night in Mulberry park could also be a pleasure, under the stars and with mountain breeze, as Naomi Shemer described it, as clear as wine and redolent of pine. The voice of our shaliah tzibur, the person leading the prayers (the emissary of the congregation, one could translate, but he is called by the initials of the phrase — shat”z) resonating confidently through that medium, and drawing us together. Often it was the particularly sweet voice of my Rabbi, Rav Dov, who lived just across from the park. Almost without fail, there was a bird or two echoing the voice of the Shat”z, both in the evening and morning prayers in Mulberry Park.
Shabbat mornings were a special pleasure, except for the one morning when an eastern wind storm from the desert as cold as ice turned our park to a ship ravaged on stormy oceans. A plastic cloth divided that separated the men and women’s section was as a mainsail, and it required a few men to stay seated in their chairs with the back chair legs pinning down the bottom of the sheet to prevent immanent foundering. Chairs rolled in the gusts, and it was questionable whether we could even bring out the Torah for the reading, but the wind relented and the Torah was read quickly and restored to the safety of its ark.
Fair mornings were like davening in paradise. I’d schlepp my folding camping chair down to the park and place it near the fence furthest from the road (no traffic noise, of course, as no cars except a rare security vehicle are rolling on Shabbat). To my left and immediately below me is a line of caravans, temporary low-cost housing for young couples and beginning families who are just getting a foothold in life. Beyond them is the basketball court and greenhouses, then further out — a kilometer away, are the houses of the small community of Shvut Rachel. Yet further, and the brown hills and green vineyards of farming communities east of Shilo, and Jalud, an Arab village nearby. Way out past the far hills, in places where they dip and allow a glimpse of a further horizon on the clearest days, are the heights of mountains on the other side of the Jordan Valley, in the Kingdom of Jordan. Lev, my youngest and perhaps most adventurous son, has traveled over there, and he says that two towers we see are in Amman. Looking on a map, I can see that he is probably right. Amman is due east of Shilo, and only 50 kilometers away at most.
In front of me is an almond tree that I’ve been watching over past several weeks. It has cycled through modest budding to virginal white and pink flowers that smell distinctly of honey. Only after blossoming do the leaves appear — how does the tree get the energy to blossom? — and where the flowers once bloomed green fruit appear, fuzzy as a peach. These young almonds can be eaten as is. They are pleasingly tart and my friend assures me very good for our health. I see them sold like this in baskets in the shuk, and a Yeminite bus driver I used to work with often ate them in the springtime.
And so Shabbat morning is sitting in this idyllic grove, letting the eastern sun warm me as I sit wrapped in my tallit, listening equally to the Shat”z and the birds, singing and conversing with the Eternal one with the eternity of His ever-renewing and ever changing world around me. הוא מחדש בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית — Every day He recreates the work of creation. I doze in my warmth from time to time, I stand for the Torah reading so that I do not doze for that, and I regret when our two hours of the morning service is over.
Mulberry Park was just one of the places where I loved to daven over this past year. Weekday mornings brought me to the area on the east side of the Bet Knesset, between the building and a playground. In the winter months we would arrive there bundled up against the cold in the darkness lit by a few streetlamps. By the end of services, the sun would just be rising over the eastern horizon. But all through the morning prayers, colors would play on the horizon in a continually changing kaleidoscope of shifting tones and patterns. I would turn my chair slightly to the east so that I could watch the awakening day accompanied to the background of bird-song and people-prayer. And one Kabalat Shabbat service not far from my house, where Friday evening song welcomed in the Shabbat while the setting sun and broad expanses of cloud and sky challenged us to reach higher, higher.
We are so fortunate here that our government had the foresight and persistence to acquire sufficient amounts of the vaccination. We are blessed with the opportunity to return to our synagogues and daven again as a united community. But I now daven in the morning next to a window where I can see the sun rising through the branches of an old and half-dead almond tree that only weeks ago appeared to be nothing more than a candidate for my wood heater, and has in the meanwhile thrown out blossom and fruit, looking like a Japanese ink-print. I have not returned to my seat in the main sanctuary, surrounded by wood and plaster, because Hashem’s daily renewal of the works of creation have become a part of my daily renewal as well. Our world is Hashem’s creation, and our tradition gives us the opening to connect the Torah of physical creation to the Torah of the soul, finding the spiritual in the physical, and ultimately, in ourselves as well.