Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Principal of the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. In these weekly postings, he gives a description and rundown of what the group is doing day to day, which he hopes sheds some light on what the EIE experience is like. Today, he shares about the first Shabbat in Israel for our Spring 2016 students.
It was brisk on Friday afternoon. Exiting the bus in the parking lot at the Zion Gate, students saw their breath, a reminder that it is winter here on the cusp of the Judean Desert. We made our way from Zion Gate, through the end of the Armenian Quarter, and into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Once in the Kotel Plaza, we heard a cacophony of prayers: the call of the Muezzin, the prayer leader in Islam, from the Al Aqsa Mosque that sits atop the Temple Mount; on the hour, the chiming of the church bells from the Christian Quarter; and the different tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat, the service for welcoming Shabbat, emanating from the area right in front of the Kotel. Whether it is your first or fiftieth visit, the sounds of the Kotel on Friday Night are powerful, inspiring, and, sometimes, overwhelming.
We held our Kabbalat Shabbat service at what is known as Ezrat Yisrael, the area set aside for egalitarian prayer. Writing on Sunday, my phone just buzzed with the news that the Israeli Government Cabinet formally approved the formal establishment of an egalitarian prayer space in the area known as “Robinson’s Arch” that will be on par with the “classic” Kotel. There was an increased sense of spiritual intimacy in the Ezrat Yisrael as we were the only group in this area. We had the entire space entirely to ourselves. Ariella Kronish, the Dean of Jewish Studies, led the service and students sang tunes that were familiar from their home synagogues, NFTY groups, and URJ summer camps with great spirit. The heavens grew darker as we sat in the moonlight under the deep, sapphire sky until the lights in the area came on.
At the end of the service, I shared a few words of Torah with the students.
This past Shabbat, we read the Torah portion of Yitro which includes, among other things, the moment that God reveals the Divine Presence to Israel at Mt. Sinai and gives our ancestors the Ten Commandments. The Torah tells us that the combination of thunder and lightning, the call of the Shofar and the fire on the mountain are overwhelming. When God finally speaks, the people are terrified. They turn to Moses and ask him to be the intermediary:
“And they said to Moses, Speak to us and we will hear, but don’t let God speak with us for perhaps we will die.”
Moses exhorts the people to be courageous, not to be afraid. Nonetheless, the people stand far away and Moses approaches the thick darkness, where God waits.
Our Sages wonder what our ancestors actually heard at Mt. Sinai. From the way the Torah reads, it is clear that they heard something, something coming from God, but the exact nature of that “hearing” isn’t clear. While there are many different interpretations, for me, one explanation, in particular, stands out. In the mi
dst of the thunder and lightning, the shofar and the sound of fire, the Israelites hear the near-silent sound of the first letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, the Alef. With punctuation, Alef sounds like little more than a short, hard exhale. That’s it. The people hear God’s breath, nothing more. The rest is transmitted to them through Moses. I often wonder what would have happened had the Israelites found the courage to listen to The Voice without an intermediary.
Sitting in the shadow of the Kotel, I encouraged our students to try every day, to hear the “still, small voice…” I asked them to listen to their internal voice, in both the quiet and the crazy moments, that invites them to help “create a world filled with wholeness, justice, compassion, and joy.” In the mission of the URJ, we can hear God’s voice, in whatever way each one of us understands it, and be moved to see every moment as special and sanctified, to see in every moment the opportunity to make a difference in the world, to be strong and courageous and not afraid. I also encouraged them to seek the Divine Image in each person they meet this semester on EIE, to learn from them, and appreciate them. In that way, they increase not only understanding for themselves but goodness in the world.
Our service ended with “Etz Chaim Hee Lamakhazim Ba” or “It is a Tree of Life to Those Who Hold Fast to It…” and made our way to the Kotel Plaza. Some students went up close to the Kotel while others stood afar, some wanting to touch the stones others wanting to take in the entirety of the place. We reconvened and made our way back to the Zion Gate where the buses waited. I wished everyone a “Shabbat Shalom” and watched them board the buses. As they pulled away, I felt a growing sense of blessing and privilege in that I get to work with and learn from a wonderful group of Jewish teens, a thought I savored during my walk home to join the family for Shabbat dinner.
Shavua Tov – Best Wishes for a Wonderful Week,