Sabbatical Preparations and Ruminations

It is now four times that I have been blessed to prepare for Sabbatical during the month of January. In each of the past three years and in this time of preparation I find myself buoyed by a strong sense of gratitude for this gift of time and for the relationship between Micah and me from which the gift originates. 

While I find myself equally thankful each year as I prepare, I also find that each year I am more deeply aware of the thought I put into about how I utilize this gift of time. I feel the responsibility to use it well — so that this communal investment of time in me pays dividends for the community. I also feel the need within me to construct my time and activities in such a fashion that I can dwell in that Sacred Place Within and emerge with whatever gifts are meant to be taken from such a Place.

During these preparations in which I have a hyper-focus on my choices of how I spend my time – I make a mental note. I want to remember this sense of anticipation and potential for this upcoming time – because I sense that it should apply to each and every moment throughout the year. We should regard and approach each moment – no matter when we spend it – with the same responsibility, urgency and possibility.

After four years of preparing for and spending Sabbatical time, I think I am beginning to understand that I take this time to better understand this reality and how I may humbly share its wisdom to those whose hearts wish to understand it, too. And, so I begin both efforts by spending this time of preparation sharing these thoughts with you …

It’s Still Love

When it seems that evil reveals itself within our most vulnerable places, Love is still our most powerful response. When it seems that we have lost control over the instruments of violence, Love is still the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. When we cannot understand – with our minds or our hearts – how or why the innocent must suffer, Love is still our most powerful idea. When we lose our balance by the undertow of our radical vulnerability and the precarious nature of life, Love is still our most powerful anchor. When we doubt if we can truly construct a world that just, compassionate and peaceful, Love is still our most powerful tool.

With AND To

We are grateful that we are able to look in the rear view at the recent exchange of violence between Israel and Gaza – let us be thankful that both sides were able to agree to at least a temporary cessation of hostilities. We still feel emboldened by the way the Jewish community stood together during this crisis. Across emails, facebook pages, twitter feeds, synagogue and organization websites and within the walls of these organizations we saw, heard and responded to the call to ‘Stand Up’ WITH Israel … exactly as we should have done so.

As people in Jewish households who have deep connections to this sacred place, our connections to Israel call upon us to ‘Stand Up’ WITH Israel as its inhabitants face constant and threatening rocket fire from Gaza … to ‘Stand Up’ WITH Israel as it faces the challenge of needing to work with those who challenges Israel’s very legitimacy … to ‘Stand Up’ with Israel as the country’s leadership struggles to make the difficult decisions between policy and politics; diplomacy and combat, life and death.

And yet, because we so deeply value Israel for all that which it stands … not only must we ‘Stand Up’ WITH Israel, we must endeavor to – chastened by the highest values of our Jewish tradition – ‘Stand Up’ TO Israel. The latest exchange of violence did not occur in a vacuum. There is a deteriorating political and social context to which Israel holds its share of accountability.

As people in Jewish households who hold deep connections with this sacred place our connections to Israel call upon us to ‘Stand Up’ TO Israel and speak frankly and honestly about social and moral repercussions of the continued placement and expansion of the Separation Barrier … to ‘Stand Up’ TO Israel and speak frankly and honestly about the continued development of Settlements in spite of the way that development impedes on future possibilities for reconciliation and peace … to ‘Stand Up’ TO Israel and lovingly remind our Jewish sisters and brothers about the vision of acting as sovereign power in a fashion that promotes and supports justice and freedom for ALL of its inhabitants.

As I struggle with the most effective way to walk this balance between standing up WITH and TO, I am deeply grateful for the perspective and wisdom of my friend, Dalia Landau. Dalia is one of the protagonists in The Lemon Tree and the heart and soul of Open House – a peace education center – in Ramle, Israel. Dalia lives and embodies this struggle of standing up WITH and TO with sincerity and grace. In the aftermath of the recent exchange of hostilities, she wrote to me:

“I am sure that you are as relieved for the cease fire as I am. It is tenuous. Most of the reserve soldiers have not yet been sent home. Please continue praying for all of us. Once again the saddest thing is the mutual projections of evil on each other, the competition over how much destruction we have caused each other. Well, nothing new. This is what war is about is it not? Today, there is no such thing as settling a conflict in the battlefield, is there? The whole country is the field … At such times our work at Open House becomes so much more challenging. Suspicion grows, feelings are on edge. At such times, it becomes very difficult to bear disagreement or another point of view. Minority voices are hardly tolerated … How are we ever to be able to create confidence building measures without people getting to know each other? This is the question that bugs me continuously … Now a whole generation is growing in the West Bank and Gaza that has not met Israelis except as soldiers or bomber planes flying over their heads.”

The cessation of hostilities between Israel and Gaza is just the beginning – or more accurately the continuation – of the real work that must be done by all of us who claim connection to this sacred place. We need to speak the truth – the truth of our love and support for Israel and its people; the truth of our grave concern for the perpetually worsening situation between Israel and Palestinians; the truth about the cost to the collective Jewish soul that continues to escalate.

So, read and learn more and what intelligent people from all perspectives have to say; talk and listen respectfully and honestly with those whose views you share and with those whose views are different from your own and support those organizations like Open House – that lovingly and tirelessly work hard to stand up WITH and TO this place we value so deeply.

My Chicken Little Moment

Just this past Shabbat morning I arrived with just enough time to do some final preparation for that morning’s Torah reading. I walked into the sanctuary needing only a few minutes with the Torah scroll to get the reading where I wanted it to be … and then I had my Chicken Little moment. The sky was falling down! … or, so it seemed that way. The roof of the sanctuary is being replaced (hail damage and also because it is probably as old as the building itself). All of the banging and hammering of new shingles into the ceiling of the sanctuary caused at least some very small parts and pieces of dirt, soot and whatever else accumulates between a ceiling and roof tiles over decades to fall on the floor and the chairs in the sanctuary. My few minutes of Torah had just been triaged behind making sure the sanctuary was clean when people began arriving for services in just a few minutes.

I hated that choice in that moment – the choice between spending some time fine tuning the Torah reading – a significant part of the Shabbat morning ritual and making sure that people would not have to sit in soot. In a way there was no choice – one would not make it to paying attention to the Torah reading and whatever spiritual challenges it may hold if one was focused, distracted, or even put off by how dirty they felt sitting in the sanctuary. Even though the place needed to be cleaned before anything happened, my decision nagged at me.

While the Torah reading was fine, I wanted it to be better. However, it was not even the relative merits of my Torah reading performance that bothered me. The moment felt emblematic of hundreds and thousands of decisions that I made in the past year where I have had to choose between keeping physical order in some corner of my world vs. tending to a more ethereal order. Often – and deservedly do – it is the physical disorder or chaos that demands my attention and response. But, what happens to me when the mounting cascade of small decisions continues to amass and further distance me from broader, deeper and spiritual matters? What happens to the essential balance of tending to body and soul? What about the need to care for my ‘sanctuary space’ and caring for what happens in it?

This past Shabbat morning – (one of the few Shabbatot in this preparatory month of Elul) – the Falling Sky was more than nuisance to my morning Torah preparation. Perhaps, I should not have left that planning to the last minute. Maybe there is a few more minutes in my week or day that can carve out to insure that I will have the time I need to clean up whatever mess makes itself known and do my Torah preparation. Even more than merely being about that particular moment, I’ll take the presence of the soot and muck and ancient roof-stuff as an ‘Elulian’ nudge. Take care to set aside time and energy for tending to that inner/ethereal/spiritual part of myself and my corner or the world. Even when the ‘sky’ is falling, the ‘Torah’ story needs to be told.

Take A Seat, It’s Elul

Last year at this time I think I had already written three or four posts during my inaugural Elul Exercise.      You may or may not recall that My Elul Exercise was my effort to blog each day during forty days that fall between the 1st day of the Hebrew month of Elul through the day that those primordial gates of heaven close on Yom Kippur.  Elul is traditionally a month of preparation for the days of awe that encapsulate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  During Elul one is challenged to hear the call of the shofar each day – physically and spiritually (with your ears and your heart) and respond to the call to return/get back/remember/realign with our essential selves/truths/purpose/god.  

Last year I actually blogged some 28 of those 40 days.  It was hard, but it was invigorating.  I loved the exercise of paying attention each day with a writer’s eye and what that stretching of my psychic muscles did to how I experienced each day.  Then, I had the chance to sit down and write – reaching into the creative flow that so often remains untapped each day.   I was excited.  I was committed.  I was energized and ready to continue that experience throughout the year …

And here I am … a year later and not am I already behind on last year’s Elul output (it is the 6th day of Elul and this is post #1!), but I never even came close to my expectations for writing during the year.  Even the richness of my short trip to Israel during my January Sabbatical – despite my good and announced intentions – could not push me pass the inertia of life to tap with any regularity into that precious creative flow and write once again.  So right off the bat … as I gear up for the annual Jewish internal review – I am reminded and confronted by one of the ways that I missed the mark.  I wanted to write more in 5772.  I set that goal and woefully missed it.
So, my first reflections of my past year elicit regret, sadness, disappointment … even grief for what I lost by not realizing this goal. Yikes, it does not bode well for the reflections that follow, does it?
That brings me to a mystic take on the sound of the shofar that I recently discovered.  However, before we get to the teaching we need to cover some background.  With their anthropomorphic, patriarchal and hierarchical glasses on, the Rabbinic tradition understand God as occupying two thrones – the throne of Justice and the throne of Mercy.  God sits on each according to the demands of the situation – sometimes justice needs dispensing and some times mercy needs to be shown. Both thrones are essential to the effective progress of the universe.  This mystic teaching suggests that the sound of the shofar has the effect of actually making God move – from the throne of Justice to the throne of Mercy.  After all, it is easy to begin with the assumption that in this anthropomorphic scenario that God spends most of this time of year lounging in that barc-o-lounger of Justice.  With all of the sinning, missing the mark and messing up that gets done around the world – there is lots of Justice to mete out.  And yet, the shofar acts like a audial electric fence that jolts God from snoozing too long in the chair of Justice to spending some time reclining in the comforts of the seat of Mercy.
If you know me you know that some kingly god sitting on any throne does not do it for me in a strictly theological sense.  I am pretty sure that it did not work for the mystics either.  This mystic midrash about shofar sounds that shift is not about God, but about us.  It reminds us to allow space for both Justice and Mercy as we assess the year that brought us here.  In the case for many people – we lean toward an imbalance of one or the other.  Sometimes we are heavy on the Justice – paying attention to our shortcomings and limitations so much that we get stuck in judgement.  Both Justice and Mercy are essential elements to our own process of Teshuvah.  We need the unbiased, clear and honest assessment of Justice to help us see and learn from our limitations.  We also need the guiding, hopeful and graceful nature of Mercy to empower us to grow beyond them.
As we embark on this annual accounting of our souls … let’s pay attention to the sound of the shofar and try to make sure that those cosmic derrieres balance time in the seats of Mercy an Justice.

I Was Not There – Reflections on the Aurora Movie Theater Tragedy

Each year on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av (Tisha B’Av) – sometime between late July and mid-August the Jewish tradition pushes us to look directly into the face of tragedy, destruction, pain and loss. Tisha B’Av is not a very widely observed Jewish ritual … perhaps Jews get enough opportunities to relive and remember the tragic and painful moments in Jewish history throughout the course of the year. Perhaps the destruction of the First and Second Temples are no more than intellectual abstractions to human beings living twenty to twenty five centuries after these historical moments. This year in spite of the lack of regard that most of us have for Tisha B’Av, its spirit intrigues and challenges me …

This year on Tisha B’Av (it was the 29th of July) – we Jews of Colorado found ourselves looking directly into the face of tragedy, destruction, pain and loss … as all of Colorado reacts and strives to come together after the tragic violence at the Aurora movie theater on July 20, 2012. Many of us Jews may not have even been aware of the observance, yet less actually observing the rituals of Tisha B’Av – reciting from the book of Lamentations or fasting. And yet, we all have been spending the days before (will spend the many of the days following) Tisha B’Av engaged in the tribulation of confronting the occurrence of and the nature of tragedy in our midst.

Using the lens of Tisha B’Av is helpful to me as I try and face the horrific consequences of these violent and reprehensible acts. Like most fellow Denverites and Coloradans, I was not there in the theater that night. I do not know anyone who was there, was injured or killed. I do not even begin to approach an understanding of the physical and emotional trauma, pain and suffering of those who were in theater or the loved ones of those who were in the theater. Still, I am absorbed by a morbid curiosity of what happened and how it happened that night; I am filled with (and ask with others) essential and profound questions about fate, human nature, evil, suffering; I am confronted by feelings of fear, doubt, anger and anxiety. I was not there – I am not traumatized because I was present or mourning a death of someone who was murdered or figuring out how to support those who survived, but I feel on some level that it happened to me, to all of us. Why do I have that perception and what do I do with it?

The template of the Tisha B’Av observance guides me in responding to these questions. Tisha B’Av acknowledges the way that tragic events touch, impact and potentially change the entire collective in which these events occur. The tradition does not have us act as if we were there – to in some way artificially or selfishly take upon ourselves the raw terror of experiencing that pain, loss and trauma. It does not blur the line between victim/survivor and concerned bystander/fellow community member. It allows, encourages, those of us who were not there – to question and to feel the raw realities that such tragedies force us to confront. Our tradition allows us the sacred, yet burdensome task of examining our human condition and the society that it has created. Our tradition nudges us to sit face to face with our stark limitations and our profound possibilities – and the consequences of realizing or not realizing each.

Why does Jewish tradition allow us and force us to feel and consider such things? From the appropriate emotional and historical distance, the important and difficult process of engaging with these moments grounds us to our deepest values and clarifies our broadest visions. This process pushes and prods us to intensely pursue justice and peace; to actively choose life; to be fully present in each loving encounter.

While we continue to support and nurture those whose lives were so violently changed in that movie theater that night, let us – with the appropriate distance – fully engage in this sacred and burdensome task. Let us feel those emotions – fear for our safety, angst in the realization of the actual randomness of life in the context of illusory order; impotence in our stark realization that we are so limited in being able to protect our children, our partners, our loved ones and even ourselves. Let us ask our questions on sin and forgiveness; on the ethics and morality of gun control and capital punishment; on the essence of human nature; on the nature and presence of evil; on the pain and suffering of the innocent and the righteous. May the experience of such emotions and our response to such questions help us comfort the bereaved, care for the injured and push and inspire us to create a just, loving and peaceful place in our world.

A Little Less Majesty This Morning

It is usually on days like this one – clear, crisp, sunny with the beautiful sight of the mountains beckoning that I feel great pride in living in Colorado. However, as bright as the sun is shining and as majestic as the stunning purple mountains may be this morning … the wattage is not as high this morning as I reflect upon the cowardly and bigoted decision made by the Colorado House of Representatives. The news is not news at this juncture – the Colorado House of Representatives refused to even allow a vote on a the latest bill asking for equal rights for ANY two human beings – regardless of their gender — to enjoy the same rights and protection that our government exists to preserve and protect. I am sad, ashamed and angry.

The words – no the wisdom and the call – of tradition that come to mind are simple ones from the prophet Micah: Do Justly. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly. I think the justice and the mercy explain themselves in the case for the Civil Union bill … don’t they? Justice seems to point toward providing equitable treatment to all law abiding, tax paying citizens in this great American society. The fact that we question whether one group – on account of their sexual orientation – to be worthy of equal treatment is nothing short of prejudice and bigotry. No matter how such a rationalization is cloaked in the finery of religious belief or political expediency – it is no different that limiting another’s rights because of the color of one’s skin, the type of sexual organs on one’s body or the way one believes or does not believe in a deity.

And if justice does not get us there, then it would be time to jump on the train of mercy. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Micah 6:8) What is hateful to you, do not do to others. (Talmud, Shabbat 31a) Remember the stranger for you, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:34) How can anyone of us who has been touched by successful or unsuccessful marriages (which I am pretty sure which include all of us) not have the greatest respect and compassion for any two human beings who endeavor to roll up their sleeves and try and create a marriage, a family and a home? It is one of the most challenging and rewarding paths that we human beings have the opportunity upon which to walk. Our state is merciless when it is able to say to some of those human beings who have engaged in this sacred task: No, you do not have the legal right to visit your partner when they lie sick and possibly dying in a hospital. No, you do not have the legal right to help determine the care this loved one in these scenarios. No, no, no … but yes to the rest of you.

Humility is the charge for us to know our place in the larger webs of lives and life in which we dwell. Our lawmakers work for us. Our lawmakers place – both liberal and conservative – is to make their best efforts to bring considered, relevant and constructive laws to our representatives for approval. While each of these employees of ours must be expected and encouraged to stay true to their personal and political values – humility is about understanding one’s place. It is about knowing where ‘I’ end and the larger entity – which is Civic Colorado – begins. It is about maturely allowing that larger web to take thoughtful, sincere input from that ‘I’ and then letting that web follow its own course. And no matter whether you sit on the right or the left or somewhere in between, humility is ultimately about trusting – dare I say ‘having faith’ – in the larger web that is Civic Colorado and living with those decisions – especially when those decisions do not reflect your sincere and thoughtful perspective.

Do Justly. Love Mercy Walk Humbly. Six words that I find refuge in as I look to return the wattage of Colorado and all of its glory to its genuine strength.

Food Sensitivities

I am thinking a lot about food at the moment … not because I am hungry as I write this post, but because I am in the midst of a twenty-one day cleanse. Under the guidance of Jen Nassi – my holistic health coach – Renee and I are participating in an exhaustive eating exercise. During these three weeks we are eliminating many foods that are common to our everyday diet and adding foods that will help our bodies remove toxins and work more efficiently.

For the first time in a long time (albeit collaterally) I am observing Kashrut. No meat, so no worries about animals’ cud chewing proclivities or the cleft-ness of their hooves. No dairy, so there is no cheese to put on that waiting hamburger (that I cannot eat). The cleanse maintains no ideological connection to these emblematic rituals of the Jewish Dietary laws. However, I believe that my cleanse and the spirit of Kashrut are profoundly connected. The traditional Jewish expression of eating properly has evolved into different sets of dishes of milk and meat and butchers who know how to kill and animal in a certain manner – there are other paths to follow from this original practice. Kashrut or Kosher means ‘fit’ or ‘proper’. In that sense the command to keep Kashrut can be understood as a charge to to produce and consume foods that are fit and proper – fit and proper for my body, for my spirit and for the world around me. Even though I have followed the traditional sense of Kashrut before in my life, during these three weeks I think I may be keeping kosher – eating ‘properly’ – in a way that I have never done before.

The idea of what is fit and proper for me (and the world) physically and spiritually contains a wide range of considerations. For example … I pay close attention to how my body reacts and works quite differently when think so differently about the food I ingest. I observe how often I associate a choice of what to eat and when to eat it by an emotion (a treat for a long run or because I have had a long day).  I notice the resources (time, money, intellectual) needed to make these choices. I pay attention to how what I choose to eat connects me to (Renee, with whom I am sharing this exercise) or disconnects me from (spending time with family and friends over meals, drinks, etc.) the social interactions that sustain me. I reflect upon the way I contribute to justice, compassion or peace for my world around me because of the way my food is produced and distributed.

I invite you to take a day to keep ‘kosher’ … to simply pay attention to the ‘fitness’ of the food and drinks you choose to ingest for a day. Don’t even worry about changing anything you eat because of the attention you are paying to your food … just consider what you put into your mouth for the day. Why are eating or drinking in that moment? What physical need does what you are choosing to eat or drink fulfill? (Hunger, exhaustion) What spiritual need does what you are choosing to eat or drinking fulfill? (Anxiety, loneliness, celebration). How will the nature of this particular food that you are ingesting affect your body and its function? How did the production of this kind of food affect other living things? (Animals, human beings, the environment)

There is great potential and even power in every single choice we make … from the obvious life-changing choices to the mundane choice of everyday life that lose our attention and their meaning.

Fear and Pharaoh in the Promised Land

My written reflections of my Sabbatical trip to Israel have not come with the frequency I intended or promised.  However, with Purim just behind us and Passover just ahead those experiences still hover prominently at the forefront of my consciousness.  One day during my trip I spent chasing around Jerusalem with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the General Secretary for Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR).  RHR by way of its own description: “… seeks to prevent human rights violations in Israel and in areas for which Israel has taken responsibility, and to bring specific human rights grievances to the attention of the Israeli public while pressuring the appropriate authorities for their redress.”  The very existence of an organization like RHR in Israel is a reminder that we Jews are as human as anyone else.  One only needs to look at their projects to see the ways that we Jews – just like everybody else – still need to work hard to create a just and compassionate society.

My day with the energetic and passionate Rabbi Ascherman focused on the work in Jerusalem that RHR does to promote fairness and justice in the matter of Palestinian home and land ownership.  We spent part of our day in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.  Silwan sits just adjacent to the Old City.  In the early 1990’s the Jewish National Fund (Yes, JNF – the tree people!) began to carefully acquire properties in this neighborhood using a 1950 law – called the Absentee Property Law.  This law was used to transfer the property of Palestinian refugees to the state of Israel followed the war in 1948.  With the support of the government’s ethnically prejudicial take on this law (that hindered Palestinians claim to Palestinian owned lands land and favored of the Israeli Settlers claim to it) – the JNF hoped to evict Palestinian families and hand over land to Eldad – a pro-settlement organization whose goal is to ‘Judaize Palestinian neighborhoods over the Green Line’.  Rabbi Ascherman took me to the home of the Sumarin family – whose property butts up against the City of David archeological site and museum.  I met this family who – with the help of organizations like RHR – must regularly stand up to a powerful governmental authority and defend their freedom to own and live in their home.

As Purim came and went, I thought about the part of the Book of Esther that we never tell – the part where the Tanach tells how the people of Shushan felt Pachad Hayehudim – the Fear of the Jews. (Yes, that phrase is really in the Hebrew Bible!)  At the end of the book, after Mordechai and Esther succesfully stood up to the King and Haman’s initial (but irreversible) decree to destroy the Jews they were given the power and authority to bear arms and defend themselves.  In their new role of holding power and authority and under the leadership of Mordechai in his new ministerial post – the Book of Esther tells us that the Jews killed 75,000 people.  In turn, the people of Shushan felt the Fear of the Jews.

This year’s Seders beckon and we look to the experience of retelling/reliving of our liberation from slavery in Egypt.  In doing so, we demonize Egypt (the constricting ‘Narrow Place’) and Pharaoh (the personification of Egypt’s life-suffocating authority and power).  We also acknowledge the blessings of our own freedom and the responsibilities towards others inherent in such a gift.

Through the spiritual lens of each festival – I could not help seeing this family of Silwan whom I saw with my own eyes and touched (in greeting) with my own hands.  I wonder uncomfortably about how and where they fit into these stories.  Their physical lives are not in immediate danger, but they are not safe and secure in their own homes.  Do they live each day knowing Pachad Hayehudim – the Fear of the Jews?  The Sumarin family are not slaves, but they live a narrow and constricting life in a setting that restricts some of the same basic freedoms that we celebrate around a Seder table.  Do they feel like they live in an ‘Egypt’ and yearn for redemption from it and its Pharonic government?

I worry that when we ingest our Hamentaschen (literally ‘Haman’s Ears’) we internalize more than one of Haman’s less endearing physical qualities, but also some of his more nefarious spiritual ones.  I worry that when we endeavor to eliminate Chametz (literally ‘that which inflates or swells’) from our physical diet, we are forgetting to eliminate those anxieties and fears that inflate our egos to dangerous and destructive proportions.  I worry that we have forgotten why we retell our stories each year – not simply to feel connected via the tradition of what has always been done or enjoy the culture of tastes we associate with these stories.  We tell our stories to remind us of our sacred charge – to confront the Hamans and the Pharaohs of the world – no matter where we might find them.

Looking Back on Looking Ahead

During my Sabbatical in January 2012, I traveled to Israel for ten days.  In the coming weeks, as we approach Israel 64th birthday, I will share some reflections and insights about my experiences from my trip.  I look forward to your reactions, thoughts and comments.  Here is my first installment:

I think that I have been to Israel enough times that I was not expecting the wave of emotions that may have accompanied my arrival on other trips.  I knew that I would not experience the emotions that I might attribute to arriving/returning-to-the-Jewish-ancestral-homeland or touching the reality of the modern-day-miracle-of-the-State-of-Israel.  Even if I was sure about what I would not feel upon my arrival in Israel, the question of what I would feel remained unanswered.

I arrived at Ben Gurion airport near dusk on a Wednesday afternoon in early January … and I found that I was correct in my assumption.  It was a greyish, unremarkable Wednesday afternoon in a busy airport where I retrieved my bag, walked seamlessly through customs and hailed a shuttle to take me to Jerusalem.  This arrival in Ben Gurion was now the fifth in my lifetime.  It is a number that pales in comparison to some of my friends, family and colleagues; but one that is still significant to me and I know to others who have yet to notch arrival number one at this auspicious airport.  It had been three and a half years since my most recent trip.  On that trip I co-chaperoned a group of interfaith teens in the summer of 2008.  In an epic and dramatic fashion that trip impacted my relationship to and understanding of this magical, complex, intense and crazy place.   And so, between my relative familiarity with Israel and the profundity of my most recent experience, I arrived and made my way to Jerusalem with the confident nonchalance that one feels returning home from college with a bag of laundry tossed over one’s shoulder.

And yet, as cool as I felt – or at least tried to look – I still did not know what to expect. My experiences on this trip to Israel would be unlike any previous experience.  One of the effects of my previous trip is that I cannot visit this place, enjoy and even cultivate my sense of connection to it without also paying attention to it with a critical eye, ear and heart and trying to begin to grasp the ponderous complexity of its reality.  In addition to and ironically juxtaposed with that perspective is the fact this is my first trip to Israel during which I am visiting family.  Israel has always been a destination to discover and encounter the layers of Jewish history and my Jewish identity; it has never mixed that element with the opportunity to do the same with family history and my personal identity … and to do it all in the West Bank!  I have also never traveled here without a previously arranged program with its hidden and not-so-hidden agendas as participant or facilitator.  I am here with an idea of what I want to do, to explore, to feel – but I am here, on my own … open to trusting the cosmic, hidden machinations of the place to take me (physically, existentially, emotionally, etc.) where I need to go.

It strikes me as I reflect back on my trip and look ahead to sharing about it that so many of the best things we know in life are layered and nuanced.  I think of Israel in this way – as that initial layer of encounter now becomes an entry way to things I could have never possibly imagined, yet less expressed.  Any great relationship in which we are blessed to be a part, possesses this component, too.  And, of course, we know the experience of any great and true story works in this fashion, as well. It was Ben Bag who said that everything was in the Jewish people’s greatest and truest story, Torah.  All we gotta do is keep turning it over, shake it up a bit … to first glimpse and then immerse ourselves in the rich and fertile layers beyond.