Your Land is Not Your Land: Word #30

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Earth

ארץ

 

I rent. I’ve been a renter of real estate for my entire adult life.

 

No ideology – partially for practical finances, partially because I am often between Israel and the US – a foot in each world upon this earth. Where is home? both here and there. I am aware, and constantly reminded, that this is not the wisest fiscal choice, and nowadays, with some savings, can actually start to envision and plan for a modest purchase and investment in a home, but on the whole, right now,  I am a renter, and there is a great deal of freedom that comes with that.

 

 

In some way this is the ancient legacy of my people. The word Ivri – Hebrew – comes from the verb ‘ever’- crossing over, transient – the nomadic lifestyle, no attachment, pick up and go when it’s time to do so.  This has to do with how we live within, and not just with where we live and why.

 

The tension between nomad and settler, home owner and temporary dweller, citizen and migrant,  is as old as the human race for prosperity, property and progress.

 

It’s been a Jewish tension for as long as we remember, extended over exiles and diasporas, temporary homes turned into new homelands – from Babylon to Brooklyn. 

And this is the tension that is making the promised land into the land of sour, bitter, painful quarrels, every single day.  Is the price of the promise too high?

 

Just this week, a Jewish settler, father of five,  was stabbed to death by a Palestinian man at a junction in the West Bank. In response, raging settlers torched fields and homes, smashed cars and attacked several Palestinians, at least one of whom, a Palestinian street cleaner, father of 4, is in critical condition.

 

There are many layers for this rage but the ownership of land is at the heart of the matter.

 

Also this week, without much media attention, Israel’s supreme court granted the Israeli Government’s request to postpone the evacuation of the tiny settlement of Amona, scheduled for this week.

Amona, located in the heart of the West Bank, is an outpost founded illegally in 1995 on primarily privately owned Palestinian land. The name comes from the Book of Joshua, where Kfar Ha’Ammonai is mentioned – the village of the Ammonites – a reminder of the local indigenous Canaanites that were wiped out by the invading Israelites, as instructed by Moses.

 

In February 2006 the Supreme Court ordered the dismantlement of the nine permanent homes built in Amona. Thousands of protesters gathered and clashed with Israeli army and police when the time came for the demolition and eviction. The violent clashes, with more than 300 wounded, surpassed all previous clashes between the security forces of the State of Israel and civilians, including the 2005 unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

 

The government recognized the illegal use of Palestinian land in the majority of the Amona area, though some of the settlers are contesting this. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling the evacuation of the entire settlement was scheduled for April 2013. The most recent postponement comes so that the new government can have time to reorganize. The judges were severe in their ruling that this delay is ‘beyond the measure of the law’ and set the date for July 15 2013 – I don’t know if they knew that it is Tisha B’av – the fast that commemorate the destruction of the Jewish temples and the exile of the nation.

 

Not smart timing.

 

Who knows what will transpire in the political corridors before this actually happens – or not. But the Amona story is just one of many. And with no solution in sight, it seems to me, and to many others that the only way out of this lockdown is a new approach to the ownership, use, and attitude towards land.

 

 

Imagine a world in which nobody owns land. We all rent. None of us are land owners, all of us are temporary dwellers, modest guests of planet earth.

 

Roll your eyes and flip the channel – but this is not a new idea – it is in fact a Bibilal idea.  Even if it was not ever fully implmented. I mean, lets face it: Real estate is a big business for Jews and the real story behind it is very old and pretty complex – and you can find glimpses of it in this week’s Torah text – B’har B’chukotai, which describes the vision for a healthy society, living on earth, rooted in justice. The secret is in the details of the cycles of seven – every seven days we pause, every seven years is a fallow year, a chance to let the land rest and the people too; every seven cycles of seven is the jubilee – all homes go back to the original owner, debts are free, we start again.

It’s a radical notion. God, as recorded by Moses, could not be clearer:

 

And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; and you are visitors and temporary dwellers upon it, along with me.  

Lev. 25:23

Imagine that – in a close reading of this verse it seems that even God is no owner- the very notion of the Divine is not rooted in the ownership of land: the security and peace of mind comes not from deeds for the home – it comes from the trust that nothing is permanent, and yet a roof is sheltering us at night, protecting us from the rain, from foe, from fear and cold and hatred.

Imagine a world in which we are all renters, with the mindset that takes away the wars that ravage our sacred earth, in so many ways, every single day.  It changes the way we say ‘mine’. It let us say ‘ours’. Can that change the reality on the ground in the Middle East? All over the planet? In your own home?

Can this radical mindset change the crisis that is threatening to turn the dream of a Jewish homeland into a nightmare for all involved? Can it alter the way greed it destroying earth? 

What will it take to change our attitude about ownership and use of land? towards the most appropriate relationship with property?

I’m writing this on a plane, far from land, on my way from Israel to NYC, about to launch a congregation that at least for now is homeless by design – a pop-up, renting, transient sanctuary that celebrates the fact that we are always on the go, Hebrews through and through. 

Beyond brick and mortar there is, perhaps, another vision waiting to happen, a way for the sacred to aspire, for us to ascend to the highest potential of our being, while deeply rooting us in the gravity of here and now.

 

In the diverse ecosystem we live in – there’s room for all: homeowners and renters, feudal lords and homeless people, settlers and wanderers. If only we were able to heed the word of Leviticus and find ways to let go, detach, be kinder to each other, to the earth that is home.  It is one earth – belonging to all. The word Earth is even  the same word in Hebrew and English, and in Arabic too. 

 

For the people of Palestine fighting for their homes,  for those reading the Torah as the road map for establishing a holy land, committed to their truth and faith; for all of us fighting to occupy a new reality of justice on earth, roomates and neighbors, future partners in being stewards of life on earth: May we culitivate the landscaope of love, Leviticus style, and learn how to live together better. 

 

shabbat shalom.

Amichai Lau-Lavie
Interim Executive Director

www.storahtelling.org
Subscribe to WORD: My New Weekly Bible Blog

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

I Am No Abomination:Rewritten Bar Mitzvah Speech, 30 years later. Word #28

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

 

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abomination
תועבה
This week marks my 44th birthday, and this week’s Torah portion, Achre Mot-Kedoshim, is the one I chanted, back in 1982, at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.
This double portion has the mixed blessing of gems such as ‘love others as yourself’ alongside the prohibitions on sexual unions that are deemed abominable- then, and often, still, now.
At age 13 I knew that something was up with my sexuality and I suspect I already knew how to name the love that was not to be named. But I can’t remember what it felt like to stand on that synagogue’s main stage, surrounded by family from all over the world, and chant the verses that suggest that I ought to be executed for the sexual choice that I may or may not have chosen,  already in my mind, blood, or heart, or DNA or whatever.
I think I was aware of some tension but had to smile and wave, bury whatever questions I had deep inside, for a few more years. And so it was.
Recently I was asked to write a personal take on this Torah portion, to be published in an unusual anthology of personal reflections on Torah, titled ‘Unscrolled’. Born out of the reboot network’s creative collective and midwifed by the tireless Roger Bennett, it will feature some interesting takes on ye old five books of Moses, due, I think to be published this coming fall.
I decided to go back to that day in 1982, and put words in my own mouth, 30 years later.
Here it is, courtesy of the editors:

Becoming a Man: My Bar Mitzvah Speech Thirty Years Later

 I grew up Orthodox in Israel. By the time of my bar mitzvah—in April 1982—I was living in New York City, a sweet kid in a polyester suit. A little on the chubby side, perhaps. My dark blond mop of hair covered a pimpled forehead.

Being Orthodox had its advantages. Chanting my bar mitzvah portion was no problem. I rattled it off with ease. The problem was the speech. There was so much I wanted to say, but my English wasn’t good enough, and anyway, my speech had been written for me by my uncle, a renowned rabbi, who gave me a tired presentation expounding on the laws of charity.

Thirty years on, I would like to think that if the choice had been mine, and I had been able to summon the courage, this is the speech I would have delivered at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.

As I write it, I imagine my forty-three-year-old self as a man in a black suit with a trim beard, standing directly behind that chubby bar mitzvah boy and visible to him alone.

Esteemed rabbis, my dear parents, family, and friends:

Shabbat Shalom.

Thank you for coming to celebrate with me on this day on which I become a man. Many of you have traveled very far to get here. My parents and I appreciate it very much.

My bar mitzvah portion, Achrei Mot, is about laws and limitations. Laws, I understand, are necessary, because without them things go wrong, and people can get hurt. The portion begins with the reminder of what had happened to the two sons of Aaron the high priest, and how they died by a “strange fire” because they did not observe the law, and were not careful enough when they entered the holy Tent of Meeting.

There are many different kinds of laws in this portion. These laws, I was taught, were given to us by God so that each of us can live a holy life, as part of a bigger, healthy society.

I started learning how to chant my Torah portion two years ago, back when we were still in Israel, from a cassette tape. I played it over and over again to memorize the verses by heart. At first, I didn’t think about what the words meant.

But over time I started paying more attention, and I began to wonder about the meaning of some of these laws, especially the ones about not seeing people naked.

There is a list, in this portion, of relatives that you are not supposed to see naked.

I figured out that “seeing someone naked” was a euphemism—a biblical way to talk about “having sex.” But I couldn’t understand why some relatives are on the list and some aren’t. And I had other questions, also, about some of the other laws.

My teacher, Rabbi Motti, didn’t want to talk about this too much. He said I’d understand when I am more grown up. When I become a man.

And I guess that day is today.

I don’t know if I’m as grown up as my teacher intended, and if I’m really already a man, but as I turn thirteen today, I think I’m just old enough to ask you all a question about these laws, and about one of them in particular that I’ve been thinking a lot about.

The room is stilled. My mother, up in the women’s balcony, is looking at me with a grave, strange look. My father, in the front row, turns to my uncle who is seated next to him and whispers something in his ear. The uncle shakes his head, confused.

After the list of relatives one is not supposed to see naked there are a few other laws that describe prohibited sexual behaviors. One of the laws forbids sex with animals. Another of the laws prohibits sexual relations between men. It’s called an abomination. And whoever does it can be punished by death.

SILENCE.

I’m sorry if this is weird, and maybe neither appropriate nor the speech you expected me to make today. But a few months ago, when we walked home from this synagogue, I asked my father what it means to be a man, and he told me that to be a man is to be honest and not be afraid of the truth.

And the truth is that I’ve been thinking a lot about this law, and it makes me afraid and ashamed to think about it and to talk about it, but it also makes me angry and confused.

I know it’s wrong to question God and the Torah, and maybe I’m too young to understand. But I don’t think that the law about abomination is fair, and I don’t think that people who break it deserve to die.

Today, you say, I am a man. But in fact I think that it already happened.

I think that I became a man almost a year ago, when I kissed for the first time, and felt like a grown-up.

I kissed another boy, a friend of mine, a friend I love.

It made us both afraid and nervous, but it didn’t feel dirty, or wrong, or like an abomination, whatever that is. It felt holy, whatever that is. It felt right.

DON’T LOOK UP. DON’T LOOK UP. My mouth is dry. My heart beats faster than it ever has. I am aware my life will never be the same again. I read on.

I am not an abomination. I don’t deserve to die because of whom I love.

You are all looking at me now, and it’s not pleasant, but I’ve held this secret, this abomination in my stomach, long enough.

If today I am a man, then on this day I tell the truth and face it, like a man. And you, who came from near and far, if you really love me, will love me still, I hope, just the way I am.

I know the Torah says it’s wrong.

I know it’s disappointing to you, my parents and siblings, relatives, friends.

But maybe the Torah does not mean what I’m feeling, because I don’t think—I don’t believe—that God thinks I am dirty, or sinning, or an abomination. Because isn’t that how God created me, in God’s own image, just the way I am?

Today I become a man, and I am who I am, with all of my questions, and doubts, and hard choices, and truths.

I think that’s what becoming a man is all about.

I want to thank you, my parents, for helping me so much in preparing for today, and for being the best parents possible. I’m sorry if I surprised you now, but I hope that you understand. Thank you to my brothers, and my sister, for coming all the way from Israel for this occasion and for always being there for me.

My family are all looking at the floor.

Thank you for listening, and for joining me on this most important day of my life.

Shabbat Shalom. 

I close the folder and dare to look up. Will somebody say something? Someone please hug me. My mother is crying. My father still stares down. Don’t hate me. Please say something.

And there I stand, thirty years later, placing a hand on my thirteen-year-old self’s shoulder and whispering, softly, “It’s going to be all right.”


Shabbat Shalom. 

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie
Interim Executive Director

www.storahtelling.org
Subscribe to WORD: My New Weekly Bible Blog

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

Etty’s Legacy: Our One Moral Duty. Word #27

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

 

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outside
בחוץ

Monday morning,10am, siren pierces the sky –  Holocaust Commemoration Day and everybody stands still for 2 minutes of honoring the victims’ memory.  Not everybody. I stand on my balcony in Abu Tor, right on the border between East and West Jerusalem, see some neighbors, like me, standing quietly on balconies and in their windows, but on the street, walking up from the Palestinian side, are four women, dressed in chic-Muslim wear, ranging in age from 20-50’s, chatting, giggling, ignoring the siren. One of them looks right at me and walks on. 
Really? I want to ask them, run after them, inquire. This isn’t just about slain Jews, it isn’t about Israel or the occupation – it’s about women, men and children, millions of them, brutally tortured and killed. It’s about people. It’s about my grandparents, aunts and uncles, countless relatives. It’s about empathy. 

If it was the other way around, I wonder, if we were a minority in a Muslim land where a moment was taken to remember a national loss – would all Jews care enough to stand?  Do we care now? Or are the walls that divide us already as thick as the ghetto walls that  split up so many  European cities during WW2? 

There are, I’m pleased to know, exceptions. Walls, at times, dissolve, and caring happens. 

The night before I attended a unique Holocaust Memorial Ritual, held at Tantur, an ecumenical center, on the road to Bethlehem. Led by Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and German Christian peace activists, this ritual was based on the teachings of Etty Hillesum,  a Dutch Jewish artist who died in  Auschwitz, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of art, writings, and spiritual inspiration -dedicated to peace, within and beyond. 

During the ritual, Dina, a Palestinian, read her favorite quote, in English and in Arabic. Anya, from Germany, chose hers – translated into German ‘to redeem that language, my beloved language, here, today.’ Nachum, a settler from nearby Gush Etzion, leader of a movement for peaceful negotiations between the local neighbors, spoke about his vision for forgiveness, reconciliation and Hillesum’s faith in humanity’s triumph, despite it all. Many of us wept as they all spoke. 

I am perfectly aware that the few dozens gathered in Tantur are, for now, a dedicated anomaly. The rest of us living here are trapped in divisions – mine/yours,  friend/enemy, my pain/your loss, real fences and wall divide us. The boundaries of compassion are all too often withdrawn. 

I live  – chose to live – on the border – and as this siren blasted and my neighbors walked on by I felt a wave of rage, hurt, sadness and a growing distance. How can we ever make peace if we ignore each other’s pain? It goes both ways. Few are innocent in this regard. 

But can divisions and separations sometimes be essential to heal the wounds? the way a band aid separates a cut from air for times of quiet mending? 

In the sacred texts I find a possible remedy, a recipe for healing that demands divisions – of space and time.
This week’s Torah, Tazria Metzora is about healing. Physical discharges, skin infections, mold and other mutilations of normal health to one’s body or home are treated with a mixture of sacrificial remedies, priestly procedures and a heavy dose of faith. Not everybody makes it. The treated victims wait for seven days in seclusion, often outside the camp, beyond the boundaries of norm, as a quarantine that should render health and healing – for all. Divide – to heal. 

“For seven days…one  shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall one’s dwelling be. ” 

This notion of ‘outside’, a health provoked ‘time out’ can easily create a society where lepers are outsiders and those inflicted with a pain are perceived as weak and lesser valued. Other becomes threat, enemy, projection of all fears. 

But from the big span of history – it’s a roller coaster. Today I’m outsider and tomorrow it can be you. Victims can take turns on this cycle of venom – or – maybe, sometimes, rarely – get beyond the hate. 

Maybe we’ll rise up for each other’s painful moments when we all remember that we were once the outsiders, lepers out of camp, victims, fleeing, fearful, mad. 

The work begins within our selves – to judge less, and reclaim more moral ground. Etty, a victim of our terrible tragedy, reminds me, us, of what it’s all about: 


Amen. 

shabbat shalom

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

What the Prez is Passing Over: Obama’s Public Rituals. Word 24

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

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RITUAL

תורת
Loudspeaker carrying police cars woke me up on Wed. morning with instructions about our roads closing for the 48 hours. Who  thought it’s a good idea for Obama to visit Jerusalem 4 days before Seder? The city has already been semi blocked off for two days, and with all the holiday prep in high gear-  – complex driving arrangements are not adding to the passover pressure. How the hell am I supposed to go get the fish meat  etc.  from machne yehuda market downtown on Friday morning with a motorcade crossing through town twice in each direction?? Not to mention that the West Bank is virtually cut off.
Ok. relax. we’re used to this. This is no Pharaoh. It’s the President. And besides. Holiday stress is as part of the ritual as the holiday feast, with no Jewish holiday more OCD than this one. Chametz/spring cleaning, Seder cooking, who’s coming or not to Seder situations and dramas, precursors to the big night, are, to quote a friend, “like birth pangs”, necessary pressures towards the release ritual which is that night about the privileges of freedom. Some bigger bangs, grander goals, are worth the efforts, and so is, let’s hope  this Presidential state visit. Means can sometimes justify the ends.
Mainly to figure out where not to drive this week, and when and how to pick up my mother’s extensive Seder shopping lists, I carefully scanned the presidential itinerary . It’s on every Israel news homepage, (tweets from the White House on ha’aretz masthead along with a official vid featuring Ben Rhodes explaining the trip’s goals.). Helpful. And a fascinating study in the art and price of public ritual.
Much has already been noted about the fact that the only (so-called) religious site that Obama will visit is the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. No Western Wall or Golden Dome. Handshakes, photo-ops, wreaths, speeches: The rituals of this visit are carefully orchestrated to be mainly political, cultural, and civic. perhaps deemed safer to leave hard core religious ritual out of it. At least the Arab-Jewish ones, I guess. His only prayer will be private, all his own. sort of.
There’s enough religious zeal in the air as is. cinder box, anyone? Very American separation of church and state.
Because rituals really do matter. All of them.
Presidential gestures or religious rites – they really do mean something when we actually focus on what they represent even when we’re cynical or jaded. What flower will be placed, and where; Who will recite the four questions, and how. Rituals magnify the meaning of our most sacred, simple values , and we screech, sometimes not even knowing it, when they go off the rails of our expectations and familiar frames. its always very specific.
The risk of rituals is that at best they’re very real. and real can be dangerously honest and raw.
Which is why we sometimes opt for not so real – auto pilot, refined, safer rites. Which is why, perhaps, Obama won’t visit the religious sites or speak his mind, and why so many of us will not really talk about freedom at our Seders, and won’t  say the real things we want to really say to each around the table at the political or pascal feast, and avoid the real and fake the rituals by route- but know it, and play along, and yearn, if we remember to, for when it’s real and juicy and felt and alive with tissues and all no matter how messy. You know – we know when ritual really works to move us closer to the truth.
At best it does and I hope it will these days ahead. Even just a little bit. and hopefully more.  When they really work- rituals change reality.
I trust there will be moments of magnificent meaning, wows,  within these upcoming different but somehow similar rituals, because of and despite of, the  carefully planned and choregprahed, top security, kosher for passover detail oriented ritualism up ahead. Not always when we expect them.
That’s where  Torah comes in.  Torah not as law – but as ritual. This  week’s text, Tzav, like so much of Leviticus, is about the many minute details of the Hebraic ritual machine. The laws of uniform, construction, sacrifice and constant burning on the altar (ego) is a perpetual sacred system – every detail matters to the very success of the human enterprise – the constant connection to the mystery. Without this connection the world goes unplugged. All this Torah OCD ritual minutia makes sense when we get this ancient mindset. The word that is used to describe this overall legal system is ‘Torah’. Usually Torah means ‘Law’ or ‘The Law’ – but in the context of the temple service the NJPS translation always chooses to translate it as ‘Ritual’, such as: “Command Aaron and his sons: This is the ritual (Torah) of the burnt offering…”  Lev 6:2

Rituals matter because they connect us to the bigger picture, symbols of the mystery we sometimes need to be reminded of, reconnected to. The pope in Rome, the president in Jerusalem and Ramallah, each of us around a Seder table, making gestures that, like simple sacred sacrifices, break or make the world.  Hopefully all the details are worth it, adding up to a much needed recharged reality, new and improved.
Anyway. welcome Mr president. We’re glad you’re here.
Next Year in Jerusalem? Maybe.
Shabbat Shalom – and a meaningful, delicious Passover. Let Freedom ring.

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

Before Birthright – there was Deathright? Burial in Zion. Word #12

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

 

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Burial קבר

Death is  big business. Especially, as I have learnt this week, in Israel.

 Hundreds of Christian pilgrims on my flight to Tel Aviv on Saturday night, eager Christmas tourists on their way to celebrate the birth of the most famous Jew of all. Somehow I end up sitting next to the somber Jewish family on their way to bury a quite un-famous Jew in Jerusalem. The coffin was in cargo.

 

We didn’t talk much – I’m not so good at that on planes anyway – but I learned that the elderly deceased was a lawyer, from NJ, father and grandfather, a widower in his late 80’s who had been fragile and ill. They were not really religious, had once belonged to a Reform Temple, and then a Conservative Synagogue, but when the kids grew up only  Mom would still get involved, mostly in the socials. She was  buried in Jerusalem in 2005, and the spot next to hers has been reserved for him. Why Israel? Their son shrugs, it was mom’s idea: they had a rabbi once who convinced them that it was a good investment in their family’s future Jewish education –  his mom used to quote the rabbi: ‘this way, you’ll visit Israel every once in a while – and it’s cheaper than day school.’

wow. Forget birthright – there’s deathright! and it’s been going on for a very long time. 

Death is  big business in Israel. Thousands of coffins are flown in each year, mostly Ultra Orthodox or plain-pious Jews who hold on to the mystical belief that those who are buried in Jerusalem will rise first when the Messiah comes and Resurrection happens. The Mount of Olives is top of the line – an average plot in Israel can go for $2,500 – but a good view of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives can go up to $50,000! and there’s a waiting list. Several burial companies are making, well, a killing, reminding customers that the Holy Land is the ultimate destination – for about $20,000 total – not including flights and such for the bereaved. Check out this recent article on the reality – with ads by EL AL!

It all comes from this week’s Torah text, Va’Yechi. Every online buy-and-bury site I’ve visited quotes these verses from Genesis as the source for the tradition. Jacob, on his deathbed in Egypt, instructs his children to bury him in Canaan, with his ancestors.  And so he will be  buried in the first piece of real estate to be purchased in the promised land – Sarah’s burial cave. The funeral procession from Goshen to Hebron takes over 70 days. And then he’s home.  Jacob is the first to ask for this last honor. Joseph will follow suit – his bones will be carried by the fleeing Hebrews for forty years of wandering before ending up in the land he hadn’t seen since he was a teen. The Book of Genesis ends with this image of Joseph’s body inside a coffin – like one of those Egyptian mummies we always stare at at the Met.

It’s been a big deal ever since.  For centuries Jews have come here to die. Or be buried.

And when you pause to think about it for a moment – it’s a curious fact and sort of weird. For so many Jews, in past and in present, Israel is an abstract notion, an idea to dwell on, pray towards, more recently – to fight about and maybe visit – but not settle in. Too complicated. But death is safe.  I haven’t checked the data but I wouldn’t be surprised if nowadays more dead Jews come to settle down in Israel on an average year than live ones. I get the Biblical model, the Messianic fantasy, and even the excuse for future Jewish education – but it’s still a little odd – a weird twist on the Zionist dream. One wonders – is this the best use of so much money? isn’t it better spent on actual Jewish education? on a plot that is closer to the family  in Jersey and not waiting for the Messianic Sci Fi fantasies that will or won’t erupt? must we keep on with this fetish?

I get off the plane, say goodbye to the family picking up the coffin at the cargo section of the airport (who knows what’s waiting for them at the hands of the Ultra Orthodox Hevra Kadisha..) and drive up to Jerusalem to see my parents. It’s the Tenth of Tevet, an ancient fast day that has been re-configured and declared in the 1950’s as the memorial day for all those who died in the Holocaust but have no death date or grave. A Yahrtzeit candle is lit in my parents living room in memory of my father’s mother, Helena Chaya who died in 1945 in Ravensbruck, a German Camp. We don’t exactly know when and we know she wasn’t buried. She was 45 years old.

I watch the flame  flicker and think about the old couple from New Jersey, and about Jacob, and the grandmother I had never met, and about our human longing to belong, to call somewhere home, to yearn for connection with the people and places that we are part of – even when we die and decay into something so much larger than it all.  So much of what we do – the pilgrims for this messiah, the ones who wait for the other one  – isn’t about logic or common sense at all.

In this holy land, where graves become tourist attractions and territorial markers of disputes as much as personal memorials, nothing is as quite as it seems. It may be an expensive and irrational choice – but for people such as ours, with such shaky ground under our feet for so very long- it may just be the closest thing to home.

May all the ones who passed ahead, in burial spots marked and unmarked, be remembered and honored and live on through our stories, and our words..

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org