Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Whither Goest Thou, America...?
For the past week I have been on the road, somewhere between Israel and America, future and past. When I left Israel, I left in the middle of the night. My sherut (small bus or van rented by multiple people) took me and two Russian families from Jerusalem to the airport. From Tel Aviv, I flew to Belgium, where I met a friend of mine from yeshiva. Because I hardly slept the night before, and my flight had hardly been long enough to make a nap possible, I arrived in a daze. My friend and I took the train from Brussels to his parents' home in Antwerp.
The contrast between Israel and Antwerp could not be greater. I left a country where order and stability are hardly even recognized to exist, and found myself suddently thrust into a place where trains arrive at exact times and everyone says "please" and "thank you". My friend showed me around his city, the historic buildings and large plazas scattered with modern-looking people speaking one of any number of languages. Antwerp was very nice, and the easy pace and calm atmosphere felt odd after being in Israel for such a long time.
The day after I arrived, my friend and I rented a car and went to Germany. Crossing borders between members of the European Union is like going from one state to another in America. The border simply showed a sign indicating that you were entering a new country, and no policeman or customs officer could be seen. The language also shifts at a whim, especially in Belgium, which officially speaks French, German, and Dutch. Once I crossed into Germany from the Netherlands, I found myself on the famous highway system without speed limits. This isn't quite true, as the areas within larger cities do have speed restrictions, but outside of the cities 90 mph is barely enough to stop other cars from running over you.
Our first stop in Germany was Frankfurt. Frankfurt is a huge city, and home to the famous Rothschild banking family, and a historically important Jewish community. When we found the beis hachaim (cemetery, literally "house of life"), we couldn't find out how to get past the gate, but thanks to some crafty ideas by my friend, we found a way. Inside, we found the graves of some of the most important figures in Judaism: the Pnei Yehoshua and the father of the Chasam Sofer, both from the 1700's. Frankfurt had an awkward feeling, especially since so much of the Jewish history was now only represented in plaques showing where this synagogue or that religious school stood before being destroyed by the Nazis.
From Frankfurt, we traveled southwest to the city of Worms. Worms is the home of the oldest known Jewish cemetery in Europe, and the home of Rashi (1040-1105), perhaps the greatest Jewish commentator of all time. The city had a very calm feeling, and was full of culture. The Jewish cemetery was already closed when we reached Worms, so we jumped over the wall and made our way through the countless graves to a place where we could learn some gemara and daven mincha. After walking around Worms, finding the old synagogue and the house where Rashi lived and did much of his writing, we left for Michelstadt.
Michelstadt was the real goal of our trip. Located in the mountains, the drive from Worms to Michelstadt took us through tiny towns with typical German architecture as we went up winding roads. When we reached the beis hachaim in Michelstadt, everything was locked, but a sign stated that the code was the current Jewish year. Being able to easily crack this, we had complete use of the area. As we entered the beis hachaim, I could tell this was a different place. The elevation made the air a bit chilly, and a breeze blew constantly. My friend led me down a small, dark path. At the end of the path, I could see a tall grave, covered in stones and white pieces of paper. This was the grave of the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, HaGaon HaRav Yitzchok Aryeh zt"l. We davened maariv by the kever (grave), and there was a noticable feeling of uniqueness. After davening, we read the plaque near the kever, which explained that the Baal Shem had been a gilui (exposure) of Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet). After spending more time by the kever of such a tzadik, we left feeling that we had truly exprienced something special and moving. The ride back to Antwerp was long, but the feeling of being moved by the Baal Shem stayed with us.
After two more days in Belgium (between Antwerp and Brussels), I flew to New York. Arriving back in America was very odd. While I have lived so long in America, and it represents all of the comforts that anyone could want, it just doesn't feel like it did before. Eventhough I haven't been away for terribly long, Israel has changed me. I think I'm lucky to have had this happen. I see people who travel and travel, but never see anything new. William Blake wrote, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern." It seems that one doesn't have to be in their physical cavern to have this be true, but the mental cavern is just as strong. For some people, going to Israel is just about freedom, or just about increasing their religious knowledge. I can't understand how some people can think so limitedly. For me, each experience is a chance to see the world anew, with new eyes and revolutionary ideas. I need the constant growth and "POP" of life to survive. Commenting on his life experiences, and writing closely in connection with the previous Blake quote, Aldous Huxley said, "The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend." Indeed, Judaism confirms that we are born anew each day, and that each day is a constant growth and renewal within G-d. As we reach this holiday of Pesach (Passover), let us all not be the same. As we remember the exodus from Mitzrayim (Egypt), we should internalize the reality of the lessons of the story; we should no longer be satisfied with the status quo in ourselves or society, we should feel the plight of the world as we are all without geulah, and we should be inspired to move beyond our "selves" to our souls, so that we can bring the final redemption now.