Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon's Temple Pilgrimage Trip to Israel: Report #7

on Thursday, 07 June 2012.

I began today with a run on the land of our Kibbutz hotel, HaGoshrim, in the "far north" of Israel, close to both the Lebanese border and the Golan Heights. The area is simply lovely, green with fruit trees and vistas towards the nearby mountains, running alongside streams of fresh water covered by small bridges.

The old watchtowers at the corners of the fence are a reminder of the historic function of the kibbutz as a border protection settlement, but today this is a successful hotel, hosting groups, individuals and large parties for events. There was one going on last night, complete with tiki torches in a kind of Polynesian setting. Hawaii comes to the Galilee...

Our touring day began in Tzefat, that magical hilltop city in which so much of contemporary Jewish mysticism coalesced. I admit that I particularly enjoy Tzefat with its array of unusual small synagogues, mountain air, great views, old buildings and curving streets, and I have left considerable quantities of hard-earned income in its Judaica, art, jewelry, and curio shops, many of which have a Kabbalistic influence.

The small town of Tzefat in the 16th century became the center of the mystical world, and the innovations and additions they created there have influenced Jewish spirituality and thought ever since. The Jews who moved to this town in the 1500's were all fleeing discrimination and destruction, the Sephardim having been expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1496, the Jews of Italy fleeing papal persecution, the Ashkenazic Jews running from pogroms and ghettos. This town so close to the mystical mountain of Meron, where by tradition the great text of the Zohar was created by Shimon Bar Yochai in a cave over seven years of hiding from the Romans in the 2nd century, was both a refuge and a place in which they could exercise their gifts for mystical contemplation and creation. In Tzefat the mystics created a new way to welcome the Sabbath, Kabbalat Shabbat, studied the Zohar and wrote new books on meditation and ways to seek union with the Divine Shechinah, developed concepts and systems to connect to God in new ways, and revolutionized Jewish mysticism.

We began with an introduction to Tzefat on a quiet square in front of a small mosque. It was a perfect day, pleasant and sunny with a light, pine-scented breeze. After Muki reading from Genesis about the creation of light, and the divine light that emanated into the world and hearing about the origins of the Kabbalah, and the importance of Tzefat, I read two sections from Zohar, the beginning of the Hakdamah, the introductory section that highlights both the creation of light and a certain thirteen-petalled red and white rose, one of which had been in all of our rooms in a vase in Jerusalem. In the Kabbalist's hand it became the model for God's divine emanating creation. We also explored the Zoharic meditation on the first moment of creation, and its unique explosion of energy into the void, preparing for a much more physical, rather than metaphysical, experience of this mystical place.

We followed with a walk through the narrow, cobbled streets to the Caro Synagogue, the small temple where one of the greatest legal minds in Jewish history, the Sephardic Rabbi Joseph Caro who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, the defining book of Jewish observance and law. Painted blue on the inside and arranged in the classic Sephardic style, with padded seats around the side of the synagogue—as Muki puts it, Sephardim lived in Muslim countries and the interior of their synagogues look like mosques, Ashkenazim lived in Christian countries and the interiors of their synagogues have pews like churches—and managed to conduct a brief morning service, egalitarian in quality, in the lovely old 500 year old synagogue. Seven years ago we had done the same thing in this space, perhaps the very first Reform service mixing men and women ever held there. Now there have been two!

We then walked over to the Ari Synagogue, the house of prayer for Rabbi Itzchak Luria, the greatest Kabbalist of Tzefat. He lived and taught there for only three years before dying, but in that short time he created the Kabbalat Shabbat tradition, developed his extraordinarily complex and rich "Lurianic" Kabbalah, and propounded and extended the doctrines of tzimtzum and Tikun Olam, the divine contraction and the repairing of the world. The Ari Synagogue is gorgeous and a bit weird, high and colorful with an remarkable ark, but small in footprint. We learned a great story about an attack during the War of Independence, when Tzefat was just barely held onto by the Israelis in the face of Arab attack. A shell exploded in the courtyard in front of the Ari Synagogue just as the rabbi bowed for the Aleinu at the end of a service of prayer for redemption for destruction. A piece of shell fragment missed his head by the amount he had just bowed down and left a hole in the base of the bimah. They have preserved that hole as a place of miracle. After all, this is Tzefat...

After vigorous and uplifting shopping—there are many artists in Tzefat!—we headed for our jeep tour of the Golan Heights. It is always impressive to ride up the Golan and see with your own eyes just how close the Syrian positions were to the kibbutzim below, and how easy it was to shell them, which they did regularly. As John Kitagawa said, "You just have to look; you don't really need to say anything." But our guides in the Golan, energetic young kibutzniks who love to talk, gave us a very complete explanation of the 1967 6-Day War and, to a lesser degree, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 in the Golan. We learned a most interesting fact about Moshe Dayan that I had never known before, by the way. The Golan has fantastic views of the Galil haElyon, the Upper Galilee, and also very clear views into Lebanese territory and Syria. There isn't much room for error in these parts.

In addition to the stupendous views, including the dramatic Nimrod's Castle, a ruined Mameluke and Crusader castle that was part of the defeat of the westernmost extent of Ghenghis Kahn's Mongol Empire nearly 800 years ago. It is unbelievably picturesque against the backdrop of the Hula Valley far below.

It is startling to see the agricultural productivity and peaceful flow of Israeli society here in the north of Israel and to realize that just over the Golan the country of Syria, under the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al Asad is engaged in a civil war against its own citizens, massacring them men, women and children with impunity. It reinforces that the Golan, regardless of the changes in missile technology, provides some screening from the brutality and chaos that continue to mark the Arab world's treatment of its own citizens.

The end of our touring was a stop at a wonderful boutique winery, Mount Odem, a family-run affair that makes very high quality wine in small quantities. They began 8 years ago with 7000 bottles of annual production, and they are now up to about 80,000 bottles—still very small, but from our samples really outstanding wines. It was a lovely, bucolic place with memorable tastes for all of us.

We returned to the Kibbuts, and enjoyed the peace of a lovely early summer night in the pastoral Galilee.

L'Shalom v'Rei'ut,

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

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