June 6, 2012

Leaving Jerusalem always feels strange to me, as though I were departing from the most important place on earth to go somewhere less significant. It's not that Israel isn't filled with fantastic places and interesting, beautiful, and compelling experiences outside of Yerushalayim.

It's just that nothing has quite the same weight and intensity for Jews, and perhaps for anyone, as this amazing place. "Im eshkacheich Yerushalayim tishkach yemini, if I forget you, Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand!" the Psalmist wrote three thousand years ago or so, and I understand. David's city still has a gravitational pull that is unlike anywhere, and leaving Jerusalem can make you feel lighter and easier, but it always also feels like you are moving away from the center of the world towards someplace less.

And so we drove down from Jerusalem—pretty much everywhere in Israel is downhill from Jerusalem, at least at first—and headed up the Syro-African Rift Valley north towards our next destinations. Geologically this deep cleft in the earth, which includes the lowest spot on the surface of the earth, the Dead Sea we floated in on Monday, runs all the way down to Africa and is an active fault line. We actually retraced our exit route from Jerusalem through the tunnel into the Judean Wilderness (Jerusalem is on the very border of the desert on one side, although the city itself is in the mountains and forests on the other side of the ridge) and then headed up the highway through what is technically the famous (infamous?) West Bank of the Jordan River past Jericho and on to the north. The drive follows the newish highway that shortens the trip so dramatically.

On the way out of Jerusalem you pass many Bedouin encampments, with people living much as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, and likely much as our nomadic ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did as well. There are differences today. Muki described one family he knows in which the son is now a prominent doctor with a big house, and his parents live in a tent in his backyard: they just can't get used to a solid roof over their heads. Many of the black tents seemed to have antennas to receive TV these days, and the encampments seemed pretty permanent, but the remaining Bedouin along this highway still raise goats and sheep in addition to their blue-collar jobs in Jerusalem and elsewhere. There were also occasional camels in their settlements.

While the West Bank is home to close to 2 million Palestinians, the section this highway traverses, quite close to the Jordan River which is the border with the country of Jordan, is mostly empty of settlement on the Israeli side. We had a good look at the border fence here, quite similar to the fence built by Israel that ended the last bloody Palestinian Intifada when it was completed in 2005. It is actually not a wall—only 4% is composed of the large concrete slabs that are used in the international media, and these sections only where there is a town or a highway to protect—while 96% is made up of two electronically monitored fences separated by a roadway. When something triggers the monitors in a particular sector the military is notified and if verified a team of soldiers comes quickly up the road towards the potential incursion point.

Muki told an elaborate story of his service in the IDF in the West Bank, which included an incursion 45 minutes before he was supposed to conclude an 8-hour stint of guard duty, followed by an exhaustive 6-hour search for an intruder who had tried to cover his tracks, and which ended when an ancient Bedouin tracker was called in who found three fish scales at the spot where the incursion took place. It turned out that a swamp cat, a largish feline predator, had caught a fish in the Jordan River, dragged it flapping over the first fence and across the road and then over the second fence on into the West Bank, the fish's tale erasing the cat's footprints as they went...

Jordan heavily uses the water of the river for irrigation here, and producing most of that arid country's produce in this deep valley. Water usage has always been an important part of Middle East politics, and it remains so today. While Israel has been gradually shifting towards desalination for its water, most of the fresh water in Israel still comes from the headwaters of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. The region uses something like 90% of the Jordan's water, a very high and somewhat dangerous number, and the shift to using more desalinated water is very important. The Dead-Red Canal (really a pipeline) to bring more water into the Dead Sea and keep it from drying up is now slightly on hold, as there are concerns that the different mineral contents of the two seas might cause some unexpected problems.

Our first official stop on this day of travel was the huge Roman-Byzantine city of Beit She'an, destroyed by a gigantic earthquake in the year 749, during Arab times. It is an extensive ruin with major colonnaded boulevards, a great amphitheater that is used for concerts today, many temples, fountains, and all the trappings of a major Roman-era city. Wendy and I climbed the Biblical tell, the giant hill that contains the remains of all the versions of Beit She'an that existed before Roman times. It was at Beit She'an that the Philistines hung the body of King Saul and his sons after their defeat at Mt. Gilboa, and there are remains of Canaanite buildings, Philistine structures, an Israelite fortress of David and Solomon, an Egyptian governor's palace, and finally a Roman temple atop the high hill. You can also see the remains of huge walls and bridges from above, as well as gain an incredible perspective on the strategic importance of a city located above a major east-west and north-south crossroads.

Somehow Beit She'an is always hot and humid when I am there—it has that reputation—and this day was no exception. I remembered our first Israel Pilgrimage trip when I had to carry my then 6-year old son Boaz around Beit She'an on my back, exhausted from jet lag, heat, and humidity. This was not quite the same experience... It's a great site.

From Beit She'an we continued north to the Jordan River, and an important site for Christian Baptism, Yardenit, where many of our friends from St. Philip's chose to reconfirm their baptism in the waters of the same river where John baptized Jesus. It is an interesting place, where the waters of the smallish Jordan River—neither deep nor wide, in truth—flow slowly around a series of railed ramps that pilgrims descend to the riverside. The water is greenish here, and there were large catfish swimming around the feet of those in the water. It was a very interesting and important ceremony for the participants, and we were pleased to witness it. The facility itself is impressive, with a beautiful walkway leading to the site with the relevant texts incised on the wall in many languages: Hebrew, English, Nigerian, Vietnamese, and so on. There are pictures of prominent recent visitors who experienced baptism there: talk radio comedian Glenn Beck and evangelical pastor John Hagee, for two. There is also, of course, a huge gift shop, selling both Christian and Jewish artifacts of every description.

There was one odd note: a very large, well, rat swam up at one point. It turns out to be a South American rodent called a nutria, imported to Israel in the mistaken belief that it would create a new fur industry and now quite prevalent in the river system. It's not quite the size of a capybara but a little creepy nonetheless.

From Yardenit we headed north around the beautifully blue Kinneret, the harp-shaped Sea of Galilee, through Tiberias and on to the Primacy of Sts. Peter and Paul and then Capernaum and the Mt. of Beatitudes. Suddenly seeing a wide, beautiful expanse of a magnificent freshwater lake in a dry region is always wonderful and calming, and the rich agricultural lands surrounding the Kinneret, filled with all varieties of fruits and other produce, from bananas to kiwis to more traditional vineyards and orchards of grapes, peaches, melons, and more. The drive along the coast is quite lovely, pastoral as the Galil is in general and reminds you why Israelis often head north for short vacations. In a fast-moving and often tense country the Galilee is peaceful. Today there are also waterparks and paintball fields and other trappings of a smallish modern tourist area, but the general tenor of the area is still much as it has been throughout my 35 years of visiting Kinneret.

We stopped at a small church-run area called the Primacy of Peter and Paul, the location where Jesus is said to have helped Peter and Paul bring in many fish and where Peter acknowledged Jesus status for the first time. Rev. John Kitagawa conducted a communion service on the shore of the sea in a small amphitheater built for that purpose, and then we walked the short distance to the shore of the sea.

The nearby synagogue of Capernaum—Kfar Nachum in Hebrew—was a small village in the first century and the synagogue there is additional proof that Jewish religious life was quite active and diverse long before the destruction of the 2nd Temple. The current synagogue was built on top of the 1st century one and dates to the 4th century or so. Of course, it includes donation plaques, just like today's temples do. We covered both the Jewish and Christian importance of the site, which Jesus adopted as his hometown during the short period of his active ministry. Interestingly for me, the entire time during which Jesus is said to have preached, taught, and done his work was a total of just three years, most of it spent in the Galilee. As John Kitagawa noted, in the Gospels we learn of his birth, there is one incident in his boyhood, and then the story picks up when he is 30 and he dies three years later. In the synagogue in Capernaum, where we held Shachrit services on our last Israel pilgrimage, this time we simply recited the Eilu Devarim, the text of the "rabbinic Ten Commandments" from our morning liturgy, and sang the Shema and Ve'Ahavta, reminding us of the centrality of Torah in our people's history, and in our lives today.

Our next stop on this very busy day were the Mt. of Beatitudes, where Jesus proclaimed the Sermon on the Mount (John Kitagawa reminded us of the parody of it in Monty Python's "The Life of Brian" film: "Did he say blessed are the cheesemakers?") and which has a beautiful complex of buildings, lawns, and a great view of the Sea of Galilee. I'm not sure what Jesus would make of the elegant installations where he proclaimed "Blessed are the poor," but it is very pretty. I'm also afraid that my knowledge of the Beatitudes mostly comes from Simon and Garfunkel's version of the text, which includes references to "blessed are the meth-drinkers, pot-sellers, illusion-dwellers," but I will take some time to learn more when I return home.

Our last stop before our Kibbutz hotel at HaGoshrim was the always enjoyable rafting of the Jordan River, a cool and fun break. Wendy and I took a two-person inflatable kayak for battling the huge walls of white water and the terrifying rapids of the mighty river... Actually, it's more of a gentle float with one small area of mini-waterfall. The greatest danger is the rafts full of Israeli school kids and Birthright Israel American collegians all paddling in different directions while they tease each other about their ineptitude. We did get splashed in several water fights, but mostly smoothly navigated our way through the waters of the three streams that combine to make up the Jordan River. Our ancestral father Jacob might have had trouble fording this river in the days before irrigation systems borrowed so much of it for use, but we simply enjoyed its cool and green banks and the lovely pastoral scenes on every side.

It's not Jerusalem, but the north has its benefits.

L'Shalom v'Rei'ut,

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon