So many of the stories we tell revolve around place. "Remember when we went to…?" "That's when we were living in….." It's the same for Jews; the stories told in the Bible revolve around either being promised the Place, living in the Place, leaving the Place, or returning to the Place.
During these few weeks of Torah portions, Jacob is travelling around Canaan, the land that he's heard was promised to his grandfather, Abraham. He's doing his own personal tour of the Holy Land. In each place, he has a story to tell. This is where he first saw his love, Rachel. This is where he encountered a King from another nation. This is where he dug a well. This is where his daughter Dina was so brutally attacked. This is where he reconciled with his brother, Esau. He built memories in the land, and little by little, it became entwined with his very self.
For many of us, that's what our trips to Israel are like. We have stories to tell in each place. This is where I tried to ride a camel. This is where I met that really cute soldier. This is where we had that great meal. This is where I bought the perfect gift.
But when does a series of stories become more than a travelogue? When do you experience the Land, instead of having experiences in the Land?
Something happened to me that brought me out of seeing Israel as a string of experiences, to a true experiencing of Israel. It wasn't on my first trip; it was decades later. I was visiting my sister for my nephew's bar mitzvah. My sister was living in Moshav Zippori then, and there is an amazing Tel (archeological dig) and museum/national park of the ancient city of Zippori. Back then, though, the park wasn't even fully opened, so we walked around the area that didn't have much of a tourist feel yet.
Zippori was a major Jewish city in the Galillee from the Roman era, before and after the Jewish revolt in the first century CE.
When the Temple in Jerusalem fell, many of the scholars moved to Zippori. It even served as the home of the great Jewish Court, the Sanhendrin. Early Talmudic teachings were developed there, in some of the buildings that were still standing.
One Zippori image stays with me: ruts. There were ruts in the stone that used to be a road. Ruts in stone. Ruts that were made with chariot wheels thousands of years ago. Ruts that I could still see, and follow, and walk on. Ruts that had made such a deep impression, paths that had been gone over so many times, that they had solidified into stone.
There were other kinds of grooves begun in Zippori, too; ones not made by wagon wheels. There, removed from Jerusalem and the Temple, wise and learned men began to grapple with Biblical text, going over and over each word, as the text made deeper and deeper impressions on them. "How to survive?" they asked, "How to make our faith portable?" Then, they turned those conversations and arguments into teachings, which I can see today as clearly as I saw the ruts in the road. Every time they dove deeper into a passage, they created a deeper path in the Jewish experience. And I got to walk through the rooms in which they sat and studied and taught and wrote. I put my hands on the walls. I looked out the windows to see what they saw. I was astounded by what I felt in those rooms. The deep impressions they began haven't turned to stone, however, because the road is still being traveled and new paths are being carved out every day by those who are still conversing and debating and making Judaism their own.
Jacob made the land he travelled his own by attaching significance to experiences in every place he traveled. He wove what happened to him into what was significant his life, and thereby transformed the string of experiences into experiencing the land itself. That's what happened to me at Zippori. I saw the beginning of what connects me to those men who sat up in the rooms of a stone building thousands of years ago. I'm still travelling those roads they started.
Others may find significance in other places in Israel. For me, it was in the ruins of a city in the Galilee. May we each find those places in the Place.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.