Monday, December 14, 2009

Shabbat and Beyond in Tzfat

The schedule here at Livnot in Tzfat has kept me plenty busy, so I figured I’d write an update while I had some free time. Shabbat was a very cool experience. As I mentioned last week, the first night of Chanukah coincided with Shabbat to make it an extra festive atmosphere.

There’s a giant Chanukiah on the first floor of the Livnot building, and it uses the traditional oil candles as light (it’s pretty big, as are the shot glass-size cups of oil as candles). We lit the Chanukiah and sang a few songs together to get in the Chanukah mood before switching over to Shabbat. The second floor of the Livnot building has a balcony with a fantastic view of Tzfat, especially during sunset, so we went out to the balcony after lighting Shabbat candles to take in the sunset view as the workweek turned into Shabbat and as light turned to darkness. After a short Kabbalat Shabbat service on the balcony, we had free time to check out different shuls in the area.

I was most interested in going to a congregation that uses melodies from Shlomo Carlebach, who was known as “The Singing Rabbi” because of all the different melodies he wrote to prayers during the 20th century. These shuls are known for their energy and their dancing, and this one was no exception. During the Kabbalat Shabbat service alone, pretty much every song erupted into joyous singing and dancing in a manner I hadn’t ever really enjoyed, even at the Kotel in Jerusalem. There’s something very spiritual about putting every ounce of your voice and soul into singing the prayer and knowing that the person sitting (or standing) next to you is doing the same thing.

We had a festive dinner all together at the Livnot campus. As part of the Shabbat festivities, people are encouraged to share some “Words of Wisdom”, whether it be sharing something they learned during the week, something related to the week’s Torah portion, or anything else Judaism-related that’s on their mind. I spoke for a couple of minutes about something that maybe we take for granted but for me is truly meaningful this time of year: during Channukah, we remember the several miracles that took place: the small band of Maccabbes that defeated the Syrian Greek army, the small amount of oil that was found in the Temple, and the fact that this small amount of oil which should have only lasted for one day burned for 8. I re-read the story of Channukah and was struck by the fact that while we talk about these miracles, we might not consider all the miracles that are still taking place in today’s world: a perfect example being the existence of the State of Israel. How else are we to explain the creation of a state for the Jewish people after being in exile for 2,000 years. And after the establishment of the state, a small Jewish defense corps being vastly outnumbered, yet holding off 5 Arab armies. Or Israel’s astounding military victory in 1967 against those same Arab armies. Or 1973, when Israel should have had its territory reduced to pre-67 lines, only to have the war turn around and re-gain all the lost territory. And if we’re tempted to say, “that was 40 years ago”, there’s the miracles of “lost” Jews from all over the world – Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, China – making Aliyah and coming to Israel. These are all miracles we have all witnessed and continue to witness, if only we open our eyes to them.

On Sunday, we had the chance to walk in the footsteps of some of the Jewish fighters of days of yore. We hiked Tel Yodfat, which is in the lower Galil, and was one of the main battle areas during the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in the years 67-70, CE, and there are still pieces of pottery to be found in the area that date back to that period. Then we drove to an area called A-Roma, which is a Druze village about 25 minutes away. The Talmud tells of underground caves in the area where Jewish families lived for as many as three years during this revolt. About 25 years ago, our tour guide, Michael, went out looking for one of these caves near the village with a friend of his, and they came across this huge cave. After doing some exploring and calling in professional archaelogists, they confirmed this was indeed one of the caves used nearly 2,000 years ago. And now that the cave has been excavated, people can go inside and see what it was like to live inside them. Michael took us all in to one of the main living quarters and told us this story. He then invited us to crawl along the tunnels going from room to room to get the feeling of what it was like to navigate the tunnels, with the sharp curves. It was truly amazing to be in the same spot where these families were living, and fighting off the Romans. Every now and then, the Romans would find an entrance to a cave and would enter hoping to kill as many people as they could find. But because the Jews knew all the intricate twists and turns, the Romans were at a severe disadvantage and effectively walked into a trap. Eventually, however, after losing too many soldiers who were killed going in this way, the Romans sent smoke down the tunnels and the smoke suffocated the Jews to death.

Michael made a great comparison between these caves and the places Jews hid themselves during the Holocaust, in the tiniest of closets and floorboards and underground tunnels. It’s incredibly powerful to think about the length to which Jews went to preserve their peoplehood and religion throughout our history.

I'm excited for the next day plus here in Tzfat. In about an hour we're having a Purim party. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me either, given we're about halfway through Chanukah, but Livnot wanted to show us the connection between the two holidays. We had an educational session on Purim this afternoon, and now a party tonight. It should be interesting to see what kinds of costumes people come up with such limited time and resources.

Then tomorrow, we're going back up north for a security tour along the Lebanese and Syrian borders, so I'm sure I'll have lots to write about that. And then tomorrow night, we're having a Chanukah party, with latkes and sufganiot and a movie - and yes, I've already nominated Home Alone as movie option, so we'll see where that goes!

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