Sunday, November 27, 2011

Where the Deer and the Kabbalists Play Pt. 2


We left off last episode -- the one in which we heading up to Tzfat in a rental car to enjoy the short vacation that our kids were subsidizing -- at the point when we had arrived at our destination. It's as if we had hit the pause button to stop the movie on the DVD so we could get a snack or answer that annoying phone call, and the characters on the screen were frozen in place. Let's resume the action, or else the woman who was showing us to our suite in the Olive Pelech Rimon will forever be left bending over to put the key in the keyhole, trying to unlock the door. That's better; the door is opening, and we are let inside. Ooooooh! Very fancy!

We could see why this little apartment would cost about 1000NIS a night full price. First of all, there is a large combination living area and kitchenette (where there was a table with a half bottle of wine, two wine glasses, and a half dozen heart shaped pieces of chocolate just waiting for us). On our way to bring our suitcases into the bedroom, we peeked into the bathroom. Yes, the suite does come with a jacuzzi -- assuming we could figure out how to use it. Likewise, how to open the sliding door leading out to the merpeset. The view (from the balcony, not the jacuzzi) is alone worth the price of admission. The pension is on the west side of the city, just south of the artists' quarter and the oldest section of town, all of which we could see by craning our necks a little. As you might expect, there is a table and chairs on the balcony, the better to sit on a long summer evening with an appropriate beverage, watching the sunset over the nearby hills of Har Meron. That view and the following day's exploration of the old town started me on a train of thought about the Kabbalists of Tzfat and their activities on a Friday afternoon.

Since we've been here in The Land, I've had the opportunity to hear a number of people talk about and give examples of what can be called the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, which is a high-falutin' way of stating what should be obvious: when you're johnny-on-the-spot and see something with your own eyes you get a different slant on things than if you're far, far away-- which may be why they bothered to send men to the moon. (There's another wrinkle, that the air in The Land makes you smarter; but looking at the folks around me, I'm somewhat dubious about that explanation.) One example of T.E.Y. that had struck me a little while before was the business of 'The Four Species,' the lulav, etrog, myrtle, and willow that are taken together and 'waved' on Sukkot. A standard explanation -- beloved by one and all -- is that these four items represent four different types of Jews with different of Torah learning and good deeds to their credit, all of whom are needed to make a totality (tell that to some of the folks here!).

We were on an earlier tour (which I didn't get a chance to write about) during the intermediate days of Sukkot, down to the southwestern tip of Israel, where Gaza is right over there one way and Egypt is right over there the other. We were visiting a relatively new moshav comprised of Gush Katif expellees, and we were ushered into an area where vegetables were being packed for shipment. We were suddenly in a sea of yellow, amidst hundred and maybe thousands of etrogs, the ones which had not been sold in time and were now worth approximately nothing. Big, fat ones, much more zoftig than the one I had purchased two weeks before, along with the other three species, for 85 shekels (about $25). We were invited to take home as many as we wanted; and a few of these steroidal fruits are sitting in our kitchen in a jar of pure alcohol, soon, we hope, to turn into an etrog liqueur. Looking at these citric refugees, I remembered something our mentor, Nachum, had mentioned in a talk he had given a week or two before. The four species, what is so special about them? They are all easy to obtain here in The Land, BUT..........not in one place. That's the trick. Etrogs grow in certain places; lulavs, which are a part of a date palm, grow in others, usually where it's warmer; willows usually by the banks of streams and brooks; myrtles up north where it's cooler. If you want to collect all four, either you yourself will have to travel the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael, or, more reasonably, the guys who have grown one of the species will have to trade with the guys who have the other three; which means they have to come together and engage in commerce -- which is what happened in The Land in days of yore when thousands of Jews would arrive in Jerusalem for the Holidays. In today's jargon, we can say that none of the twelve tribes was given a monopoly, allowed to restrain trade on the species. All of a sudden, wham bang, a metaphysical conception of togetherness, pleasing as it may be, has been replaced with some very wonderful facts on the ground. Something so simple and inspiring, but it wouldn't necessarily cross your mind or seem relevant in Minsk or Monsey.

Back to our balcony in Tzfat...... Pick up a siddur, any one with an English commentary, and turn to the beginning of the Friday night service. You will find some variant of the following theme, regarding the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the late sixteenth century: "Dressed in white, they would go out into the fields as the sun set, singing psalms and songs to the Shabbat bride" (from R. Jonathan Sack's commentary in the Koren siddur). But standing and surveying the landscape, one might pause to wonder, "What fields?" What fields are we in fact talking about? Let's begin with the assumption that, generally speaking, if you want to see the sun set, you will have to look towards the western horizon. When you are in Tzfat, it's hard not to notice that you are on top of either a very big hill or a very small mountain, depending on how you want to describe it. If you want to go out to "the fields" west of Tzfat, you would have to go down the mountain to the adjacent valley. (Barbara imagines that there might have been terraced farming on the slopes; even so, that's not the same as going out to "the fields.) Of course, once you have arrived down in the valley where there could well have been the fields in question, there's no way you could ever see the sun set because the next mountain, Har Meron, would be blocking your view. You could possibly walk in one of the other directions to watch the sun descend towards the horizon, but what would be the point? You might as well stay where you are. It would be great if there were a monument inscribed, "On this spot, Rabbi Elazar Azikri first recited Yedid Nefesh;" or a plaque with a similar inscription, "Here is where Rabbi Shlomo Alkabets composed Lecha Dodi." Nothing like that exists, and so my question still stands, where did these rabbis go? I keep looking at the photographs I took of the view from the merpeset, hoping to locate some likely location, but to no avail.

It might not be the most earthshaking question, and it might even seem trivial or irrelevant to some. After all, we know the rabbis were in Tzfat during that all too brief renaissance of Jewish life before the Druze and then a plague destroyed everything in the Galilee. The Kabbalists obviously wrote the liturgical poems that are still used today. I'm sure they prepared for Shabbat by dressing in white, greeting the Shabbat Queen, an image as real to them as the piece of chocolate I'm munching on is to me. Did they stand and face the door to the shul, as men do today for the last stanza of Lecha Dodi, all the while imagining they were out of doors? That sounds a little too weird, even for a bunch of Kabbalists. Perhaps there is a simple explanation, one which has eluded me, as to where they stood and prepared for The Holy Sabbath. It's not that I'm skeptical, just curious and a little annoyed. Here in The Land we can look around and try to make sense of our collective past, find out what really happened and where. It's not as easy as sitting halfway around the world, facilely repeating what we thought we knew, but it's sure a lot more interesting.

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