Safed and Jewish Mysticism
By William Hay (11/11/2000)
“Did you know that in ancient times there was a spiritual war between Jerusalem and Safed for the center of religion. I love to come here for Sabat. It’s the air and the mountains and the town. Something about it that’s so inner.” He told me.
We were eating gilfilte fish at Sabat lunch in Ron Hotel on the mountainside. He was Yeshiva from the United States in Israel to study 2 years of Hebrew College after high school.
“We’re studying the discussions of the Rabbi’s of old for fourteen hours a day to find our spiritual center because once we find that the rest will follow.” He was wearing a Yamulka and had that clear eyed clear spirit. He struggled with his words because of a mild speech impediment which made what he said even a little more important because of the effort he put into being concise and clear.
I had been driving from Tiberias to Haifa and stopped because the guide book said it was a center for spiritual mysticism. At first I’d become lost in the hills and at the first hotel I’d been told to go to Rosh Pinna since they were closed and Sabat had begun. I’d made a wrong turn heading north to the Golan Heights and having to double back so was concerned that no one would take me in once Sabat had begun.
And here I was being turned away. My own will naturally takes over. Who do they think they are. I thought. So what if I’m nobody in their country on their time asking them for their hospitality, to me I am always somebody which of course is the one problem I take to the Lord. Without God what would I be and yet how quick I am to forget. I can’t know if I’ll be here next minute. I don’t know where the energy that gives me vitality comes from yet here I am thinking I’m somebody. In the greater scheme of things maybe but at that moment it was just a full hotel and nothing personal or cosmic.
I headed for Akko, the port of the crusaders feeling just slightly in the jousting mood and ready to donn armour and go after infidels. A few miles on I realized I wasn’t even in Safed but followed a sign that took me to a road that took me to Ron Hotel. The Lonely Planet guidebook had listed this for it’s hospitality.
The last colours of sunset gone I got out of the car and went to the front desk where the manager immediately welcomed me and told me that I could join their dinner right now. In the background men were singing. I didn’t want to impose, I said, yet really, I’d truly wanted to be a part of the community of believers. I wanted this and the Lord had given me this that I might better appreciate the people of this land and their concerns at this time of unrest.
I changed shirts, only momentarily regretted not having brought a jacket, and donned a tie, (which I’d brought for just such an occasion because it didn’t take any room to pack and did give the suggestion of concern for formality). I donned the all round hat I’d bought in Old Jerusalem. Not a yamulka but a head covering. I joined them for dinner.
The men were walking around the dining room in a congo dance with great joy on their faces and rousing songs from their throats. They wanted me to join in. I couldn’t bring myself to. Instead I sat and ate the food and enjoyed the comradeship and listened as the rabbi later said prayers and read from their holy books. There was a deep sense of reverence and a feeling of togetherness and belonging that I envied. I also knew I was welcome.
Next day after a marvelous sleep of important and numinous but private dreams I woke refreshed and stayed in my room reading in English, The Essential Talmud. The Talmud is the oral tradition of the Jewish people which complements the Torah which is known to Christians such as myself for it is the same as the first 5 books of the Bible. In the Essential Talmud I learned of its history, the persecution of the Jews by the Moslems first and then the Christians. The burning of the books and the difficulties that the diaspora or separation of the people into many lands and many languages had on the various debates of religion and culture which go into the making of the laws and rules of the people.
I learned with humor how the book had been censored by a priest who took out anything that might be construed as varying from Christianity and in addition as a celibate monk, just happened to change the famous Jewish line, “a man without a woman is not a man” to “a Jew without a woman is not a man.” The sun was shining in the room and a fresh breeze came off the mountains as I wondered about coffee and couldn’t understand the significance of red heifers.
Sure enough there was coffee and cake waiting in the lobby and I was invited to join the mid day meal at 11 am. I sat down and immediately the young yeshiva (student) men joined me. They spoke English and told me they were from a half dozen states in the US.
“What did you think of the hanging of the soldiers. They say they sought protection from the Palestine police but were hung and gutted and set on fire. Is that not barbarism. I phoned my father and he told me that the news at home was all about a homeless Palestine child but not about this. I don’t understand how the media can be so biased against Israel at this time.” He was clearly concerned and not unreasonably a little afraid. It’s hard to consider the hanging and dismemberment of the dead in the 20th century for an American boy raised on football and MacDonald’s.
I told them how I’d been at the Jericho blockade and seen how anxious the young Israeli men were having been stoned so often and the Palestinians were calling the shots choosing the time of attacks and there were children being brought into the conflict.
“They can’t fire back. They’re in trouble if they even load their weapons. Here they’re being brutalized and they can’t respond because to do so would put them in jail or more trouble with their commanders. The politicians meanwhile eat well and drink wine in fine hotels while my son doesn’t know when he’ll get home again.”
A mother told me this. She was angry.
In Nazareth the arabs held a rally with the poor loud speaker which one imagines has been around since WWII. That tinny raspy sound that aggravates the ear and the speaker was yelling into it and the volume made the words of war and anger heard all over Nazareth. I sought peace in the Sister Claire garden miles from the rally but couldn’t find it and decided it was best to leave Nazareth because the cry to arms was so loud.
I told the young man this. I felt sorry for the conflict. I didn’t know the history. There is always history. There is poverty and there is anger.
“They’re refugees. Their own Arab countries won’t treat them well. They’ve been kicked out of everywhere and now they’re here and the Israelis and doing their best but imagine if in the US the Indians said we’ll take California, New Mexico, Florida, New York and maybe more once we’ve got that. How would you think the American Congress would respond.” He certainly had a point.
As did the woman who said to me over lunch in the hostel, “We have no other place which is ours. This is the only Jewish land. The arabs have many countries. We try to live with them but they want us under them or out.”
Always where the world is in chaos or war does mysticism and the need to seek God become greatest. It’s in strife that people question the verity of the external world and seek the important things of life. In Canada and the United States we’re caught up in Gigabytes and new cars with telecommunications and organic foods. The struggle is whether or not the state should pay for sex changes back and forth or just one way and whether a tree should be saved over a spotted owl.
At lunch in Jerusalem I told an Israeli that while it may seem insane to him the war and unrest here, to me it’s almost a relief to hear people fighting about religion since where I come from people couldn’t care less about religion but might spraypaint you if you wear a mink stole or the girls might kill your daughter because girl gangs are in and heroin is sold openly on the streets while the government wants to legalize marijuania because there’s just too much money in the sale of it.
“Thank you, “ he said. “I think I’d rather be in Jerusalem. There’s something meaningful to what is going on here. I can’t say what Canadians fight about sounds like it’s worth much.”
At least we don’t kill each other over soccer, like the English, I thought but didn’t say it.
In the afternoon at Safed I walked the Metzuda, the fortress where the Israelis won against the Arabs despite 10 to one odds in the town. Down below in the city there were buildings with the marks of shelling and gun shots.
I stopped a man in traditional Jewish costume, what the young men at Ron’s called “Sabbath Gear”. “Is it okay to take pictures on Sabbath?” I asked.
“Sabbath is a time of rest. It’s a time when you don’t do anything that is unnecessary. You don’t go for a walk unless it is needful.” He answered.
I figured pictures were out then. I walked back up to the Ron Hotel. The sun was going down in the west. Soon Sabbath would be over and I’d be able to return to my business. There’s something to be said for the spirituality of Sabbath. As a result of thinking about resting I found myself changing my attitude to what is work and appreciating rest and leisure and work in a whole new way.
As the sun dropped behind the buildings I picked up my bags from the room and headed out the front door of the hotel. In the background I could hear the men singing as the evening meal had begun. I’d been invited to join them but felt they might appreciate the deeper meaning of the completion of their Sabbath celebration if they did not have to translate the Hebrew to English for me. While English is a language of commerce and communication there is a sense that Hebrew though it is the tongue of Israel is one of the Holy languages of the world. Maybe one day I’ll learn it.
“Is this your first time to Israel?” I am asked and like to answer “Yes, I like that question because it implies there will be more times. I want to come back to Israel. To me it is a holy land and quite frankly the unrest has served me by ensuring that there were no line ups at the shrines. From a spiritual point of view the best time to come to Israel is when there is unrest. There’s something ironic that the religious show so little faith at these times. If anything it is in times of unrest that Israel needs our prayers. It’s at times like this that prayer groups need to be in Jerusalem praying for peace. Clearly the Arabs and Israelis need all the help they can get in this matter.