Our Journey Through Israel

How do we give justice to our congregation’s incredible eleven day journey through Israel? Certainly not through one sermon! However, I believe we can get a sense of our experience through the baby naming we had this morning.

Sydney Mila Roth was given the Hebrew names Shoshana Moriah. Shoshana means rose, and the people of Israel are described in the Song of Songs as Shoshana bein HaHohim,[1] like a rose amongst the thorns. Every daughter is a rose to her parents, just like every Jew is a rose amongst the people of the world. Israel itself is described as a Shoshana and upon visiting it becomes clear why that is the case. Being on top of Mount Zion and looking out across the Old City, being surrounded by buildings comprised of Jerusalem stone, going under the Kotel (Western Wall) tunnels, being in Mahtesh Ramon and looking at all the natural rock formations; seeing the majesty of the Tower of David, hiking the waterfalls at Banias and Ein Gedi and walking in the majesty and grandeur of the Caesarean Aqueducts-these are a few of the many wonders of the rose that is The State of Israel. Judah HaLevi, a Spanish poet who longed to make Aliyah to Israel, described Israel as Yefeh Nof, a landscape of beauty,[2] and there certainly are plenty of those in Israel. One of them, which Karina and I went to, was the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, located on Yefeh Nof Street.

We had our breath taken away by the physical beauty of Israel but we also experienced a spiritual beauty, which is harder to describe but which we know when it is there. Walking through the quiet streets of Jerusalem after Shabbat morning services, standing before the Kotel (Western Wall) to pray, climbing the fortress of Masada, being inspired by the joyful Carlebach Kabbalah Shabbat services in Tzfat, taking a Shabbat walk through the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe right outside the Old City-these are some of the spiritual encounters we had while in Israel. They inspired us, giving us the added spark we needed when we were tired or facing a grueling downhill walk to our next stop. We also went to the synagogue Migdal Hashoshanim, tower of roses, for morning minyan.

Like the beautiful country of Israel, a person is comprised of both physical and spiritual beauty, and through proper use of these gifts, s/he stands out from the crowd. We know that Sidney will live up to her name Shoshana, being a source of beauty and inspiration for her parents, her grandparents and all who she encounters.

Sidney’s middle name, Moriah, is also of great significance; in Hebrew it is Moreeah, the mountain on which Abraham brought Isaac upon G-d’s command.   It is also the site of the even shtiah, the foundational stone at which the world was created.[3] Our tradition teaches that Moreeah is the place at which the Temple, our holiest site, was built. It is the site to which our Messiah will come.[4] Our group had a privilege unlike many others in that we got to ascend the Temple Mount and see the Dome of the Rock up close. Unfortunately, we cannot pray up there nor can we go up dressed looking like observant Jews, as my wife and I found out. I yearn for the day that we will all be able to pray at our holiest site, Mount Moreeah.

Moreeah, however, does not only stand for the Temple Mount but also for continuity with our history and traditions. In order to fully be immersed as a member of the Jewish people, one needs to know our people’s story. During our Israel mission we went to the City of David, the first site of Jewish civilization in Jerusalem, in 1000 CE. We experienced the First Temple Period by seeing a burial site for Kohanim and Leviim at which the priestly blessing, the oldest biblical text of which we have a copy, was found. We experienced the Second Temple Period by walking through Herod the Great and Herod Phillipi’s great fortresses, Caesarea in the West, Masada in the South and Banias in the east. We journeyed through the Middle Ages, seeing the Tower of David and Nimrod’s Fortress, both of which date back to the 1200s, the time of the Mamelukes. We experienced the renaissance of the Kabbalists in Tzfat, hearing the music that they created as well as seeing their magnificent synagogues. We learned about the Zionist struggle for Israel and their winning miraculous battles, using Davidkas to scare off the Arabs in Tzfat despite being outnumbered tenfold. We learned the stories of David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin through visiting museums which were dedicated to them. We were on an army base, meeting Israeli soldiers, learning their stories and seeing the high price they pay in defending our country. Finally we experienced modern Israel, seeing the high rises of Tel Aviv and learning about Israel’s hi-tech developments in Rosh Pina.

To be a lover of Israel requires learning about its multilayered history, seeing its sites in context and discovering what it means to live in Israel today. It all comes back to Moreeah, where we got our start. We know that Shoshana Moriah will become a lover of the Jewish people and of the richness of our heritage. She will join her parents and grandparents in becoming a true Hovavah Tzion, a lover of the Jewish people and of Israel.

There is one final layer that can be applied to the name Shoshana Moriah-knowing that life is not always as beautiful as the Shoshana nor do we always have the rich history of Mount Moriah at our fingertips. The key lesson is that regardless of what happens, we need to make the best out of every situation. The quintessential example of this on our trip was being hosted by Rena and Rabbi Emmanuel Quint for Friday night dinner in Jerusalem through a program called “Shabbat of a Lifetime,” which pairs visitors to Israel with Israeli families. The most incredible part of the Shabbat dinner was hearing Rena’s story.

Rena is known as the “Child of Many Mothers,” having had six mothers by age ten. She was a Holocaust survivor, first at age five being gathered in a synagogue with most of Jews of Piotrkow. A man who she thinks might have been her uncle, motioned for her to run away, and she dropped the hand of her mother and ran. The Jews in the synagogue were sent to Treblinka, and the vast majority were killed. Rena ran back to her father in the ghetto, who hid her until no longer able, and then disguised her as a boy. He claimed that she was 10 years old, of working age, even though she was younger. Rena remained in the ghetto disguised as a boy with a “mother” to watch over her-and when that “mother” was taken, a different “mother” stepped in. In 1943, the Piotrkow Ghetto was liquidated, and Rena was transported to a labor camp and then to Bergen-Belsen on a death march. She was liberated in April 1945. Rena came to Sweden and then to the United States with an adoptive mother and the papers of her daughter who had died during the war. She made Aliyah with her husband in 1984.

Somehow Rena made it through this horror and came out as someone who wanted to make a difference. She regularly volunteers at Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and regularly hosts 30 people at her home for Friday night dinner, not to mention the other Shabbat meals. Rena asserts that “As a Holocaust survivor, I feel impelled to live my life to the fullest.”  She was genuinely interested in each of the guests, asking us questions and catering to our interests. What motivates a Rena, someone who suffered too much, to give so generously of herself? Some of it is certainly to make the most of every moment of life, taking nothing for granted. Rena certainly is an Eshet Hayil, a woman of valor, demonstrating the power of hard work and of genuine interest in people.

We know that Shoshana Moriah, Sydney Mila, will live in accordance with this example, living each moment to the fullest and giving nachas to her family and to all who she encounters. Today we give her a blessing, a small token of the blessing that she bestows upon others and will continue to give to her family. Cantor Black will join me in the recitation of this special blessing, the oldest blessing in our tradition, upon Sydney.

[1] Song of Songs 2:2

[2] Judah HaLevi, “Yefeh Nof.”

[3] Mishnah Yoma 5:2

[4] See 2 Chronicles 3:1. See also Rabbi Robert Harris, JTS Torah Commentary, November 11, 2006. https://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/ParashahArchives/5767/vayera.shtml

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