The Genesis:3 Project
Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you.” Genesis 31:3
I recently returned from a trip to Israel. I have lost track of how many times I have been there – it is probably around 20 times. Almost always I have been a tourist, though I may protest to the contrary. Without exception, I am overwhelmed with the desire to return to the land of my ancestors where, at least metaphorically, I was born.
Geographically, I was born in Chicago and I never spent more than a few nights away from my home until I was 18 years old. And then the summer after I graduated from high school I went to Israel for eight weeks with USY Israel Pilgrimage, the signature summer program of my denomination’s youth organization, United Synagogue Youth.
It was a transformative experience for me. I lived the life of an observant Jew every day. I visited places that had been named in lessons in after-school Jewish instruction. I ate foods I never heard of before. I climbed down a cliff and explored caves where warriors and refugees lived in ancient times. I was invited – constantly – to become a part of the great renewal of national Jewish life by moving to the first Jewish state in 2000 years. I sang. I made lifelong friends. I felt my life draw meaning from the touch of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.
But one experience meant more than all the others. For a week, each group of teenagers worked at the excavations below the southern wall of the Temple. Today, those excavations are pretty much complete, but then they were only a couple of years old. I was assigned to the remains of a small room I can still identify when I tour the site. The walls were perhaps two feet high and the room was barely large enough for half a dozen people to gather. Our job was to dig, fill rubber buckets and sift. Dig, fill sift – every hot day for a week.
My hands touched distant yesterdays. I did not find inscribed tablets or jewels. But I did find dice, coins and teeth and bones from someone’s long-ago dinner. The archaeologist assigned to our quadrant told us that we were likely uncovering barracks of Roman soldiers and therefore found evidence of their leisure time. I had reached back into history.
That summer other USY participants helped to uncover a column that had stood in the Second Temple. It was big news. But for me, the tiny clay cubes with dots on each side and the swollen and oxidized discs held much more significance. Like the lyrics I learned during those weeks and still love to sing, they were a song from two thousand years that renewed me each day. Part of me is permanently in that land.
It is a youthful romantic notion, even if almost fifty years later it still carries meaning for me.
On this recent visit, my nephew (who is raising his young family in Jerusalem) invited me again to become part of the great renewal of national Jewish life. I have built my life elsewhere, comfortably and with easy access to the people most important to me. If I have squandered the chance to return permanently to the land of my ancestors, I comfort myself that I am able to find my way to their home with relative ease and regularity. And pieces of the land return with me, as they have on every trip.
Israel is not the same as when I first kissed the tarmac in 1970, and neither am I. The modern state is complicated and often troubling, these days a fountain of challenges to my values and my friendships. Why it is easier for me to imagine myself looking up from that dorm room at the steps to the Temple in ancient times than it is to imagine myself in a flat in Raanana or Ashkelon or Jerusalem, I cannot tell you. But the love that was first consummated during that summer of discovery cannot now be sanctified, perhaps because we remember each other as we were and not as we are.
But it does not stop little roots from sprouting from my feet when I step off that plane. It does not staunch the tears of joy when I arrive, or the tears of longing when I depart. It does not prevent my existential crisis – something very welcome at my calcifying age – when walking the streets of Jerusalem gives me deeper satisfaction than a walk around the familiar neighborhood in which I live a very fine life.
Some day in the distant future my current home will be excavated for archaeological study. A young student will be excited by her ability to reach back into 21st century America and touch the bloated quarter and encrusted 2GB SD card sifted out of the rubble. She will try to imagine what it was like back then, and maybe she will be enthralled by the notion of cable TV and burgers on the grill. Yet she won’t find a way to go back there, no matter how much it speaks to her heart.
But it doesn’t mean that God will not grant her (and long-gone me) a reunion.