Spending the Holidays in Israel: The Ultimate New Beginning

                      My first Sukkah spotting

Almost two months ago when I boarded my flight from New York to Tel Aviv, I knew that my life was about to change forever. It was the ultimate New Beginning. And boy, did I need it. After three years of meandering through the woods of uncertainty, it felt great to finally have a plan, even if that plan was a massive leap of faith. But I jumped, and I’ve been soaring since. Every day is invigorating, and beautiful. There are surprises around every corner in Jerusalem, and each day brings something new. August disappeared in a blur of laughter, and joy, and September came quickly upon us, ushering in a new year.

It seems appropriate that my first holiday in Israel would be Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. Just over a month after my arrival, I was given a built in opportunity to reflect on my new life. A chance to examine the person I had been, and consider the person I’m becoming. But I felt that something was missing. I didn’t feel the heightened spiritual connection that I usually feel during the holidays. The feeling that links you to something greater was gone, as though a switch had been turned off. I couldn’t sense it. I couldn’t tap into it. I felt lost. Without it, I wandered aimlessly as I searched to infuse my heart with joy. Maybe it was because I missed home, but I suspect that I had been so focused on the external changes in my life that I neglected to acknowledge how my soul had grown. I’ve always believed in the mind-body-soul connection, and that we must take care of all in order to be our best selves. We must always challenge the mind, strengthen the body, and deepen the soul. When one falls out of balance, the rest falls right along with it.

So, on Rosh Hashanah, I found myself standing in a small, makeshift synagogue. The air was thick, and congregants fanned themselves with whatever loose papers they could find. The rustling papers were accompanied by the gentle hum of florescent lighting. Children played outside, while their embarrassed mothers ran out to quiet them. The Rabbi spoke in Hebrew, and my cousin quietly translated. Frustrated that I couldn’t understand the service without assistance, I began to feel disconnected. “Maybe if I listen a little more closely to the Rabbi, I’ll be able to understand”. “If I follow along in the book, then it feels like I know what’s going on.” My mind wandered, and I struggled as I slipped away, desperate to hold on. I dug into the prayer book, brow furrowed, my finger moving quickly across the page as the service continued. It only took a few minutes before I found myself wishing for an English translation. I longed to be home. I wanted to be with my parents, in our usual seats at the synagogue I grew up in. I learned the Aleph-Bet there, and I can still picture my Grandpa standing in the doorway to welcome the congregants every Saturday morning. We have seats with our names on them back home, and you always need a sweater because in America, we love our air conditioning. Next to our seats, a stained glass window is dedicated to the memory of my Great-Grandparents. I have roots there. Among the familiarities of home, I knew I would feel safe. I would feel fulfilled. The void in my heart grew, as I felt myself falling into a state of uncertainty. But then I heard a prayer break through the silence of the crowd.

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higyanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

My favorite blessing. My eyes welled with tears, and as I caught my breath, the shofar sounded. Its thunderous call moved through my body, and shook me into consciousness.

I’ve had a small handful of deeply powerful spiritual moments in my life, where I felt in synch with everything around me. In these moments I could not feel anything but pure love, and certainty that something greater stood by my side. The first occurred several years ago on the beaches of Long Island, midwinter. I walked out on the rocks, and surrounded myself by the sea. I could taste the ocean mist on my tongue, as waves crashed around me. The air was crisp, and the sun sparkled as its reflection danced across the surface of the sea. Each breath I took led the rise and fall of the tide. Ahead, I spotted two butterflies playing in the mist. I’d never seen butterflies in winter, but there they were, dancing from wave to wave. I felt great love swell through my body, and for a brief moment I was in tune with everything. I was a part of everything, and everything was connected. I felt that God had shown me how miraculously beautiful life could be, but as soon as I realized what I was experiencing the moment slipped through my fingers. Moments of pure, true joy only last as long as we are unaware of them. You can try with all your might to hold on and keep that level of euphoric love for the Universe, but the harder you try, the faster it tends to melt away. It was as though I had been given a small glimpse into what life could be.

As the call of the shofar faded to an echo, I became hyper-aware of my surroundings. My soul felt as though it were on fire. I felt alive. I felt ready to move forward into the New Year, and ready for whatever life would throw my way.

As Yom Kippur approached, I began to feel the wandering disconnect creeping up on me. I tried to run as it approached, but there was no avoiding it. It latched onto my back, and weighed me down. I reached for the joy I had felt during the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, but could not get a hold of it. The butterflies were gone, and the void had wormed its way back into my heart.  I couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from, or why I was feeling it. All I could feel was its presence. Shame swept through me, and I was embarrassed to admit to myself that I couldn’t summon the spiritual energy I needed to give the holiday meaning. My heart just wasn’t in it. Once again, the switch had been inexplicably turned off. There was no reason for it, and no understanding it. I went to Kol Nidre services with high hopes, only to face the same struggles of Rosh Hashanah. Once again, I left synagogue frustrated, and unfulfilled, but determined to feel the connection that I longed for.

Thousands of people were scattered across the promenade of The Kotel when I arrived the next evening. There was an unmistakable excitement in the air, as everyone anxiously awaited dusk. You could feel the depth of people’s prayers, as they poured their souls into the ancient wall. I marveled at its strength. Stuffed between the stones, were the secret prayers of every man, woman, and child who had ever stood before it. Gazing ahead, I suddenly felt lighter. The wandering disconnect that had been a weight upon my soul crept away as I realized that we had all come for the same reason. I stopped walking, and stood, stunned as if I had suddenly woken up, and realized where I was. “Wait,” I said to my friends. “Stop and look. Do you see this? Do you see where we are?” I was in awe. “Can you feel the power of this place?” I asked them, breathlessly. By the time I reached the Wall, my heart was racing. I placed a hand against the stones, made smooth by the touch of all those who had stood there before me, and began to weep. My heart split open, and all the pain and confusion I had felt over the past few weeks fell away. My soul filled itself with love, and as I whispered into the Wall an earth-shattering sound echoed through the valleys. It grabbed hold of me, and shook me into being. It jolted me to life, and I realized what had been missing. I could see the butterflies dancing in the mist. My soul became a finely tuned instrument, celebrating the beauty of the Universe. I soared home that night, enthralled by the small wonders that surrounded me. It was the most powerful New Beginning I could hope for. A re-awakening, if you will.

Several nights later, the scent of autumn floated through my window. I glanced outside, and discovered that the skies had opened. The first rain of the season fed the Earth, clearing away the dusty heat of summer as it brought life to Jerusalem. “YES!” I cried, as I grabbed a sweatshirt, and ran outside–barefoot. I like how the wet grass feels on my feet. It makes me feel alive. When life gets too cluttered, I fall into the sky and allow the rain to wash the dust from the depths of my soul. In the rain, I find answers to my deepest questions. I find comfort from my darkest fears. It has always been my safe place–where I retreat when life throws me off balance. I stood with my head thrown back, overcome with joy. I laughed, and stretched my arms out as I embraced the rain. It glistened as it fell, coating the Earth with liquid silver. My hair blew wildly, as small rivers and streams flowed down my cheeks. I closed my eyes, and inhaled. The sweet smell of autumn rain filled my lungs, my body, and my soul. It spilled from the tips of my fingers, and dripped from my pores leaving a little trail of glistening puddles in my wake. I opened my eyes, and saw butterflies dancing in the rain.