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An Encounter with History

Friday, 19 July, 2019 - 9:20 am

Yemin Moshe.jpgThe Yemin Moshe neighborhood, is a breathtaking series of cobblestone streets and alleys on the side of a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem that features beautiful small homes and terraces which are covered in all kinds of wonderful flowers, vines and plants. Along with the neighborhood next door, Mishkenot Shananim, this neighborhood was among the first ones built outside the walls of the Old City by Sir Moses Montefiore in the 1890’s when Jews were afraid to live outside the secure walls of the city.

Often when I am in Jerusalem for a Shabbat, I enjoy taking a walk there, to soak in the views of the hills of Jerusalem and the Old City from the serenity and quiet of this beautiful neighborhood.

On a recent trip, I noticed an elderly man walking with the assistance of his aide, at the lookout plaza at the top of the neighborhood. As I looked at his deep wrinkles, and positive demeanor, I knew I was looking at someone who had been through a lot in life and probably had a wealth of history to share. I smiled to him and said Shabbat Shalom, and he invited me to come and sit on the bench for a chat.

Before I knew it, one minute turned into an hour long conversation, as this man shared his life experiences with me, which included, escaping the Nazi’s, joining the partisans and fighting the Nazi’s, receiving the Legion De Honor medal, the highest award from the French Army, for his efforts during the war, being a leader in smuggling the Holocaust Survivors through the British Blockade of what was then Palestine in 1945-48, and then living a meaningful life in France for most of his life, before retiring to Jerusalem to this very neighborhood. I discovered that this gentleman had also authored four books, spoke seven languages, and had an antique Judaica collection that contained the stories of the Jewish people from the second temple era, through the middle ages, into the last few centuries.

When he had first bought a home in this neighborhood seventy years ago, despite returning to France, the Old City which was just across the valley was off limits to Jews, as it had been captured by the Jordanian Army, who destroyed as much of Jewish history as they could inside the walls, and banned Jews from entering the treasured historical pathways and alleys of the Old City. Now years down the line, from the windows of his home, he can see Jewish life alive and well, as people walk up and down the hills and the united city of Jerusalem is bustling with life and peace even on a quiet and tranquil Shabbat afternoon.

As I sat there overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, soaking in this one man’s story of survival and contemplating all he had been through in his ninety five years, I thought about the story of the Jewish people, and how in a sense this one’s man story embodied so much of it. He was a deeply learned man, who quoted the Talmud and teachings from the Torah, along with a rich array of ideas that he had studied and acquired through life as he witnessed and experienced the lows and highs of our people. While he had seen the worst of life, he had also been a part of the perseverance of those who survived, and actively participated and merited to see the tremendous growth and a revitalization of Jewish life, after the ashes of the Holocaust.

He was a man of deep faith in G-d and he exuded knowledge, positivity and happiness, and while I could have stayed for hours more talking to him, we made up that I will G-d willing pay him a visit on a future trip to Israel.

Balak & Bilam

In this week’s Torah portion we read the famous story of the Moabite King, Balak, who hated and feared the Jews, and hired the services of a fellow Jew hater, Bilam the non-Jewish prophet, who used his divine intuition to try and cause strife, hate and harm. The story is so powerful on so many levels, as it talks about the irrational hatred that has so often been directed at the Jewish people throughout history, but at the same time, describes how this hatred failed to yield any success, as Bilam realizes that the upright moral conduct of the Jewish people to G-d and to each other, will make any curse and malicious agendas, be dead on arrival. In recognizing this truth, Bilam then proceeds to convey the prophecies that contain some of the greatest descriptions and blessings of the Jewish people and what they would go through over the course of history.

He came to curse and harm, but instead shared blessings and virtuous words, which have stayed with the Jewish people throughout our long history.

Ironically, in his final prophecy, Bilam seeks to share what will occur in the world and with the Jews at the end of days. Of all the prophets in the Torah, it was Bilam who hated the Jews, not Moses who loved the Jews and epitomized holiness, who ends up being the first one to share the long term destiny and goal of the world around us.

The reason for this paradox, is since the destiny of the world, is not just that Jews alone will work together to serve G-d and do what G-d wants in this world, rather, that all the nations of the world, including those who may currently not like us, will learn to work together for a greater truth and common good, in making this world be the place that G-d wants it to be. 
By having the prophecy that begins to describe this, be shared by someone who came with an agenda of hating and cursing the Jews, yet ends up blessing them, it was a forbearer of what is to come down the line, when all of mankind will learn to work together and serving G-d and bringing out the divine potential of creation.

Repeat or Destiny?

Perhaps one of the most important lessons that Bilam is chosen to convey to us in a form of prophecy from G-d, was that life is not just cyclical, and what you see isn’t always destined to remain that way.

So often, we think of the reality of the world around us, as being cyclical and repetitive, as wars begin and end and then new ones start, governments fall and new ones rise, politics is the same as always, and for each step of progress forward, we seem to take at least one step backwards. But the Jewish perspective as highlighted by Bilam and in so many other teachings in the Torah, is that the world is not stuck on an endless and uncontrollable spin, instead, we are headed somewhere and we have a goal in mind which is the destiny of mankind. Every generation and every overcoming of obstacles and challenges on a micro and macro level, represent a step forward in this greater goal.

Along the way, there will be some adversaries and some haters, but in the long term, accomplishing the goal of why we are here, is what will prevail and what will become the reality of the world around us. Eventually the haters will become lovers, the warriors will become peacemakers and yes, weapons will become tools of peace. We may not be there yet, and we may be dealing with plenty of these struggles, where the long term goal isn’t always so obvious, but if anything needs to always be clear, it is the fact that we have a destination and plan, which we are inching our way towards one Mitzvah and one person at a time.

_______________________

My new friend on the hilltop in Jerusalem, embodied this message that life was not purely cyclical in such a powerful way. He has lived a life so far guided by a deep awareness of a greater and deeper purpose, and he was determined to always keep that in mind, whether it was in the challenging lows of his experiences or in the highs that he was a part of throughout his life.

While I said goodbye for now, and carried on my walk, the inspiring conversation left me with so much food for thought and so much to think about until I see him next. He reminded me, that I just like him, maybe one tiny person that is a part of a complex and long history, but that I too, must push all I can, to make sure that we are constantly moving forward and progressing towards the greater goal of mankind, with a smile on our lips and confidence in our vision of making this world be G-d’s beautiful garden.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Yisroel

 

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