Tag Archives: vacation

Succoth 2015


At the synagogue in Mazkeret Batya




One of the most beautiful aspects of the summer is that it’s vacation time for students. And just as the rest of us are inclined to fall into routine, to live our lives automatically, like unfeeling robots (with a headache, at times), so too, students can get into the habit of learning bits of information by heart, and collecting them under the tongue or in the inner ear, till they start sliding out the nose. How wonderful, and how necessary, the vacation. And in honor of summer vacation, let me share with you my thoughts on this very special occupation.


Unlike monks, priests, rabbis, nuns, religious or monastic men and women, there is one category of holiness that requires no ascetic self discipline. That is the role of the student, who follows his curiosity, and grows day by day, increasing his understanding of the world around and within him, his awareness of his fellow man, and his love for all living things and even the inanimate objects that make up our universe.


Unfortunately, because society has deemed it necessary for children and youths to study certain functional bits of knowledge, and combined this need with the need of adults to be rid of children for the majority of the day… so that they, the adults, may be free to work, there has been an ever growing resentment towards study. This anger becomes more acute, and at times turns to outright hatred when the ‘baby sitting’ is accompanied by torturous tests which humiliate the so-called student.


But those who have tasted the sweetness of study for its own sake, and have opened their hearts and minds to the thirst for knowledge, there is no pleasure that can compete with learning, for it is in itself a transcendental experience. The study hall is richer than the finest palace, and its occupants melt from pleasure as their awareness grows without bounds or boundaries. Nothing is forbidden. Everything makes sense. If not at first, then eventually. The student learns to be self assured in the knowledge that whatever is known by another human being can be learned by any man or woman.


The true student doesn’t study for the sake of a degree. He has no need for prizes or awards. Even if graduated or accredited in his profession, he continues to apply himself diligently because learning is uplifting and fills him with joy. Our greatest teachers were simple craftsmen who didn’t make a profession either of learning or teaching.


Study itself is best unselfish. Students take great pleasure in sharing their knowledge. And the best teacher is one’s fellow student who’s taken an extra step ahead. All the social stigmas fade and disappear in the study hall. One’s personal wealth is negligible. Beauty is skin deep. Toys and luxuries are forgotten. The more one learns, the stronger one becomes. Not like the muscle builders on the beach who become bound and crippled by their overwhelming muscles, the wise student becomes more sensitive and modest with each passing day, and more aware of the infinite presence of the universe. His or her determination to learn more is not for the sake of self aggrandizement, but out of love for the world as it is.


Tests… yes, there are tests. Life is full of tests. As long as we are alive and conscious we are tested. We may choose to avoid, to evade, or try to escape those tests, but they come running after us with indefatigable determination. The test of knowledge is that it be clear in your mouth. So that if someone asks you something, you need not hesitate, and then tell it to him. You should be able tell it to him immediately, and in such a way that it is easily understood.


The photos seen here are of students and their living quarters at the University of Ariel. Oh what a pleasure it is to be a student.



I heard a story once, about the great sitar player, Ravi Shankar, when he was on the plane in the US. He had a large instrument case balanced on his knees in the airplane. The stewardess came over to him, and told him that his luggage should have been sent to the luggage compartment. But since it was too late for that now, and since the case he was holding was obviously too big to stay on his knees all through the flight, she would find a place for it in the crew’s compartment.


Ravi looked up at the stewardess, and smiled a bashful sort of smile, and speaking in his very soft and modest voice, he said, ‘you know, when my father was born, my grandfather celebrated his birth by planting a tree in the front yard of the family home. As my father grew up, that tree grew with him, and became a large, strong tree. Children sat under its shade in our garden. And when I was born, my father cut down that tree. He asked a master craftsman to make a sitar of the wood. When I was four years old I began studying the sitar, and learned to play on my father’s instrument. And when I had learned how to play, my father gave me the sitar that had been made from the tree in front of our home. Since that time, I’ve never been separated from my beautiful musical instrument. I would like to hold it now, while I travel.


And while I’m thinking of India and Indians, let me tell you another story. Rueven returned from a trip to India after a long trip. We organized a party to welcome him, and it was a great, cheerful occasion. Many friends came. There was music, and wine and food. A barbeque was set up in the lawn, and many different and fine servings were prepared. We sat in a circle listening to his tales of how he arrived in that distant and foreign land, and how he went about finding companions and a proper place to study the secrets of Zen Buddhism. He described his progress as a long path of small steps, learning the customs and the wisdom of those student who had begun learning long before him. It wasn’t a search for enlightenment, he told us, but a sincere effort to learn what was holy to another people. We didn’t ask him if he had found enlightenment, because he was smiling all the time.


But we did ask him why he didn’t partake of the steaks from the barbeque… and why he ate his rice so slowly. After all, our efforts had been in his honor. And here we were, all consuming this wonderful feast that had been prepared, and he was eating the least of all. Our happiness would be complete, we said, if we were to see him enjoying the food as we had. So he told us that he had found a teacher, and how he sat by his teacher day after day, from morning to night. What his teacher did, he did. And most of the time, he studied. He learned the language, studied the holy texts, and followed his teacher’s example in all things. When his teacher ate, he would take a handful of rice and chew it a long time. A long, long time. And when he had eaten it, he would rest a few moments, before taking more. He ate very little, but his eating radiated complete peace. Gideon said to him, in supposition, ‘he was an old man’. Rueven said, ‘yes, an old man’. Gideon said, ‘he probably had lost all of his teeth’. Rueven said, ‘yes’.


I know that many of my readers, when on a trip, take a great number of photographs with their telephone, or with a digital camera that can shoot photos at the speed with which a machine gun shoots bullets. They shoot shots through the window of a fast moving train, through the window of a plane… or out the car as they’re turning the corner of a city street. And I know there are travelers who set out in a packaged deal. They travel together in a group of some they know well and some they’ve never met, till this trip. And there’s a guide who arranges the trip plan, and finds the right restaurants along the way, and gets group rates on the boat, and knows just which museums and nature sights will be most inspiring for all the travelers.


This may be a good system. I don’t know. I tried it once, and found it didn’t work for me. I have just about everything I need in my close environment. But now and then, I like to take a trip, so as to see new things, to clear my eyes, to shake the routine off my shoulders. When we walk in the same circles, day after day, we start taking things for granted. The righteous among us preface every drink of water and every slice of bread by saying ‘thank you god for all you do for us. thank you for bringing us bread from the ground’. And hope to avoid taking things for granted. But still, all of us… the righteous and the criminals and those of us in between, we all tend to take things for granted after a while. Anything and everything. And so, when we go out to see the world, we don’t know what will come around the next corner. We can get lost. Our car can break down. Life becomes an adventure once again.


It didn’t make a big difference for me, moving from analog to digital. I don’t choose to use tools because they’re available. I’ve always chosen my tools with discrimination, looking not for what I want, but what I need. When on vacation, there are new sights every minute. And my old working horse (the camera) that accompanies me to work every day, could easily catch spring fever and go running through the fields, smelling every flower. He might run away with me. I could become his hostage instead of his master. So we reestablish our roles, and set out together on the path as friends. Though the world be full of wonder, I don’t try to swallow the world. I pick a certain something out of the infinity, and meditate on it. And when I’ve seen it as best I can, and am aware of its existence as I am of my own, I try to record the moment, and its as if I said a prayer at that moment. ‘Thank you, dear god that your have given me the opportunity to experience this’. And then I try to imagine exactly what I’d like to see on the page.


For me, though I appreciate the monitor on the camera, the process of a shot is not finished until I’ve edited it and am satisfied. That picture that I saw at that moment. It takes a while. Sometimes I have to meditate on the image that went through the camera before I’m ready to interpret it. Editing an image might take just as long as the meditation I experienced before pushing the button on the camera. It means that there might be a lot fewer pictures than I could have gotten if I’d worked efficiently with my time, but each of them has been brought to this world with love.


It is almost the end of the year. The Jewish new year begins this coming Wednesday evening. We will wear white. We call these days holy. But that is another story. The pictures in this post are of a little town called Kadita in the northern Galilee, and the farm country around it.

the Jordan River

August in Israel is a time when lots and lots of people take vacation, go off to the country, and enjoy nature. The northern part of our country is especially attractive to vacationers, though there are some who go to the south. Country folk like visiting the city, and city folk like going to the country. There are cities that boast their gorgeous beaches, and others that are famous for their night life or culture. And of course, quite a few of my countrymen go abroad to enjoy the mysteries and pleasures of foreign lands.


I’m sitting with a dear friend on lawn chairs on the green grass of the bank of the Jordan river, reading a book, but letting my eyes wander from book to the river, as people of all ages float downstream. The sounds accompanying the happy vacationers as they pass us by, turn from one style to another every few minutes. One hears the splash of water as someone jumps from a boat into the river, and the sounds of different types of music coming from music players of different kinds. There are shrieks of excitement, song and laughter; a never ending stream of sounds… but all of it quite positive and cheerful.


Whatever you might have heard, Israelis love peace. For centuries now, we’ve been looking for peace, chasing peace… even if we haven’t always been successful in finding it. The Jordan river is sparkling and light. The grass is green, and it smells good. We’ve had a picnic and we’re coasting on delight. Above us on the ridge, bicyclers ride by. With baskets on some bikes, and few kids pulling kites. There are young men and women, and children, and a few oldsters too. What a pleasure it is, on a bright summer’s day… to tour on a bike; to stop for a beer or a bite to eat. It’s vacation time, and life is sweet. All over the Galilee, there are art festivals, and music festivals… even a sculpture festival not far away. And even the most enthusiastic vacationer would be unable to fit all the opportunities in his schedule, and so we have to choose just a bit of this plenty, and in any case we’ll miss a lot of good things happening every hour of the day, in every direction.


But just a few miles from us… in the north and in the south, all hell is breaking loose. Stunned by the immensity of the cruelty, we watched the news on TV this week. A greeting card from Egypt. Saw the bodies of 25 policemen who had been shot in the head with their hands tied behind them, and lay on the highway dead, killed by their fellow countrymen, in revenge of the murder of political prisoners who were killed while trying to escape from prison.


And north of our borders, where the ‘president’ of Syria has been systematically killing his opposition… more than a hundred thousand of his own citizens killed in the last year, and millions of refugees who’ve escaped with their lives, living in tents and primitive conditions in Turkey and Jordan. But Bashar al-Assad of Syria has not managed yet to bring the opposition to their knees. So called for his thugs, the Hezbollah of Lebanon, whom he funds, and to whom he provides weapons and ammunition, plus rockets and missiles coming from Iran, and these Hezbollah have been killing and razing villages and towns of the disloyal. So the allies of the revolutionaries in Syria, thought to attack Israel from the land of Lebanon, in the hope that we would retaliate and kill some of the Hezbollah, ‘cause it served them right for crossing from Lebanon and killing the revolutionaries there in Syria’. Last night… all of a sudden… dare we say out of the blue…? missiles started falling on our northern towns and cities. Fortunately, just a couple of years ago we invented something called ‘the iron dome’ which intercepts missiles headed our way, and with our good luck, no one was killed in this latest attack. There was just damage to properties and cars.


But the citizens of Syria itself have not been so lucky. Three days ago, their president decided to put an end to opposition in one of the suburbs of Damascus the capitol, and bombed that neighborhood with poisoned gas, killing 1300 men, women, and children. We saw the bodies lying on the floors of school rooms and assembly halls. People who had not been shot or stabbed with the sword, or blown up by terrorist bombs. Complete normal people, just lying there after having breathed poison gas.


And what does the world say? The hypocrites that we usually hear from might condemn the barbaric attacks. But they won’t do much. They won’t save the unfortunate victims of the barbarity. They’re good at talking and giving advice. And the journalists too, won’t be crowding around to record the devastation. When Israel is involved in some action, they enjoy staying in our country. The hotels are comfortable here, and the bars are a pleasure to visit. They can even interview enemies of the state, and know that they will be protected and safe. But when reporting from some of our neighbors, it’s a lot more dangerous, and uncomfortable. Some have been beaten, raped, and killed.

So, here’s best wishes from a fool’s paradise.

help from heaven

I’m not one to look for miracles. After all, I consider the day to day life itself, wonderful and amazing… and often beyond my understanding. So why look for that exception to the rule, that crops up occasionally to wake us up from taking it all for granted… But as I’ve lived and learned from this life, there are some phenomena that I’ve experiences… rare experiences… some might even call them extreme… yet still believable to a rational mind like mine. We have an expression in my culture, that refers to such an experience. It is called ‘help from heaven’.

gazing at the temple mount

Now we’re not talking about a situation in which a person is desperate, and everything he’s tried has failed… and he lies on the floor with his eyes aimed at the ceiling and waits for a miracle. Though I’m not saying I’ve never been in that posture myself. But that’s a different story, and I might find the strength to discuss it one of these days. For now, I’m talking about a completely different experience. You set out to do something, and you plan and prepare yourself for it, making no compromise. You don’t look for the coupons that promise a 20% discount, or say to yourself, ‘as long as I’m going that direction anyway, I’ll take the old bookcase over to my brother’s as he’s been reminding me lately… and it might give me some needed space in the hallway’. No. You focus all your attention at the task at hand, and you try to do it as elegantly as possible. You sleep the night before, and you put on new socks in the morning. And when you go out the door, it is with a steady step, your glasses clean, and as ready as you’ll ever be.

touring Jerusalem on Segways

And then, as you do your work, everything falls into place as it’s supposed to. But there are unexpected surprises. You just happen to find that the tool you never used before is just perfect for this job. Or that the chair that someone left behind works as a perfect support… and just as you pressed your finger on the shutter button, a seagull came out of nowhere and glided into the picture, leaving its memory just a little above the shoulder of your subject and a bit to the right, making it one of the most beautiful portraits you have ever done in your life… Now how did that happen? We call it help from heaven.

in prayer with phylacteries and witnesses around him

And that’s what happened when my virtual friend, Bill, came with his wife, for their first visit to Jerusalem. I didn’t know what was awaiting me. I didn’t know how well we’d get on together, and I didn’t know what plans or expectations they had. And yet, on the strength of having known him for some years in cyberspace, I managed to clear my calendar for a week, rearranging my different chores and work, so that if all went well, I would be ready. The camera’s battery was charged; there was gas in the car, and my mini laptop was in my backpack… just in case I’d have to wait for something. I really don’t like to idly wait. I didn’t know that the battery in my ‘easy-park’ was about to play dead, and that it would make it next to impossible to find a parking space downtown. But you never know what’s going to come around the corner. You can only do the best from your side.

even the market can be a delightful experience

And what I got, was that little extra something. I think it’s like what they say about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I have experienced that knowledge too, in the most sober of circumstances… and it has since been etched in my consciousness… but that too is a different story. Together with my two friends, incarnated in this world now, we went off to discover Jerusalem together, and then the dead sea, and the remains of the fortress, Massada, where the Jews of 2000 years ago stood off the Romans in a losing battle. All of which, was familiar to me. But in partnership with them, I had the pleasure of seeing things with new eyes… and each day brought little gifts from heaven that added to my joy, and had me sailing in the wind and rejoicing in awe.

ibex on the shore of the dead sea

Of course (!) there was water in the pond where I used to sit with my father and discuss philosophy… and some new very beautiful fish as well, and there was a middle aged man putting on phylacteries to remember his father in a beautiful nook in downtown Jerusalem, and some youngsters going by, were sweet enough to tell me that if I stood in the center of that nook, and said a few words… I would hear those words coming back to me in echo… and I never knew that… and there was the young man who explained that ‘eating like a bird’ is a misnomer, and why. And there were the deer drinking from the sweet-water springs at the edge of the dead sea… and the nuns dressed in black, allowing themselves the rare pleasure of dipping their toes in the lake. Oh, my friends, I had the most wonderful vacation… right here in my own home town.

looking at the sea


When I was young, and used to suffer from periods of great sadness, I would often go to the sea. I’d find a good seat, and look out at the water for a while, watching the waves come in… and getting the feel of the mood. I’d look out across the water, all the way to the horizon, and get a little perspective regarding the world; what was big, and what was little… and what was too big to take it all in… because I knew that the sea kept on going, even past the horizon. And as I was contemplating the meeting of land and sea, I would become aware of more and more around me. I would listen to the sounds; first of the waves hitting the shore, and then, of the more subtle sounds, the moans of the wooden structures near the sea, boats bumping or rubbing against their berths… and then the sounds of birds and other living things in the vicinity. After that, I’d become aware of the salty smell of the place, and begin to discern the subtleties of the colors in the water. Sometimes I’d see living things in the water, and get the feeling I could smell the fish. I’d take a long walk along the shore, and commune with leaves and grasses along the way. I’d keep up soaking more and more of what was there, while the pulse of the surf calmed my nerves till eventually, the sensory experience would overwhelm the sadness in my heart and soul, and humbled by the majesty of nature, I would forget about myself, and my own personal problems.


How wonderful it was, then, yesterday, to visit the sea, after all the years that have gone by… not to find consolation, but to visit with an old friend… without any requests or expectations, but the memory of having loved the place. I had started out my vacation, enjoying the gentle hills of the Galilee, and found myself climbing the high ridges as they approach our northern border, getting close to Lebanon. I’d looked back from the heights, at the agricultural valleys below… seeing the fields through a pretty thick haze, that made it seem like something of a dream… and walked through forests, and rocky stretches in which more modest vegetation found its place between rocks and boulders. I’d toured around familiar places, enjoying good memories as I recognized areas that I’d known more intimately once, looking out the window of my car, stopping here and there to walk and visit with trees and bushes and brushes, in between visits with old friends… getting older like myself. And now, here I was at the sea shore, having come full to overflowing, and grateful for the way things had worked out. And here, once again, had found myself carried by the wonder of the sea, to a more expansive perspective, and an appreciation greater than what I could have asked for, of this world of nature, and the infinity of stories of life… and the gracious environment that supports us.


And one of the advantages of our little country, is that within a little time, one can move from the plains to the hills, from the mountains to the sea… It is all so close, and yet, one can step out and then find endless worlds, one within the other, going deeper and deeper, or higher and higher according to one’s inclination. And as familiar as it is, at times… it is a different trip every time… and it has gotten better… and keeps on getting better with the passage of years, and with the harmony of many experiences. A few steps can turn into a lifetime of experiences. A moment can go on for ever. I have some pictures to share with you, that will eventually find their way to the blog, some of them, at least… and I have some stories to tell… But the essence is this: the more we open up, the more we can receive… and there is more out there than we can ever know… but it is the greatest joy, knowing that it goes on… way past the horizon.

My best wishes to my readers and friends… may you have a beautiful weekend, or a beautiful Sabbath… or a beautiful hour, whatever you choose… we shall meet again.

enjoying nature

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve gone off. Left the city, in the hope of communing with nature. What I was looking for was peace and quiet. Which for me, means taking walks in the forest, or the gentle hills of the Galilee, reading, and eating very simply. I might listen to some recorded music now and then… but haven’t yet. What I’ve been listening to mostly, this week, are the sounds of birds and crickets, and the howls of the jackals as the evening approaches. All of these, are sounds that I truly love. Especially the sounds of the jackals, who call back and forth from different places in the hills. As evening approaches, more and more of these animals join the chorus. And sometimes in the late evening, they’ll burst into song all together, and it fills the night air, and sounds like an enormous ingathering. The jackal doesn’t have such a good name. He is known to attack the more placid animals, sometimes ganging up on the sheep. But when you get to know them, they don’t seem vicious at all, In fact, they have their own grace. They are the coyotes of this area of the world.

near my cabin hideaway

Walking in the village today, I saw a prefabricated little house. It was charming really, with little windows, and a nice old fashioned door that looked like it was made of wood. But closer inspection showed that it was made of some synthetic material, which was no doubt, very strong, and resilient to the elements. It seemed as if it was being used as a warehouse, to store things in, for the people that lived in a rather modern house next to it. But looking at this very little house, I thought how comfortable I would be to live in such a house … at the edge of a meadow, say, with a forest stretching out behind me.. It could be a very comfortable sort of minimalist existence. If not a home for me in my old age, than at least a regular summer getaway. It appealed to my fantasy.

But even in my rented cabin, where I actually am staying, which is fully equipped with most of the comforts of modern life, including running water, electricity, and a large refrigerator which has been pretty empty so far, and an automatic tea pot, etc., I have been dealing with the minor discomfort of a bad connection to the internet. Along with my little mini computer, which goes with me everywhere, I also have a cellular modem, which works something like a cell phone, and when I can’t get wifi wherever I happen to be, I can whip out the modem, and am immediately connected to the internet. So here I am, out in nature, and enjoying simplicity with a big smile on my face, and after a couple of days taking pictures, I try to upload a few, and I start getting some weird messages from my computer… Wow, what a pain.

It wasn’t a complete surprise for me. Not long after I had settled in here, I checked my mail. The modem has a little light that usually blinks at me as it works, and its color is blue. But here, for some reason, it was blinking green. And when trying to check the latest posts of some of my blogging friends, I was surprised to see how long it took for their web pages to materialize on the screen. I have to admit, it kind of grated on my nerves. I thought maybe something had gone wrong with Explorer, and so closed that, and tried Google Chrome. But it wasn’t any better. And when I checked out my favorite web site for news, the pictures took forever to actually find their way to the screen. What a drag.

I reasoned with myself. I have everything I need here. The computer works fine, and I can work on my photos, and even use the mail. And not only had I wanted to get away from my normal routine, but to rest in the bosom of nature. Wasn’t it a bit much, to insist that that bosom come equipped with high speed internet? What was I, a spoiled post modern citizen of the world? Well, I tell you, it was a close one. Thank god, I had reason on my side. But all the same, I have this photo of the little house… and every half an hour or so, I try to upload it. Sometimes I get a message that I’ve lost the party on the other side… and sometimes I just get impatient and hit the cancel button. But I have managed to upload one of the pictures, from my walk last night. And I have this other one, of a pomegranate that ripened on a tree till it split apart, and now it’s food for the birds. Too bad I didn’t catch it in time. I love pomegranates. I could have eaten it for breakfast.