A Walk to Tel Aviv

May we have the awareness to notice and give thanks for the blessings already here. May we have the resilience to trust that better days will come again.
June 20, 2024
Photo courtesy Yoshi Zweiback

One of my favorite poems was written by Hannah Senesh in 1942. It’s commonly known as “Eli, Eli” but she titled it, “Halicha l’Kesarea.” The poem it seems was inspired by a walk Senesh took from her Kibbutz, S’dot Yam, to the ancient city of Caesarea. Senesh reflects on the beauty of nature she encounters on the way:

My God
That these things should never end
The sand and the sea
The rush of the waters
The crash of the heavens
Humanity’s prayer.

The poem is itself a prayer, one made all the more poignant by its historical setting. Senesh wrote it just two years before she would bravely parachute into then Yugoslavia in an effort to save Jews from being murdered by the Nazis. She was captured shortly after she crossed into Hungary, the nation of her birth, tortured, and then executed as a spy. The poem was discovered a year after her death along with other personal items that are now on display at the new national library in Jerusalem.

I thought of her words on my walk along the sea the other night.

I’m in Israel for the wedding of my cousin, Kayla. The ceremony itself was last Sunday night. It was uplifting and healing and dearly, dearly needed. The day before the celebration we heard the terrible news of the deaths of 12 IDF soldiers killed in Gaza. Even as some of the funerals were still being held, as the eulogies were delivered, we danced with Kayla and her husband Asaf and sang the words of the prophet Jeremiah, composed in this same land some 2,500 years ago: “Once again we will hear in the cities of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem the sound of joy and gladness, the voices of the bridegroom and the bride!”

Photo courtesy Yoshi Zweiback

The evening after the wedding, the celebration continued with a gathering in Yafo, a mixed city of Arabs and Jews just south of Tel Aviv, one of the oldest cities in the world, famously mentioned in the Bible in the book of Jonah.

Walking with my daughters, in the midst of heavy and conflicting emotions, joy in being with family for a simcha, heartbreak in the pain of this terrible war, anguish at the thought of the captives, I saw wonder after wonder that gave me reason to hope.

From a beautiful seaside park along the boardwalk Tayelet, we heard the voices of hundreds of Israel’s Muslim citizens celebrating Eid al-Adha, the “Feast of the Sacrifice,” one of the most sacred days in Islam. There were teenagers playing soccer, parents carrying their exhausted children home in their arms, the fragrant smell of bar-b-ques and the sound of good cheer. A large family passed by us with small children in strollers, a young man being pushed by his parents in a wheelchair, and grandparents carrying baskets of food for a family feast. We wished them “Eid Mubarak (happy holiday),” in Arabic and received a warm, surprised smile and a “todah rabbah” in return.

We saw a young modern orthodox couple on what was probably an arranged date, modestly sitting on a bench overlooking the sea a few feet apart, chatting and sharing a soda. Just one bench over, sitting under the special Tel Aviv Pride flag that was created this year honoring the captives was a gay couple, kissing and holding hands as the sun sank into the sea.

There were soldiers on leave coming back from the beach with sand on their feet and machine guns on their shoulders, weaving their way through a phalanx of teenagers riding their electric scooters too fast, barefoot and without helmets.

On a brand new luxury hotel with stunning views and $800/night rooms, there was a two-story digital display with the faces of the 120 hostages still being held in Gaza and the words: Bring Them Home Now!

Of course, it being summer in Tel Aviv, we bumped into a family from our congregation who had just arrived for the wedding of their relative. We stood for twenty minutes talking about the war, catching up on our children, exchanging “mazel tovs” and hugs.

Outside of a restaurant near our apartment was a shrine: a large yellow ribbon for the hostages in between two prayers, one for the safety of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and one asking God to return our brothers and sisters, Acheinu, from captivity.

Photo courtesy Yoshi Zweiback

It was inspiring and a bit overwhelming, what our tradition calls shefa, a type of spiritual “overflow.”

The diversity of experiences, cultures, ethnicities, traditions, and histories coming together in such a rich tapestry: intense joy, heartbreaking sadness, longing, anguish, hope.

Someday, soon, this war will end. Our hostages and our soldiers will come home. The dead will be buried and mourned. The bereaved and wounded will return, slowly, step by step to life. There will be rebuilding, chuppas to dance beneath, babies to welcome into the world, simchas to share.

Until then, may we have the strength to hold on to hope. May we have the awareness to notice and give thanks for the blessings already here. May we have the resilience to trust that better days will come again.

This is our faith. This is our hope. This is our prayer.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the Senior Rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California.

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