I am helping to lead a 10-day Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel. We left the U.S. a week ago today. My plan is to post entries about our trip here as I have the opportunity, but that may not be possible daily.
Even on days when I'm unable to post, however, I'll be giving you some links to learn about the places in Israel that are on our itinerary.
Today we are to begin with an optional Christian Worship service, perhaps led by one of my co-leaders, Fr. Gar Demo.
Next we'll be off to King Herod's fortress and castle atop Masada to see the remains of the walls, palaces, synagogue and the bathhouses and to learn about the Jewish Zealots' last stand against the Roman forces.
Then it's off to the salty waters of the Dead Sea.
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TEL DAN NATURE PARK, Israel -- Here in northern Israel, away from the political tensions, the religious disputes and all the rest of life that constitutes this astonishing country, there is a sanctuary.
It allows visitors to walk among plants and trees, among flowing waters, amidst peace, in quiet. The Tel Dan nature reserve seems like a gift to the soul of a restless nation.
We walked through the park, but we were alerted to nearby military installations, which serve as a constant reminder that though this land may be at peace at the moment -- a cold, uneasy peace, to be sure -- the threat of violence is always present.
What I noticed most is that the birds of Tel Dan sing relentlessly, heedless of the bloody history overwhich they fly. They seem to know a peace that the land hasn't known for thousands of years, if ever. And they are happy to know that peace -- so happy they can't help but sing.
The photo here shows one of several small waterfalls at Tel Dan, and I find almost nothing as peaceful and centering as moving water.
* * *
JERUSALEM -- Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, was to begin at 6:30 p.m., and we wanted to get to the Western Wall (seen in the photo above) before it started. So we hurried through some things and managed to get here about 6, on a cool, breezy evening when it felt good to wear a windbreaker.
The large plaze in front of the wall began to fill up with young and old, tourists and religious Jews, pilgrims and the merely curious. Closer to the wall, many of the ultra-Orthodox in the various traditional dress of their several sects, already were busy reading and praying (and, it seemed, trying to ignore the rest of us).
I had written a small prayer on a sheet of paper that I folded and placed into the crevice of the wall. As I moved down to do that, I ran into another Kansas City rabbi, Scott White of Congregation Ohev Sholom in Prairie Village, the very congregation where Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn's congregation, Temple Israel, rents space. Scott is leading a small group on a tour, too.
We wandered a bit, taking in the remarkable collection of humanity -- hundreds (but not yet thousands) of people who had come to pray at the wall or simply to look at the last remains of the Second Temple, destroyed in the year 70 CE (or AD).
Then we retreated up the plaza a bit and simply watched, as guards came around to remind us that Shabbat had arrived and that now we were not welcome to take pictures.
Here and there one could hear small groups of men singing a bit and even dancing. But on the whole it was a quiet evening. Then a few hundred Israel youth gathered in a large circle and danced in a way that reminded me of a homecoming bonfire dance from my high school days in Illinois.
Then, as if arriving from another dimension, we began to hear the evening all to Muslim prayer from the nearby mosque on the Temple Mount. The call was enchanting, rhythmical and a reminder of how the three Abrahamic faiths all consider Jerusalem holy ground.
And as a Muslim shop keeper told me, all three religions simply must figure out a way to live in harmony or we will dishonor those religions.