By: Avi Davis
This is what I posted on Facebook on my birthday.
On my birthday I would like to share with you a story. Included in this story are certain events which I have not revealed either privately or publicly to anyone in 30 years. But after 30 years of silence I’ve been thinking,……well, perhaps its time to come clean.
I grew up in a fiercely Zionist home in Melbourne, Australia. At the elementary Jewish day school I attended, we sang both God Save the Queen AND the Hatikvah at Assembly each morning; Israel’s Independence Day was celebrated with far more gusto than Australia Day and we lived the events of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War as if we were sitting on the front lines.
So you would think that when, 30 years ago, I reached Israel after a difficult four month bicycle journey across Europe and North Africa, I would be emotionally charged and full of anticipation. But that was not so. I had already visited Israel five years earlier, hitch hiking around the country as a nineteen-year-old and had had a pretty disappointing experience. I actually thought of Israel only as a pit stop, a chance to briefly regain some weight – (having lost 25 lbs,) restock and prepare for the onward trek to India.
Why India? Because I was desperately seeking life direction – spiritual, geographic and professional – and I thought I might find it among the ashrams and holy sites of the sub-continent. I mean, if it worked for the Beatles, why not for me?
Of course I had no idea what I wanted, but I certainly knew what I did NOT want – life as another Melbourne lawyer. Although I loved Melbourne and adored Australia (and still do) – and had enjoyed the study of law, I could not see my future in a Melbourne office. Something was pulling me onward – and that something seemed to be burning a hole right through the center of my soul.
Then, three weeks into my stay, I met a friend of my younger brother and he immediately recommended a program for others who were going through a similar transition. It was in a town (more of a village at the time) named Tzfat in the far north of the country. I remembered Tzfat from my earlier visit as one of the few places with which I had deeply connected. High in the mountains of the Galilee, my memory painted it swathed in fog and clouds, its cobblestone streets and ancient stone buildings peeking out from the mists like castles in a fairy tale. .
The program’s name was Livnot U’Lehibanot (“To Build and Be Built”). It was three months long,
with the days divided into morning work focused on rebuilding the ruins of the Old City, and the afternoons committed to deep study of Jewish history, texts and philosophy. It was an opportunity to investigate the power and strength of Jewish identity. It seemed to fit just right.
Those three months were exhausting but extremely uplifting. I sweated through everything – the learning and the work and the kitchen duty and the hiking – emerging at the end of it strong, full of vigor and with my weight regained.
Then, on the last night of the program, its founder, Cleveland-born Aharon Botzer, who had arrived in Tzfat ten years earlier, buying a ruin in the Old City and rebuilding it with his own hands, asked me to join him on the roof of his home. From there we could look out at the Meron mountain range, silhouetted by the corona of a dying sun which, in the fading light, seemed so close it was as if I could touch the hilltops with my fingers. The beacons of the towns of the Lower Galilee, sixty miles distant, lay blinking before us, and the warm May wind felt like the first brush of summer on my skin.
We stared in silence at this captivating scene and then he raised his hand and placed it on my shoulder :
” Look at this, Avi ” he said, sweeping his free arm across the horizon, ” Look hard……… this is your land.”
At that moment, all my breath seemed to escape my lungs. It was as if someone had parted a curtain
and revealed a vivid panorama, bursting with color and humming with activity, the characters drawn in exquisite detail, depicting the life I could or would be living. It seemed as though, in his voice, I could hear the words of my own dead grandfather, who had arrived in Israel sixty years before me at exactly the same age. And beyond him generations of my ancestors, all beseeching me to look and listen.
” Yes,” I said to myself, tears beginning to well in my eyes, “I think I might have come home. ”
But my situation was complicated. Although India was now off the agenda, the shadow of America
loomed. Because on the program I had met a woman to whom I had become deeply attached and we wanted to be together. But she lived in Los Angeles and was still finishing college. I had already pledged to travel to the States, a country which I had never visited before and which I had actually sought to avoid, to see her.
I was deeply torn. I felt that if I left Israel now I might never return, trapped by the opportunities and a lifestyle that awaited me in the U.S.
Long discussions followed with Aharon and a number of my teachers. I took off for three days down the mountain to Wadi Amud -a deep valley below Tzfat where generations of mystics had periodically visited in times of sorrow or confusion – to camp, to meditate and to contemplate my future. I wrote long letters there to my family and my friends seeking advice. And for the first time in many years, I prayed.
But there was no answer. Finally, one of my teachers, recognizing my deep distress, recommended that I speak to a Tzfat mekubal – a spiritual adviser , a man who had powers of insight and understanding unlike others and who might offer me something I could not obtain from ordinary meditation or prayer.
Skeptical, but by this stage open to anything, I went to visit the mekubal in his modest home in the Old City. He listened patiently as I explained in English my dilemma. He said nothing, but went to his bookshelf to retrieve a volume with a weathered binding. He opened it before me and I noticed it was the Book of Isaiah. His index finger came to rest on a passage:
” Read it,” he said.” From here to here.”
In scratchy Hebrew, I did so and then looked up at him nervously:
” What does it mean?”
He looked into my eyes with an expression of deep tenderness, laid his hand upon mine and said:
“Go to America. But you will return to us.”
And that was all he said as he led me to the door and ushered me from his home.
I raced back to Livnot and ran immediately into the library, desperate to understand the Mekubal’s message. I found Isaiah with an English translation and I opened to the passage. And I gulped hard as I read these words:
” G’d will guide you always, sate your soul in times of drought and strengthen your bones and you will be like a well watered garden and a spring whose water never fails. Age-old ruins shall be rebuilt through you. You will erect generations-old foundations, and they will call you, repairer of the breach, restorer of the paths of habitation.”
It is a passage, I later discovered, read every year on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
Some of the extraordinary things I experienced in the years immediately following these events I will share in another post in a few weeks time when I return to Israel.
But for now, the last photo included here, will give you a hint of what was to come.