What would prompt a mature, fairly rational, mostly level-headed woman in her 70's, who doesn't speak a word of Hebrew, to suddenly decide to pack her bags and travel, by herself, to Tsfat, Israel to study Kabbalah? It's a question I have been asked repeatedly, and I can only say it was my soul that prompted (or more precisely, commanded) me to go.
I grew up in a Reform Jewish household, but always considered myself more spiritual than religious. So I was delighted when our local Chabad House began offering classes in Kabbalah, which is known as Jewish mysticism. It was through these classes that I first learned about Tsfat, a small city in Northern Israel known as “the heart of Kabbalah” because of the Rabbis who settled there and first introduced it in the second century. Specifically, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is credited with being the first rabbi to put Kabbalah into writing in the ancient text known as the Zohar. A few years later, when I went on a tour of Israel that included Tsfat, I was able to get a brief overview of the city I had read so much about.
Shortly after I returned home, I was sharing my travel experiences with a friend, and found, to my surprise, that talking about Tsfat moved me to tears. I felt like I was grieving for something I desperately wanted and could not have. My friend said, without hesitation, “Why don't you go back? If it's something you want to do so badly, what's stopping you?”
What WAS stopping me, I asked myself. Other than requiring a fair amount of time (which I had plenty of) and money (which I did not have plenty of), I couldn't come up with a single reason not to go. Once I had given myself “permission,” so to speak, I started making plans, confident in my belief that if the universe supported my decision, I would find the money to go, and the logistics of such a trip would work themselves out.
Amazingly, the money proved not to be a problem, because I soon learned about an available grant for local residents to go to Israel, which I applied for and received. I was very grateful, and was now more convinced than ever that I was meant to go. However, I was soon up against another challenge, which was to put together a study program to make the most of my time and funding.
Since my previous trips to other countries had all been tours, where everything was arranged and all I had to do was show up at the airport, bags in hand, this was something totally new to me. I spent countless hours online, searching for classes, teachers and a guest house/hotel that would fit with my time frame and budget. Though many classes (in both Kabbalah and Torah) were offered, I soon discovered that there was no set curriculum that I could simply register for, and would have to put this trip together on my own. It was also hard to estimate how much time and money I would need because of the big variation in class times and fees. Some met daily, others weekly; some were “free, but donations appreciated,” other fees varied. Eventually, I found a Kabbalah teacher and a guest house, and worked out a “sort of” schedule. Then, feeling mostly excitement mixed with just a little apprehension, I booked my ticket and packed my bags!
Upon my arrival in Tsfat, (after a flight to Tel Aviv, train to Akko, and hired taxi up the mountainside into Tsfat), one of my first thoughts was, “Something tells me I'm not in Kansas anymore!” Every time I ventured out of my guest house, I found myself surrounded by a sea of people so different from myself. Some short, middle eastern looking, others, bearded men in traditional long black coats and the large black hats worn by the majority of the ultra-orthodox, with fringes (tzitzit) hanging below their jackets and long curls or side locks (peyot) announcing their pride in being Jewish. The women also followed tradition by modestly dressing in long skirts, long sleeved shirts and (if they were married) scarves to cover their hair. The conversations around me, mostly in Hebrew, were also a reminder that living in this city was going to be much more challenging than I had realized from a quick glance through a bus window or a walk through the artist's quarter.
One of those challenges involved simply getting around the city. Though my guest house was centrally located and I could walk most everywhere, I invariably had to call Laurie (my “Myrtle the Turtle” guest house owner) to guide me back from the maze of winding cobbled streets which all looked exactly alike. On top of that, there was the issue of getting to my classes, held in the home of my teacher, Yedidah Cohen, who lived several miles away. At first, I took taxis, which either Laurie or Yedidah had to order for me in Hebrew. Eventually, however, I became brave enough to take the bus, giving a note to the driver with my teacher's address written in Hebrew and feeling like the school kid whose mother pins a note on his jacket so he'll be dropped off at the right location. But it was an easy (and cheap) way to get around, and I began to feel confident enough to enjoy the ride.
My classes, too, were proving to be everything I had hoped, and more. I immediately felt a bond with Yedidah and loved her way of breaking down very complex material with modern-day examples and even illustrations sketched out in my notebook. As we studied the Kabbalah, which is the oral law handed down to Moses from God on Mount Sinai, I began to see a pattern of how the ancient teachings are meant to guide and give meaning to our lives today. In fact, as the Torah comprises Jewish laws, the Kabbalah is known as the meanings behind the laws, often referred to as the "soul" of the Torah. It is a way to perceive the inherent order of the universe, the unseen spiritual laws that govern our lives. Of the many Kabbalah concepts I learned, one of my favorites explains why we so often struggle between good and evil. “The ego shouts,” Yedidah teaches, “while the soul whispers. We need to listen to the whisper of our souls.”
We began a systematic approach of my reading ahead in the textbook and writing down my questions (which were always innumerable) to discuss at the next class. At my request, we went through the material slowly, as I knew I would get overwhelmed if I tried to learn too much too quickly. There came a point, in fact, when I told Yedidah that I was already worrying about people back home expecting me to explain Kabbalah when I returned, because I knew I wouldn't be able to. She laughed and said, “I've been teaching this for thirty years, and I don't know all there is to know!” After that, I took the pressure off myself to try to totally understand it in the few short weeks I was there. I found myself looking forward to the days I had class, not only to the material, but also to the easy conversations Yedidah and I had about our lives and life in general. It was amazing to me that this deeply religious woman who lived high up in the mountains of Israel was so down-to-earth and that we shared so many life experiences.
As I settled into daily life within this highly religious community, my feelings of being “different from,” of being there but not really belonging, grew and grew. Although I was raised Jewish, as were my children, the orthodox residents of Tsfat that I was now living among seemed a world away from my own. I was not accustomed to the extensive rituals of hand-washing, prayers and blessings that were the focus of daily life. It was very common to see residents walking along the streets or riding on a bus with a prayer-book in their hands, and one could find a class on Torah or Hebrew almost any time and day of the week. Studying Torah was a priority, as well as striving to do as many of the 613 Mitzvahs (good deeds) commanded by God as possible.
The truth is, my feelings of separation from those around me did not stem from any unfriendliness or aloofness by the Israeli people. On the contrary, the majority of those I met went out of their way to be kind and helpful, and to offer me all types of hospitality, ranging from invitations to Shabbat meals on Friday evenings to classes and other activities. However, their friendliness did not seem to dispel my feelings, and that confused me. What was troubling me? What was leading me to make the distinction between “them” and “me?”
Eventually, I discussed this with Yedidah, who had become my friend as well as my teacher. As we talked, the heart of my uneasiness finally became clear, and it boiled down to a single key question I asked her:
“Do you have to be religious to be spiritual?”
I appreciated that she didn't answer right away, as she considered my question. Finally, she said, “No, I don't think you do.” Though some may use the terms interchangeably, there IS a difference, at least to me. While I have not been nearly as observant of Jewish traditions and rituals as the people in Tsfat, I had always thought of myself as spiritual, which to me meant feeling a deep connection to God and to every living thing. And because of that connection, I had always tried to live a good life.
But now, suddenly, I couldn't help wondering whether the residents of this community would agree. I believed that in their eyes, I was certainly not religious and perhaps not even spiritual. And then I realized that just as I didn't want to be compared to them and judged by them, I didn't want to judge them either. There was no “them” and “me.” There was only “us.” Regardless of how we went about it, weren't we all striving to reach the same place...to be connected to God and to live a good life? As soon as I came to this realization, I felt my uneasiness dissipate, and found a whole new depth to the purpose of my trip. I had taken this journey to study Kabbalah, but I saw now that the more important journey was an inner one, to push me out of my comfort zone and to strengthen my connection to others, especially when the others seem “different” than me.
I also realized that my study of Kabbalah involved more than reading a textbook and taking classes. Kabbalah was all around me in Tsfat...I could see it in the way the people there lived. It surrounded me at the gravesites of the revered Rabbis who introduced it, as throngs of people wept and recited prayers at their graves. It was in the joyous parade of residents who carried a new Torah on their shoulders through the streets one night, singing and dancing as they made their way to the synagogue which was to be its new home. And it was in the holy Friday night services I attended with Laurie, held on the outdoor porch of her synagogue, the men and women separated but all singing and dancing as they faced the sunset to welcome the Sabbath.
Although I am back home now and my trip is over, I have brought the essence of Kabbalah back with me. Kabbalah teaches that when we are born, each of us is given a tiny bit of the same soul. Now, I feel an even deeper connection to others than I did before, especially to those who appear “different.” And I plan to continue my classes with Yedidah online. I may not ever return to Tsfat, but I can hold onto all that it taught me, and continue my own personal journey within.
By Sandra Martin
Yedidah Cohen: www.nehorapress.com
Laurie Rappeport: firstname.lastname@example.org