Finding Shekhinah

AISJ June 2014

It’s raining. Not the deluge, more the “gentle rain from heaven”. Having recently returned, this is indeed a bracha. As Jerusalem turns brown, Paris is greened. Parting – the “sweet sorrow”- was not exactly painful, more like a necessary disengagement, although the pull is almost electromagnetically strong.

A modern ocarina
An ocarina is a small, ancient clay flute which, if correctly intonated, makes a pure, perfectly pitched note. My time in Israel in so many ways felt like that. With little effort, something beautiful could be achieved, something lasting could be left behind. My presence had resonance, if you will, I did not fetch up accidentally on Israeli shores as if vomited out by a great fish. I am often asked questions at home about why I went – wherein lies the attraction in a dusty little Middle Eastern country with a few ancient tourist attractions? At first thought, it’s easy to answer. I could reply in the context of its being the birthplace of the Old Testament stories, or the New Testament renditions of the life of Christ. To those whose belief systems are not consonant with these ideas, a trip to the Kinneret is just a visit to a lake. A walk around the Old City is a pleasant diversion into the medieval, much like Lucca or Florence. Here, however, there is a cry, a source of hope or “makor ha-tikvah’ down through the ages which I am romantic enough to want to hear. 
The Pope’s prayer is still there
Beside the Western Wall, or Kotel, the last remaining stones of the outer retaining wall of the Second Temple, there is an explanatory sign briefly narrating the building and destruction of the First and Second Temples. It points out that the Temple Mount is the resting place of the foundation stone of the earth, and above it rested the Ark of the Covenant. It then concludes, paraphrasing, “the Presence never moves from the Western Wall. Jews have prayed here for centuries.”In Hebrew, the word for “presence” is transliterated “Shekhinah” – from the root verb ‘to inhabit’, often used in the context of the nesting place of a bird. The place where, if anywhere, God ‘is’. In a very Jewish sense, I found myself asking the question to which I already knew the answer. ‘Why are you here?’ I am here because I am bereft, poor, miserable, cold, hungry, naked, tired and lonely and I want to go home. Not literally, but metaphorically, God has made a way for all to find home, scanning the night for the pinprick of light to guide their path.
Judi Dench as ‘Philomena’.
For some time, I had wanted to watch “Philomena”. It is the story of an Irish Catholic girl in the early 1950’s who, after sinfully experimenting with sex, finds herself pregnant and in the care of Catholic nuns with a taste for the retributive aspect of penance. With the help of a famous British journalist, she attempts to track down her fifty year old son, taken from her without her consent and put up for adoption by the convent. Being an adoptee myself, I know about the strangely shaped holes it leaves in one’s personality. I know something of how a mother might have felt when her flesh and blood was snatched away, and how cavities remain in the hearts of us both, she and I. Good adoptive parents notwithstanding, there is an indefinable psychological cord which binds us to our genetic history. Many spend their lives trying to find it, sometimes with no idea what they are really looking for. Being in Israel is a lot like finding the cord. Judaism is the bedrock of Christianity – those who trumpet replacement theology need to look more carefully at their source material. Until the fourth century, distinguishing a Jew from the pejoratively named Christian was not straightforward, indeed, perhaps, impossible. The multiple facets of both faiths even today blur the edges of both. When I was in Israel, I felt as if I belonged. Not to the land, the state or the people, but to the cultivated olive tree into which I was able as an adopted son to be grafted. Even vagabonds have resting places somewhere.

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