Excerpt: Day Four, Part One: The Soldiers Arrive/"White Fire"

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Daily Word: “Mikhalim”—Soldiers

I woke up early, around 7:30 AM. I had to leave early, because my group was off to Jerusalem. At 8:30 AM, our bus arrived at IDF headquarters. Eight Israeli soldiers joined our group. They were valuable additions who quickly became the most influential part of the experience:.

  1. Evan           5. Hadassah
  2. Avital         6. Balfour
  3. Gal              7. Arman
  4. Nava          8. Miki

One by one, they boarded the bus. As they did, they humbly introduced themselves in eloquent English. Not bad for a second language, I thought. “Maybe they can teach us Americans a thing or two,” I said to myself. With great cheer, they told us their names:
In a flash, our group grew by eight. This also changed the countdown; from this day forward, we had to count to 48. Once the soldiers found their seats, Manna asked for silence. “Count-off!” she exclaimed.

“One!” Eric yelled from the back of the bus. “Two!” David responded. “Three!” I chimed in. By #15, the countdown lost its steam. By the time we reached 41, it was a complete disaster. Some of us said our numbers in English; others said theirs in Hebrew. In the midst of this total communication breakdown, we shared a hearty laugh (at Manna’s expense).

We tried once more, to similar failure and foolishness.
Luckily, the third time was the charm.

We could finally leave, and we did.

At 10:00 AM, we passed Hebrew University and had arrived at our next destination—a memorial on a precipice that overlooked Jerusalem. From our vantage point (or belvedere), I saw the Old City divided. I saw the Muslim Quarter and the mosque that made it famous—the Temple Mount. I saw the Christian Quarter, which was split “equally” between the Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church. Architecture told a different story; Russian minarets dominated the Christian skyline. Next was the Armenian Quarter, which belonged to a sect of Christianity distinct to the Middle East. Finally, I saw the Jewish Quarter, home of the Tomb of King David and the Western Wall—the holiest place in Israel. Everyone took pictures.

The memorial was composed of Jerusalem stone, a type of rock that, according to the Rabbi, is the combined essence of heaven and earth from which all of Jerusalem was built. In this sacred structure of sacred stone, we the students would introduce ourselves to the soldiers and forge a sacred moment that transcended time, space, and memory.
But, first, we locked our hands together and formed a circle. At its center stood the Rabbi, who reminded us about the importance—and honor—of standing in Jerusalem.

“For 2,000 years our Jewish ancestors have prayed so that, one day, their children would return to this place,” he explained. “It is the city most-mentioned in the Torah; the oasis in the desert where Solomon built his temple and the capital of King David’s Empire. We travelled through Tiberias, the Holy City of Water; and explored Tsfat, the Holy City of Air. Hebron, which lies in the East, is the Holy City of Earth. Today, we find ourselves in Jerusalem, the most sacred hearth of them all—the Holy City of Fire.”

“What makes fire special?” the Rabbi asked. “What happens when you spark a match?” he continued. “When you use a candle, the wick begins to glow and an ember is born. This embryonic flame emanates heat and light,” he proceeded. “Such power can be used to create or destroy worlds. Fire is at the heart of Judaism because it does not lose strength when it is shared. In fact, the opposite process occurs.”

“Have you ever heard this saying—‘that joy shared is doubled, sorrow split is halved?’”, the Rabbi asked. “Fire, however, is not like joy. It is joy!” he whipped up a whirlwind.

“When fire is shared, the light doubles and intensifies. It only takes one righteous flame to ignite a universe of dead-wicks! In Judaism, the human body is a shell of clay. Within that earthly husk there exists a spark of the divine—a soul or holy fire. As Jews we are commanded by the Torah to hone our spiritual energy through prayer; once we do, we must share that fire—the essence of G-d—with the world!”

“The Torah, too, is made of fire.” The Rabbi bellowed, “You might have heard me say this before, that the Torah is black fire on white fire. The Torah’s words, Hebrew text written in ink, compose the black fire. This black fire is all that we can see, all that we can decipher with what we already know.”

“‘Where’s the white fire?’ you might ask. The answer to that question lies in the parchment, the material on which the text is inscribed”, he explained. “The black fire, in fact, obscures the white fire.”

“What does this all mean?” the Rabbi concluded. “It means that we must cast aside earthly knowledge—the black fire that represents everything we already know—in order to comprehend the divine intellect—the distant white fire that represents everything unsaid.”

“Your great-grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather prayed to G-d so that, one day, you would tread on Jerusalem’s sacred ground. In 1948, a generation of Holocaust survivors fought valiantly to make those prayers a physical (if not metaphysical) reality,” he asserted. “Savor your time here,” he implored us. “While you’re in Jerusalem, remember their sacrifice. Harness your inner fire and use it to illuminate this dark, dark world. Follow the words of the late Henry Chaucer, who said that, if you become the person G-d meant you to be, you will set the world on fire. Jerusalem, the Fire manifest, is the place where heaven and earth meet. As you walk where G-d dwells, remember the importance of what is said and not said. Use this wisdom to find the light in your life.”

I was taken aback by the Rabbi’s unquestionable profundity. “Jerusalem, if I forget you,” I thought of Matisyahu, “let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.” No one said a word because everyone was lost in self-reflection.

After a moment of silence, the IDF icebreaker session began. The students split into eight groups of five, the equivalent of one group of eight per soldier. The soldiers rotated between those groups every five minutes.
We asked them simple questions at first, like “Where were you born?” and “Do you have any plans after the military?” As for the latter, all of the soldiers wanted to travel—whether to the United States, to South America, to Australia, or to somewhere else—after their military service ended.

We then progressed to more difficult questions like “What kinds of music do you like?” and “Do you have any hobbies?” I soon found out that Gal liked hip-hop and classic rock; that Miki hated rap and liked to play the drums; that Arma played the bass guitar and had a passion for scuba diving; and that Hadassah loved to sing and dance.

They returned our questions; as I answered them I saw myself in the soldiers. Our parallel worlds collided. I realized that distance met nothing; at the end of the day, we were all the same.

At 11:00 AM, we left the memorial for the Dead Sea. There, we would douse ourselves in mud and water, and learn of their therapeutic properties.