Parashat Balak - a Tale of Two Cities

Notes from the Holy Land.

This week in Torah we read the story of Balaam and his donkey. Recap: he is the seer hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the encampment of Israelites crowding the Moabite outskirts. Balaam reluctantly takes the gig, promising to prophesy at the border but with no guarantee of the prophecy's content. Still, his journey is born of the king's wish to do harm and God, acting through angels, interferes with Balaam's progress. His she-ass is thrown off track, and he strikes her, at which point she famously opens her mouth and defends herself in human speech against her rider's maledictions.

So I'm feeling like Balaam a bit. I am back on Israeli shores, an outsider, though not completely so. I am awaiting what my judgment will be, because everyone who visits here is expected to pass judgment. Many Israelis and American Jews would like us to pronounce the place beautiful and redeeming. The Left in America, including the Jewish left, would like to hear our condemnation of Israeli policies. I observe and fear to open my mouth, lest I make an ass out of myself.

Shabbat is drawing close and I am in Tel Aviv, a concrete and steel-sheathed modern city offering a nearly Viennese gemütlichkeit to its population. Cafés and boutiques abound; you have to look hard now to notice the stone memorials listing the names of coffee-sippers of ten or fifteen years ago, blown up with the cafés that hosted them. In the years since, the people of Tel Aviv have persevered. They've endured explosions and sealed rooms and assassinations. A slice of cake and a cappuccino is, for them, not devoid of a certain defiance. They have become more cosmopolitan and, arguably, more snobbish. While their view of most of Israel is not dissimilar to that of a San Franciscan pondering Riverside, their view of Jerusalem contains a particular venom.

For them, Jerusalem has ceased being Israel altogether. While Tel Aviv seems a logical outcome of the Zionist experiment - a bit of fin de siecle Europe rooted and flourishing in sandy soil - Jerusalem is inexplicable. From the start Jerusalem was a city weighed down by history. Every emperor wanted to conquer it, and nearly every emperor did. Jerusalem continues to suffer from an overburden of symbolism. Besides being a holy city for three powerful religions (or two powerful religions and one that perhaps just likes to act that way) it has for millenia signaled ultimate hope: of return, of salvation, of Messianic bliss. No earthly place can or should have to fulfill this level of religious promise.

But it is this very promise that draws so many of us - the curious, the seeker, the Chasid, the Jewish Renewal hippy tourist, the fundamentalist Christian rapturist. Still, despite the wide variety of its petitioners, Jerusalem has chosen its favored child, increasingly nurturing a fiercely non-pluralistic religious population that grows faster than any other segment of Israeli society. The city spreads outward to house its acolytes and devotees, overtaking land that isn't now and wasn't ever empty, pushing Palestinian villagers and farmers and academics and activists back behind a meandering and impenetrable green iron ribbon of fence.

The people of Tel Aviv fear Jerusalem and what it has come to represent. They fear the impending theocracy that has already produced a Jewish state in which marriages and conversions conducted by Reform rabbis are of no legal worth; in which women can't carry a Torah or wear a tallit at our people's holiest site. The Tel Aviv crowd resembles us - they are 1.5-child families. They foresee being overtaken by the religious within 20 years, and you can hear in the back of their minds the click-click of their escape plans forming. The people of Jerusalem long for Jerusalem even now, the long longing of our people. The people of Tel Aviv apply for EU passports.

I had my first view of Jerusalem in seven years yesterday. I'd studied there in my youth and it remains beloved to me. But now I am 30 years older and so is the State that claims it. I stood on the new tayelet - the scenic overlook - in the Talpiot neighborhood, from which I could see the Old City and the Dome of the Rock on my left, and the immense security fence on my right. I had to explain it to the 14-year old I'd brought with me from America, who himself pointed out the repetition of walls in this particular view - a Herodian wall, an Ottoman wall, and now this newest one. I realized that while the Western Wall might for many of us still symbolize longing and hope, the security wall is hopelessness made concrete. It is despair; a great Israeli shrug of the shoulders. A fatigued decision not to solve a problem but to wall it out of existence.

I stood on that height and felt a bit like Balaam, wanting to open my mouth but in the dark about what would come out. Mah tovu ohalecha, said Balaam when his time came. "How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel."

I see the tents too. They are beautiful and they are ugly and then they are beautiful again. The sky is rosy gold, the air warm and dusty, smelling of rosemary and sweat. Shabbat falls. I feel underneath my sadness a deep hope for peace, for rest, even for just one day. I breathe it in deeply - through my nose, letting my mouth stay, for the time being, shut.