“Man is affected not by events, but by the view he takes of them” ~Epictetus
I consider myself a fairly rational human being. I read various newspapers before forming an opinion, I consider consequences before making a decision, and I always look both ways before crossing the road. Yet two years ago I lost the most important man in my life, my grandfather, and somehow spirituality has crept up into my reserve of pure logic. My mind became a battlefield boasting the most vicious struggle between faith and reason, and it seemed a stalemate neared. However it was the weekend of November 13th, 2015 that this internal struggle was swayed by a terrifying external one. It is a date that will soon be written in international war textbooks and in history’s tragedies eternally. It is also a date I found myself standing on Israeli soil, quite literally in the hot bed of international conflict while holding my own inside as well. This is that story.
On November 13th I took a flight from a tiny British airport to a high security Israeli one. It was a journey I had done many times before, a journey I relish and feel so passionately about making. Upon touching down on Holy soil, I was greeted with endless sunshine and a quick cab ride into the Old City of Jerusalem before Shabbat and sun down. After making it to the hostel, a friend and I quickly made ourselves as modest as possible and set off to partake in a program I like to call “Shabbat with a Stranger”. As students, we were set up with a random religious family in the Old City and proceeded to have the most wild and unexpected Shabbat of my life.
On November 13th I made it to the Rabbi’s home on time. It was a tiny home, carved into the stone that so beautifully adorns Jerusalem. Steps from the Kotel I found myself welcomed along with ten others from a plethora of backgrounds. To my left sat two very palpably secular female soldiers and to my right sat a very religious young woman my own age and her husband. The evening that followed perfectly encapsulates the beauty of Judaism, as it was full of people seemingly different in every way who gathered together to rest on this holy evening. The evening was full of food and wine and even homemade flavored vodkas. Wisdoms were rattled off from the old wise religious man, until some began to blur together and I began to wonder if I was simply not enlightened enough to understand what he meant. It wasn’t until he so causally mentioned, “I did Acid and THC for 15 years” did I realize his wisdom was even more psychedelic than I had originally thought. Nothing in Israel is ever boring, and this Shabbat was surely one for the books.
On November 13th I walked the winding stone paths of the Old City with a belly full of food and a heart full of peace. I talked with my friend of our incredible Shabbat evening, the spirituality felt when being in Jerusalem and what the reason behind it all could be.
On November 14th I awoke early to pray at the Kotel. I approached humbled, as I have so many times in the past. Regardless of how many times you turn the corner to see the Western Wall, each time it takes a little bit more of your breath away. After clearing security I approached the women’s section of the Wall (which is in of itself an entirely different article that can be written, but I will save political conversations for a rainy day). It was Saturday morning, which means I was surrounded by religious women, yet not exclusively Jewish. My favorite part about being Jewish is that I can pray at the wall and the woman next to me can be wearing a giant “I ❤ JESUS” shirt and we can get along just fine.
On November 14th I touched the Western Wall with trembling fingers. I closed my eyes and let my forehead rest on the cold stone. As I spoke in my mind I carefully placed my note in the nearest available crevice and what happened next was truly indescribable. As previously stated, I consider myself fairly rational. However rationality goes out the window for me at the Wall. For I stood there, knees trembling, as I felt the most incredible electricity in my bones. It ignited my joints and awakened my flesh. And suddenly, he was there.
On November 14th I spoke to my grandfather once again. The cold stone kissed my palms as I felt his spirit there with me. Eyes closed I saw him too, in a way that words can never truly capture though I’m not sure that they should be able to anyway. Sometimes a feeling can be more powerful than any scientific principle, and a feeling can change everything. My cheek became painted with warm salt as I slowly backed away, as it is tradition to never have your back facing the Wall. It was upon backing up that I saw a small bird land so gently on the spot my palms once kissed. It was the same kind of bird that so peculiarly flew into my home in Philadelphia one August morning when I opened the front door. It was the same type of bird that flew inside and directly into my room and perched on my dresser so softly. It was the same type of bird that I was named after, that my Hebrew name refers to. It was the same type of bird that my grandfather named me.
On November 14th the sun set and my world changed. I had spent the day ruminating on the powerful spiritual experience the last 48 hours had brought to me, and it wasn’t until Shabbat ended that I could look at my phone once again. My serene trance was immediately interrupted by text messages and emails and news articles about a devastating terror attack in Paris. My thoughts immediately went to a good friend from London who I had shared lunch with before we both set off to different travels for the weekend. I headed to Israel as he headed to Paris, and I immediately feared for his wellbeing. I stood on the holy soil reading of the most heinous showing of human indecency one can imagine. Once I confirmed everyone I knew was safe, I began to compare the last twenty four hours in each place. I quickly felt guilty for my spiritual peacefulness as so many were forced to feel fear and loss.
On November 15th the war of Rationality vs Faith climaxed as France declared war on ISIS. I made my way to Tel Aviv to finish my weekend Israel adventure. My thoughts tried desparetaly to make some sort of sense out of the recent events. I pondered how drastically different my weekend was compared to my friends in Paris, and began to ask myself and my spirituality just how both things can exist at once. How could I feel so connected to a higher power when another group of people a few countries away feel such pain? How could I feel so at peace spiritually when people within the borders of Israel itself feel the same pain and fear as Paris felt, every single day? My thoughts continued as I relaxed on the beach, my favorite beach in the world.
On November 15th I was sitting on an Airbnb couch in Central Tel Aviv as my phone erupted with calls. France was bombing Syria, a mere 500 km away from the couch I found myself on. I silenced the fears of my loved ones then proceeded to turn off my phone, and tune out altogether. I walked the short distance to the beach and sat in awe of the sunset in front of me. I began to talk to myself, to my grandfather, and to whatever higher spirituality hears my prayers. I wanted to be rational, logical, but before me was the most beautiful mixture of colors that only my grandfather could have created on his easel as he did so often when he was alive. I remember distinctly asking, why. Why was this happening? If I can feel you so strongly, if I know in my bones you really are there, why are such horrific and grotesque things happening in the world?
On November 15th a small bird answered my prayers. The internal battle seemed at its worst as I pondered the depravity of the outside world. It was at my lowest moment of thought that a small bird landed just next to me. It was the same type of bird from the Kotel, and for a second I imagined it had followed me here. I knew instantly what it meant, against the backdrop of the beauty of this desert paradise. I knew instantly it was a sign, it was a gift from my grandfather, from whatever floats above us. I knew instantly that while the world could appear a terrible place, this bird was proof that innocence and justice still existed. I thank that bird, that holy land, and those incredible Israeli cities for making me see the good left in a world full of fear and hatred. I took the picture above as that bird flew away, into the beauty that I was meant to see in a time of such darkness.
On November 16th I headed back to London, full of contemplation for the events which had just unfolded. I spent the weekend with my grandfather’s spirit, that fact was clear despite all the rationality I know I possess. I do acknowledge how crazy that may sound, and maybe to some it sounds purely of wishful thinking. But I know what I know. It wasn’t until I arrived back on British soil that I looked at a calendar, and had the most incredibly revelation. The weekend I found such spiritual serenity was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. The day I stood at the wall and felt his presence was the exact hour he left us just two years ago. And the time I felt the most connected with myself and with my spirituality was the same weekend both things were shattered just two years ago. Some things are just too odd to be attributed to chance, and I thank the powers above for the weekend I spent with my Poppy.
I suppose the war of rationality versus faith will never be won, for me or for anyone else. But I can say with absolute certainty that while the world faces terror now more than ever, it is this same time that we must have the most faith. I did not go into this weekend with hopes for anything but some good food and some time on the beach. What I came out of the weekend of November 13th 2015 with was an entirely new mindset, a reminder that it is in the darkest hour that we must make our lights shine the most, and the understanding that there are some things that logic won’t ever be able to explain.