Thoughts on Yom Ha’atzmaut 2016

I read a piece last week that noted that May 2nd was the 16th anniversary of the beginning of one of my favorite pastimes: Geocaching. Geocaching is more widely known today than it was when I began to pursue this hobby but it still can bring about many quizzical looks when I mention my interest.

Geocaching is, in essence, a treasure hunt that you undertake using a GPS system or the geocaching app on a smart phone.  By using longitude and latitude coordinates, the GPS will get to within 20 feet or so of an object called a “geocache” and your job at that point is to find the object, sign the log and move on to the next one. The “classic” geocache is a container filled with trinkets such as small plastic animals or souvenir pencils. You can take one, provided you leave something in its place. But, other geocaches are simply small containers magnetically attached to road signs or other structures with only room for the log to sign. The fun in geocaching comes not necessarily from the objects found but in seeing places you haven’t seen before and succeeding in what can be a frustrating search for the cache.

Geocaching’s birth, in the year 2000, came about when GPS usage was opened to the public and the hobby began to grow from very humble beginnings to the point where the principal geocaching website: geocaching.com,  has stopped giving an accurate count of how many geocaches there are in the world and simply says that there are millions.

I have found geocaches in many states and in three foreign countries. I have made several geocaching trips to Canada, found two in my short visit in Latvia a few years ago and, finally, have found two geocaches in Israel.

I found my first Israeli geocache in 2009 on a walking path down a hill below the tourist area of Jaffa. Our synagogue group had just arrived in Israel and I disappeared from the group for a few minutes to search the bushes for the promised container. After a short search, I found it, signed the log and started to leave when a couple came down the hill and saw me with my GPS and then asked me in Hebrew if I had found the cache. One of the unwritten rules of geocaching is that it is not a competition, so I was more than happy to share information with them and we celebrated together the finding of the cache with a Mazal Tov and a smile. We then got into a brief conversation about where I was from and what brought me to Israel and we parted ways with a “Naim m’od” (nice to meet you) and “Shalom”.

Through all of my 13 visits to Israel, among the memories I cherish the most are chance encounters with Israelis on the street. I have had countless memorable conversations with people I met only briefly: an elderly Russian woman, a recent immigrant, who used her newly learned Hebrew to try to give me directions to the post office; the man behind the counter of our favorite falafel stand in Jerusalem who claimed he remembered me after an absence of 4 years; the cab driver who insisted that the only real rabbis were “dati” (Orthodox) although he personally had no use for any rabbis; the front desk clerk in a small hotel in the town  who was as fascinated with weather as I am and who shared his deep concern for global warming; the man who sat next to me every morning for two weeks when I was saying kaddish for my mother at a shul in Jerusalem and talked to me a bit more each day until by the end of the two weeks, we were talking about commentaries on the Torah portion; and finally, a sweet conversation I had in the town of Shavei Tziyon with a yellow lab who reminded me of our dog, Benny. These conversations and dozens like them made my trips to Israel remarkable. But, there was something symbolic about the geocaching conversation in Jaffa that makes it stand out.

For me, the most important part of being a Jew is searching: searching for meaning in our lives, searching for a closer relationship with God, searching for the right way to live and searching for ways to live up to our obligations to our fellow Jews and fellow human beings.

But, sometimes serious searching has to take a back seat to doing what you need to do to survive or at least to get through daily life.

I am 60 years old and at times, I admit, I get tired of searching. While the idea of finding more meaning in life and continuing to search for better understanding of our tradition and our world is still very critical to me, I confess that at times I think more about minor (thank God) health issues that seem to crop up or how I can keep my energy up to get through the long days at work rather than engage in deep spiritual thinking. And, when I have the time to do it, sometimes I am more content to just sit and watch a ball game than to think about the state of the world or of matters of faith. That is the way of the world.

I have been troubled in the last several years by what I see as a lack of vision in Israel, a lessening of the enthusiastic spirit that the country embodied not too long ago. I remember my first visit to Israel, as a student in 1979 in which there were still so many echoes of the passion of the pioneers who founded the state. And, while I haven’t been to Israel since 2009, in reading the news and talking to people who have visited often, I believe my concerns are valid.

But, the fact is that it is not completely fair to level this criticism against Israel. I say this for two reasons: first because there are places where that passion exists. But, more importantly because if it is not always noticeable, perhaps it is because Israelis are more concerned with getting through daily life than in recognizing every moment that they are engaged in a search for meaning for the Jewish state. If I can feel that way about my life at age 60, Israelis who have been through so much pain, so many threats and so much uncertainty can be forgiven for thinking more about surviving each day than filling each day with meaning.

But, I can’t abandon my search and neither, I believe, can Israel.

All of us need to keep searching in our own ways. We can never give in to cynicism or to apathy about the important questions of life. And, so, after complaining again about the fact that this or that doesn’t feel right this morning, I sat down to write this posting to share some serious thoughts that have been occupying my mind.

And, similarly, I pray Israel will continue to do the same. I pray that the people of Israel, even as they are legitimately concerned with the realities of daily life, will continue to search for the right path: ethically and spiritually. I believe it is that passionate searching for what it truly means to be a Jewish state which, along with the stunning beauty of the country, the miraculous story of its birth, the musical sound of Hebrew on the street and the absolute wonder of seeing people from so many cultures joining together in one place,  has led so many diaspora Jews to feel pride and admiration for the State. I want to feel that way and I want other Jews, especially younger Jews who themselves should be engaged in their own searches, to feel that sense of connection with Israel.

I pray that all of us will, in our own ways, search for a deeper meaning and a more ethical and moral life and hopefully, like that brief encounter in Jaffa,  diaspora Jews and Israelis will realize we can search together.

Yom Ha’atzmaut Sameach!

 

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