TALES OF THE TOMBS IN ISRAEL
An excerpt from the new book
LIFE IS A TRIP, by Judith Fein
The hills around Safed are dotted with ancient tombs. To Jewish believers, these tombs of long-deceased tsaddikim, or holy men, are the meeting place between the living and the dead. People make pilgrimages to the burial places to ask for blessings, favors, surcease from suffering.
"They do not actually pray to the ancient rabbis; rather, they pray that the departed tsaddikim will intercede on their behalf with God," Nurit explained. "And because God looks favorably upon holy men and the merit of their lives, he is more likely to grant a request."
I wanted the hills surrounding Safed to be a spiritual place for me, but at the tomb of Rabbi Uziel, I was interested and amused, not inspired. Paul came out of the men's side (men and women are separated in Orthodox Judaism) and when I asked him what had happened, he tersely responded, "Nothing." Nevertheless, I decided to visit one other grave in the small, ancient village of Meron perched on the side of Mount Meron, with its abundant greenery, trees, and views of Safed and the Galilee. Meron village is the resting place of Shimon bar Yochai. One of the most famous of the tsaddikim, he is credited with being the author of the central book of Kabbalah, called the Zohar, almost two thousand years ago. Believers go to his grave to pray for prosperity, peace in their souls, fertility, and healing. Paul and I climbed up the narrow main street of Meron to two stone archways with Hebrew inscriptions (one arch for men and one for women) that led to the whitewashed tsyun. Paul entered the men's section, looked around, shot a few photos, shrugged, and exited. "Don't ask. Nothing happened," he said pointedly."Nothing."
But for me, things would be very different and unexpected. As soon as I entered the women's side of the tsyun, my body started to shake and I began to sob. I looked around, self-conscious. A few women sat on benches and others stood facing the walls or the tomb itself, praying. No one was paying any attention to me as I wept, drenching the front of my pale blue shirt. I walked no, I wove to the tomb, placed my head on the cool, white exterior, and prayed and cried for healing for my thinning bones. And I felt as though-- how can I describe this? I felt as though my words were heard. When I came out into the stark afternoon sun, Paul was waiting for me. I had been gone about twenty minutes. I told him what had happened, and he listened. He was surprised, but couldn't really connect to it. For hours afterwards, tears welled up in my eyes. I knew that something had happened to me at the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai, but I didn't know what it was.
(later on….at a festival at the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai on the holiday of Lag B’Omer)
As the sun disappeared in the west, a great bonfire was prepared near the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai. "When Rabbi Shimon revealed the Torah on his deathbed, there was a blazing light around him, and everyone saw it," explained a woman standing next to me. "To this day, he is associated with light, and fires are lit in his honor."
It was very difficult to see what was going on because of the thousands of people gathered near the sepulcher. Paul held his camera over his head, clicking away. A rabbi poured olive oil and the bonfire blazed, marking the formal beginning of the festivities. Immediately, there was an eruption of ecstasy. Men in black began to dance and sing. Everyone clapped and stomped and hooted with glee. Men wrapped their prayer shawls and fringed undergarments around each other. They danced, they bonded, they were transported with merriment. Women danced in a circle. Everyone shared food, drinks, blessings.
By tradition, men bring their young sons to get their first haircuts on this night, so the actual tomb was mobbed. I was curious about what the faithful did inside the sepulcher, but women were not allowed entry. Paul decided to squeeze his way in so that he could get some photos. It took him about five minutes to work his way through the crowd, and I expected him to return in a minute or two, which is generally the limit of his tolerance for religious exposure. Half an hour passed, and suddenly I saw Paul. His face was flushed.
"What happened?" I asked, afraid he'd had a negative experience.
"I got pulled into the dancing," he answered. "I was going to drop out, but I figured maybe I should just go with the experience. I had no idea what I was doing. I just followed what the others did. I put my hands around the shoulders of the men next to me, and I kicked up my heels. There were dozens and dozens of men in the dance."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"Yes. Was it fun?"
Paul grew very quiet. "It took me by surprise," he said. "It wasn't really about fun. I found it oddly bonding and moving. It was meaningful."
I looked around me. This was not the cerebral, institutionalized Judaism I had found so empty. It was an outpouring of joyful, crazy, irrational ecstasy. Whether I agreed with their brand of Orthodox Judaism or not, it was undeniable that these men in black and their families were moved and transported and had faith.
Faith. Yes. That was the key to it all. It was faith that made women looking for their soul mates leave behind scarves and underpants at the tomb of Rabbi Uziel. It was faith that I felt when I entered the sepulchral building that housed Shimon bar Yochai. Faith that I could be healed.
Over the years, millions of people had entered that same room, praying for favors and for healing; they had left behind a palpable energy that had emanated from their prayers and tears. It was faith that brought the Yemenite women to the tomb of Baba Sali, faith that he and everyone associated with him would help them to find well- being. And it was faith in the streets of Meron on Lag B'Omer. The belief that young couples could become fertile, that the spirit of Rabbi Shimon was hovering around, that humans could be blessed with prosperity and community and wholeness. That through the year-round study of torah and mysticism, they could find union with humankind and with God.
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