The Mystical Powers of Tzfat
Sorry for the delay, everyone — it was hard to be on the road and blogging at the same time when wifi wasn’t consistent. But I return to you talking about the mystical powers of Tzfat and beginning to come into my own on my first Shabbat in Israel.
I laid on my bed on Friday night in Tzfat as my roommate Juliana explained to me the mystery of the universe’s little pockets where mystical powers seemed to reign over the people who visited. There was something different in the air that allowed people to let go in these places, she said, such as Sedona in Arizona and Machu Picchu in Peru. And this town, also known as Safed, was another one of these places.
For years, I had wanted to come here to Tzfat. Jewish legend has it that this is the home of Kabbalah, and in fact most of the Friday night service for the Sabbath was written in this very place hundreds of years ago. The thought captured my imagination when I was told stories about the mystics running out into the fields to dance and greet the Sabbath in joyous celebration. It was then I knew I had to come.
As Lauren and Avi drove me up the windy road through the forests, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was wearing a below-the-knee skirt and my arms were covered; Lauren had warned me before I arrived that this was an incredibly conservative place, even more so than the Old City in Jerusalem. My shoes were covered in dried terra cotta mud from walking through the Ba’al Shem Tov Forest just below the town, which overlooked it.
As Avi and I were walking through the forest he pointed out Tzfat to me through the trees. I was expecting some shimmering city that was as glorious as my first view of Jerusalem was for me all those years ago. Although there was something impressive about seeing this small town suspended on a green hill, it was not as intense of a feeling. When I saw the yellow flag of the Rebbe (more about him and that flag later) flying as we drove up the mountain, I was also slightly hesitant. And it didn’t help that I blew out my right hamstring trying to lug my 60-pound pink suitcase up the narrow staircase of the hostel.
Walking out of my room after getting ready for Shabbat, I saw an observation point on my floor before I went down the stairs. As I walked out and overlooked the green valley with the cold wind whipping at my skirt, I wondered how I was going to have a mystical experience here in Tzfat. I had been running around Israel for the past week reconnecting with my friends. Here I was alone; Brad was supposed to meet me, but he missed the bus from Jerusalem that would bring him here.
I came to this place on a lark, feeling strange with my arms covered in modest dress. Even when I walked down the staircase to the lounge area to light candles with the other girls staying at the hostel, I was left wondering how I got here. I tried to blend in and feel everything that was coming in my general direction: Dance on the women’s side of the synagogue as we sang “Lecha Dodi,” which was composed in the very fields around us. Hug the girls who were entranced by my energy. Bundle up as they sent us towards the homes where we would be having our Friday night meals.
As the pulled hamstring in my right leg started screaming again, I pushed my way up the mountainside to the house where I would be spending my dinner. But as I walked into the house with my leg barely hanging on, there were 15 screaming kids running around, ranging from 11 to about 2. The girls had long dresses and the boys were in various states of fringes, all speeding past crying and yelling at each other in Hebrew about their various toys and books. And then there were all the adults, who could speak English but rather conducted themselves in Hebrew, a language I only knew about 20 words of, while they did nothing to tend to the rowdiness of the children.
I ran out of the apartment into the hallway and cradled my leg on the concrete, feeling the tears coming down my swollen cheeks. In this moment, I wanted desperately to be alone, as I was in excruciating pain and didn’t want to be a burden on my hosts. It was a technique that I learned from a young age. Let them see you happy; no one will take you seriously if you cry. I gave myself about five minutes to lose it before coming back inside and trying to make this Shabbat worthy.
As my hosts began to converse with everyone in their foreign tongue, I felt even more out of place. The kids were scurrying about, either their faces dissolving in tears or roaming around the adults’ feet in state of play. I was trapped next to the bookcase as the children figured that my legs were great things to bump into. With my leg incapacitated with nothing more than ice to heal it, this was painful, and it eventually got to a point where I left to lie on the couch and elevate my legs, the kids continuing to fly around and outnumber the adults.
As I stared at the multiple paintings and pictures of the Rebbe looking down on me, tears rolling down my cheeks, I began to wonder why I came here. Why was I trying to fit into this world? What benefit could I get from it? I’m secular to the bone, and although I believed in G-d and Judaism, I am also the girl who ate pepperoni pizza before she got on the plane to come to Israel.
But then I saw myself separate, away and hidden. What was I doing to myself by being so guarded, really? What was I showing when I was all strong, when in truth it was okay to occasionally be weak? Why couldn’t I let go of controlling things and just feel?
As the ice continued to melt, it was a meditation, a moment caught that I needed before I could open up. As we eventually made our way back down the mountain towards the hostel, there was a table waiting for the returnees from their Shabbat dinners, covered with burgundy red tablecloths and filled with wine and Israeli snacks. Across the table from me sat Eli, a Hasidic boy who I actually noticed as kind of cute earlier. The wine began flowing with the stories around the table, tales of searchers and seekers who were trying to find their way in this crazy world and ended up here by divine providence. There were songs and banging on the tables, and whenever my name would be mentioned, a chorus of a song — that went “Gino, gino, gino” — would burst out with the thuds on the table, something which would cue my laughter.
The energy dwindled as we went into the later hours, and things became slightly amiss as we got to two young girls whose great-grandfathers were very prominent in the Chabad movement and the Chabadnicks at the table tried to prove themselves worthy of their ancestors. My eyes were drooping as Eli mentioned Purim to them, and how there was a mishna (writing) about the descendents of Haman, the main villain in the story who tried to eliminate all the Jews. According to the story, even Haman’s descendents eventually became Jews.
“Ugh!” said one of the young girls. “I would hate to be descended from Haman, wouldn’t you?” The attitude in her voice, so like the girls I grew up with who were ignorant to reality, got to me. I swigged back some wine and decided to open my mouth.
“You don’t get it,” I said, startling the sleepy people at the table, myself included. “This mishna proves it doesn’t matter where you come from. You can be descended from David and still be wicked. It doesn’t matter who came before you, but who you grow to become in this world and what you choose to be. Those people chose to become something greater. That’s all there is to it.”
The girl seemed to bite her tongue in shame, with Eli’s eyes shining in curiosity at me as I quieted down. It caused the conversation to shift again, finishing the stories around the table as Juliana and I headed upstairs to continue in deep conversation about where we ended up. Somehow, as we talked into the night even more, my energy seemed to change. I was open to speak my mind, to be wise, to be bold, to be brave and scared and everything all at once. This place somehow was allowing me to open up. And only when you’re open can you go into the mystical energy of the world and find what you’re looking for.