Reflections from a Spiritual Safari to Israel

Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
Reflections from a Spiritual Safari to Israel
Psalm 67, John 5:1-9
Sunday May 22, 2022

For those who have not heard about the reason for my traveling to Israel last week, I want to take a moment to give you the background, which will help put my reflection in context. Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe, from Temple Beth El, which is also located in Chappaqua, emailed me a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in traveling with him and a group of clergy to Israel. All expenses would be paid by the Westchester Jewish Council and the Jewish Federation. They wanted to bring together clergy from different faith traditions to find ways for us to work together in both our local and wider community. There were 16 Christian and Jewish clergy and 3 religious leaders. An Imam and an Episcopal priest who were supposed to join us were not able to go at the last minute, due to covid. We spent 5 days together traveling to various holy sites in Israel, meeting with people who were working on finding ways for Arabs and Israelis to find common ground, finding our own common ground, getting to know each other and intentionally setting aside time to reflect on our journey together.

In looking back at the beginning of this Spiritual Safari to Israel, I realized that I spent the first day-and-a-half on eggshells. Why? Because I was worried that when one of the Christian Clergy talked about Jesus as the Messiah, my Jewish colleagues would object since they believe that the Messiah has not yet come. I was concerned that might lead to a conflict within our group and create long bus rides in silence. It is a core belief for both faiths, and it ended up being one area that we did not explore. My guess is that eventually, as this group moves forward together and we come to trust and find more and more common ground, it will be one of the areas of exploration and discussion, hopefully leading us to agree to disagree.

Additionally, when we sat down that first morning at the place near where Jesus might have preached the sermon on the mount, one of my Christian colleagues started reading Matthew chapter 5, the beatitudes. I was concerned about my Jewish colleagues having a hard time sitting there listening to it. I needn’t have worried. If you read my reflection from our first full day together, our leader, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, had done his homework. He was able to bring us together around salt and Jesus using salt as a metaphor. It had meaning for both groups.

If I am honest with myself, I realized that I was the most concerned that some of my Jewish colleagues might not welcome me because I had converted from Judaism to Christianity in my youth. My concerns were allayed as two opportunities presented themselves near the beginning of our trip for me to tell my story about my faith journey. All three rabbis I talked with were so kind to me and made it clear that they embraced me for all that I am. What a blessing that was. It enabled me to relax and fully participate.

Before we left for Israel, I wondered why Rabbi Jaffe had invited me to join him. He has several other Christian colleagues he could have asked. I never got around to asking him. However, as I worked on this reflection, I came to see that I didn’t need to know his answer, because I had gotten an answer when I re-read our Gospel lesson and Psalm for today. I want to share that with you.

In our Gospel reading today, this man whose name is not given, sits by the pool at Beth-zatha, (House of Mercy). He, and other people who are ill or have some disability that makes them unclean, and therefore, unwelcome in their community, are waiting for the angels to come and stir up the water. People believed that healing happened if you were the first person to make it into the water once it was stirring. This man, who had been afflicted for 38 years, could never get up and into the water in time to be healed.

With Jesus’s arrival, seeing that this man had faith that if he could only make it to the water that the angel of God stirred up, he would be healed, asks this man if he wants to be made well. Interesting that Jesus would ask him that question since he was at this pool trying to get into the water in order to be made well. Surely Jesus knew that. And yet, he still asks him if he wants to be made well. And the man, of course, says yes. Jesus tells him to get up, take his mat and go home. The man does as Jesus directs and finds that he is made well. He picks up his mat and heads home, made well, in part, because of his faith.

I, too, found myself made well because of my faith. I was made well by the blessing of these rabbi colleagues with whom I shared my story. I was healed by their kindness and their welcoming me into their hearts. I know that there are rabbis in our world who would not accept me because of my conversion, but each of these rabbis, with mercy in their hearts, heard the pain in my story, and without their knowing it, by their reactions and their kind words, helped to heal my heart. Over the years of telling my conversion story, I have found more and more healing when sharing it with a rabbi who listens and understands and accepts me for all that I am. This trip was no exception – with gratitude, I found a great deal of healing during my time in Israel.

The psalm that we heard Esther read today, begins with “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” That may sound familiar to you. It is the blessing that I use at the end of a funeral or memorial service, at the end of a wedding and sometimes at the end of our worship service. It is also a blessing that my Jewish colleagues use, since it is from the psalms. This is one of the parts of our Sacred Scriptures that we share in common, even though we use different translations and languages. I found the timing of this lectionary reading filled with grace since it connects with my trip to Israel as God’s face shone upon us as we traveled and explored Israel together.

It also reminded me of another healing with another rabbi, more than 25 years ago. It connects me to my graduation from my Clinical Pastoral Education experience when I was training to be a chaplain. My final supervisor for my training was an Orthodox rabbi. I made this request because I wanted to work on my Judaic roots and the need to forgive the rabbi of my youth. Rabbi K. was open to working with me, even though neither one of us knew how it was going to work out. But, together, we found places to connect. During our last supervisory session, he said to me that he thought I was seeking his blessing on my ministry, which I guess I was. He said that he could not directly do that, but to pay attention during our graduation ceremony.

At the end of that ceremony, Rabbi K. blessed us with this psalm. While he was blessing all of us, he was looking primarily at me. That was his way of being able to bless me without directly blessing only me. He had found a way that he could maintain his integrity as an Orthodox Rabbi – and it gave me a great gift of healing. As I realized during this trip, that healing continues and will always be needed as I continue to integrate my Judaic heritage more and more into my Christian faith and life.

The picture on the cover of our bulletin today is from the plaza outside of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. As I walked by this tree, it caught my eye. I could not help but notice it. It clearly stood out. It looked like it was dead. All around it, trees were thriving. However, when I looked closely, I could see little green buds starting to form on the branches. This tree was blooming more slowly than any of the trees around it. In that tree, I saw hope – that even though it looked like it was dead, it wasn’t. It was just taking longer to bloom.

To me, this tree represents all of us. We are still working on our faith, still seeking, still longing, still growing as we strive to understand and embrace God in all of God’s complexities. Jesus’s embrace of us as we are and for all that we are, allows each of us to bloom at our own pace. Jesus continues to walk with us no matter how quickly or slowly we grow in our faith.

As this interfaith group moves forward together, I pray that God will continue to shine upon us and bring not only to us, but also to our congregations, both Christian and Jewish, a renewed sense of being one community, of many faiths and many beliefs. I pray we can come together and support each other and continue to learn from each other. May God’s sweet, sweet, Spirit that I felt so strongly in Israel, fill not only this holy place, but all of the sanctuaries of our hearts. May it be so.

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