It was not a necessary part of our busy itinerary. It was not even a noble errand. But the craving for a tasty lunch led our group to experience a moment never to be forgotten.
It was this past June, during our shul’s visit to Israel. We were in Gush Etzion, seeking to satisfy our hunger, when we suddenly noticed, Aharon Karov, one of Israel’s most courageous heroes.
Karov was a commander of a combat company in the IDF’s Paratrooper Brigade who was called up for service in the 2006 Gaza War on the morning after his wedding. Three days later he was critically wounded in a booby-trapped house, hit by more than 300 shards of shrapnel.
The initial prognosis was that Aharon would not live. He underwent six operations on his head and chest in the course of 12 hours as well as five facial reconstruction surgeries. He made a dramatic and miraculous recovery, regaining consciousness within days and leaving the intensive care unit shortly thereafter.
Today, Aharon and his wife, Tziviah, are the proud parents of a baby girl whom they call “the miracle of miracles.”
What would you do under those circumstances? Scream? Jump? Shy away? Actually, many in our group communicated with Aharon. We spoke with him, cried with him, laughed with him, celebrated with him. He showed us his wounds but all we saw was the beauty of his soul.
Some would describe the encounter as a spiritual one. But it seems to me it was more than that. It was, in our minds and in our souls, an encounter with God – a vivid God deep within the fabric of our being.
The ordinariness of it all was transfixing. We were everyday tourists, seeking appetizing dishes. Aharon was looking for a quiet spot, far from attention. But out of that emerged something beautiful. The unbreakable unity of our nation, the magical fusion of Jewish souls coming together as one, was palpable. God’s presence sometimes arrives unannounced, in places where we expect it least.
Perhaps that encounter best summarizes Congregation Beth Tefillah’s first-ever Israel trip. We traveled from north to south, east to west, in the footsteps of our ancestors. We sampled some of Israel’s finest wines and dined on fresh fish overlooking the Galilee.
We dipped into the ritual bath of the Arizal in the city of Safed, swam in King David’s Ein Gedi natural spring and floated on the salty waters of the Dead Sea. We rode on a camel’s back in the Judean Desert and witnessed soldiers riding on armored tanks in the Golan Heights.
We explored Israel’s most advanced innovations and studied with my mentor, the world-renowned scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. We sang during the Shabbat meals and services, danced at David Perlow’s wedding and brought fellowship and joy to IDF soldiers in Hebron. We prayed at the gravesites of the righteous and beseeched God at the Western Wall and in the underground tunnels along the ruins of our Jerusalem Temple.
Yet it was the people themselves, our brothers and sisters across the land, who shone the brightest light. For some reason they all looked familiar, as if we had known them for countless years. We could almost hear them whisper: “We think we know you. Can we be of any help?”
Their piercing eyes were unlocked, focused and determined to find a common bond. It is as if they were on a mission to complete the puzzle of the Nation of Israel by attempting to rebind all of its souls together, one piece at a time, one soul at a time.
“Jews move to different countries, adopt different accents, ways of life, ways of behavior,” Rabbi Steinsaltz once shared with me. “Nevertheless we somehow find ourselves at ease with each other, comfortable within our own family. We feel a certain amount of safety in being together and we find it easier to make connections. Do you know why? Because, in essence, our nation is really one big family.”
Our ordinary lunch with the extraordinary Aharon Karov was an exceptional family moment. Beneath the surface we experienced the unshakable interconnectedness of our souls. And it empowered us with a renewed sense of responsibility toward one another, for one another, with one another.