Saturday, April 11, 2015

Meeting Shimon Bar Yochai

Whenever a long chag comes up, I try to set out a goal for myself, something theme-related so I feel  a sense of accomplishment at the end of the holiday. Last Sukkot, for example, the theme was writing, and I succeeded in catching up on some much-needed journaling throughout the week. Another time, it was reading, and I set aside 2 books that I wanted to get through.

This Pesach, the theme I chose was nature. I wanted to spend as much time outside as possible and enjoy the fresh air. Considering that much of my time is spent in an office and the cold, wet winter just ended, I was desperate to get outdoors. However, I also wanted a challenge. Something adventurous that I could handle physically. So I asked a close friend if I could join her in a camping trip – a first time adventure for me.

And so over Chol HaMoed, we found ourselves in Meiron, a beautiful village in the mountains of the upper Galilee. Meiron is best known for the kever (tomb) of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi or “Rebbe Shimon” as his followers call him), a tanna or ancient rabbinical sage who is quoted often in the Talmud. Legend has it that he is the author of the Zohar; the father of Kabbalah, if you will. The town itself overlooks the mystical city of Tzefat. And so if Meiron is home to the father of Kabbalah, then Tzfat is Meiron’s daughter city.

Meiron is blessed with exquisite natural beauty: rolling mountains, panoramic views of the snow-capped Hermon, the Kinneret and Tzfat. Just gorgeous. It’s also super weird.

When we got off the bus, we marched up a very steep hill to the campsite. There was a massive traffic jam of cars trying to get to the tomb with incessant honking horns that disturbed the potential serenity of the place. But, our march on foot had us moving a lot faster than the cars so I wasn’t complaining.
As soon as we got to the mountaintop, I took in some deep breaths of that crisp mountain air. I suddenly heard the sound of people screaming at the top of their lungs: “ABBBBBBBAAAAAAAAAAA!” (Father!)

“Holy crap, what the f*%^k is that?,” I so eloquently asked my friend. I thought someone was being beaten up in the forest or something.

My friend responded nonchalantly: "Oh, they’re doing hitbodedut.  You should totally try it, it’s really therapeutic to just let it out… ABBBBAAAA!!" She threw her head back, arching backwards as she yelled out. 

She screamed to daddy in heaven until her breath ran out, and then gracefully spread the tent on the ground as if a foreign spirit had momentarily overtaken her body. None of the people around us seemed to notice. Screaming out Turret's style to Papa in Heaven is normal around these parts. Hmmm.... Jerusalem is starting to look normal.

Now, I fully respect anyone’s desire to pray. I believe that prayer and meditation can be powerful tools for gaining clarity, feeling connected to God, cleansing your soul, and to seriously focus.

But what is up with the Daddy thing? Jewish tradition does indeed refer to God as “Father in Heaven”, but “Abba?” That seems so…infantile…simplistic…CREEPY.

While this screaming on the mountaintop was going on, there was a techno party going on until midnight at the rabbi’s tomb. I mean a van with huge speakers blasting club music like a pahhh-ty. Isn’t this tomb a sacred place for deep connection and meditation? Aren’t there people crying their hearts out asking for fertility and parnassa and forgiveness, and the like? 

What is up with the na-na-nachman techno bass blaring from a van down by the mikve?! The lyrics, I realized, actually included “Abba” over and over again, but it was 11:45pm and they were going strong!  Across from the na-na-nachman techno club was a table selling all sorts of goods like candles with images of Shimon Bar Yochai & the Baba Sali on them. (This essential Judaica can be yours for only 50nis!)

Now, there is a part of me that connects to the concept of hitbodedut  - going out on your own in nature (usually a forest) to meditate and talk one-on-one with God. It’s an opportunity to put our prescribed tefillot away, and talk mano y mano with the One Above about your own personal stuff. To beg for forgiveness, finances, love, whatever it is that’s on your mind and heart.

But where did this screaming “Daddy Help Me” at the top of your lungs business start? And can Freund please help me out here because this manner of addressing God perturbs me greatly.

The crowds of people – those who were stuck in the traffic jam – finally made their way towards the kever.  They purchased their rosaries, magical-charms, holy Tzaddik water inspiring segulot from the segula refreshment stand, and then made their pilgrimage to Rashbi’s tomb to say tehillim and pray for whatever their hearts desired.

As a newly minted camper, I was just happy that Rashbi’s tomb caretakers installed public bathrooms with toilet paper and working sinks.  God knows what that Matza does to His Chosen people’s digestive systems after a few days of Passover.  So this new camper would personally like to thank “Abba” for toilet paper and for guiding the plumber to Rashbi’s tomb.

Despite my sarcasm, I do actually believe that gravesites of tsaddikim are holy and inspiring. They are also fascinating historical landmarks. So I did go into the kever to say some tehillim, paying special attention to the chapter about “raising my eyes to the mountains – where will my help come from?  My helps comes from God, the One Who makes the heaven and the earth…”

And considering the panoramic views of the most beautiful mountain tops that seem to touch the heavens, I felt an extra special push to recognize the holiness of this place, no matter how weird the people are, and to enjoy that fresh crisp air. Luckily at midnight, those hitbodedut pray-ers found their way home and I managed to sleep under the stars. 

Pesach camping adventure: one odd, holy success.