Lessons I Learned From a Visit to the Holy Land

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A recent trip to Israel left deep impressions on me about genuine happiness and peace and about the walls we build — our self-imposed barriers to cooperation.

I recently returned from a lengthy and truly thought-provoking trip to Israel. Many refer to this swath of desert and near desert as the Holy Land, because of it’s historical importance to the three major Abrahamic religions. Once you fully take in and savor both the landscape and some of its critical history, it’s easy to see why. But a deeper look into both the land and the various cultures that have inhabited it or sought to dominate it reveals a much more complex nature of seemingly endless political, social, and religious conflict. This fragile land and its people taught me many lessons — lessons I know I’ll be pondering deeply and often. But there are two in particular that made very deep impressions on me, and these are the lessons I’d like to share.

The region known as “the Galilee” has a very special charm. And the landscape itself seems to proclaim some important messages about life. It’s not just that there’s a substantial freshwater lake nestled in the midst of the rolling desert hills and mountain peaks. (The body of water currently called Lake Tiberius is not really a “sea” or saltwater body at all.) It’s that the entire area is teaming with life — the lake alone contains over 27 species of fish, some of which are found nowhere else in the world — and the very existence of so much life in such an otherwise relatively harsh environment tells a story about its preciousness and fragility and its determination to exist against the odds. It’s easy to see how the famous itinerant rabbi from this territory found some inspiration for his mission there, despite the fact that his critics couldn’t imagine how anyone of any remarkable character could hail from the region. As I stood on the slopes of the “mount” upon which he delivered his famous “sermon”, the peace emanating from the landscape spoke to me and helped me understand the discourse at deeper levels than I ever had before. Our principal translations of the sermon had long had me thinking he was talking about a new world order and who would be the real winners (or “blessed”) and losers in this new order of things, based on their true righteousness. But amidst the atmosphere of the setting it was easier to realize he was talking about something much deeper — where genuine happiness and contentment of spirit lies. (In fact, the Latin from which we get the term “beatitude” translates as “happiness.”) It’s those who know how to comfort and do so often that are most likely to experience comfort in their own time of need; those who are tolerant, merciful and forgiving of others who are most likely to be accepted as they are and for who they are by others; and those who expect little and are humbly grateful to simply be alive and have what they have that know freedom from greed and despair and also know a level of contentment others crave. In the breeze, on the hillside, overlooking the water, taking in the wonder, it all made such profound sense.

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The “Holy City” told a story of its own, and a powerful one at that. Above and beyond all else, this city, at least the part long referred to as the “Old City” — perched atop a small mountain in a spot some regard as the both the intersection of heaven and earth and the very starting point for the miracle of creation — is a city of walls. And those walls are a perfect metaphor for the walls of division which various groups of its inhabitants have constructed over the centuries. Nature tries to teach us a lesson about all the walls we build, but we never seem to listen. While holy city’s walls were built to protect and defend, time after time they came tumbling down. Yet generation after generation continued to build them, just as generation after generation of the people living behind the walls have persisted in constructing their particular edifices of political, social, and religious division. As I gazed at the city, and roamed through its various sectors, the message came through loud and clear: the walls we build can never really ensure our safety or survival. And they inevitably tumble. Our only real safety is in our recognition of our mutual vulnerability and our commitment to overcome our self-imposed barriers to cooperation. Nature has been trying to teach us this lesson for a long time. The only question is when we will finally — if ever — heed it.

Perhaps the deepest impressions made on me during my trip came via my encounters with unassuming folks from all walks of life who appear to “get it” with respect to what will have to change to bring peace to this long troubled land. One retired social worker I met leads nightly discussion groups on the shores of the Mediterranean. My wife and I participated one night, and we’ll never forget the experience we had or those precious souls we met from six different countries. A religious leader I met routinely invites folks from all belief systems into impromptu dialogues in the shop he owns. Despite the injustices that continue to exist, silent advocates for peace were everywhere, and we encountered several. Such folks are beginning to speak up more. They know injustices exist and that there’s no real security in the absence of those injustices being rectified. I left their company with a resolve to play a part somehow, some way, myself. And I left the “Holy Land” knowing in my heart that the man on that hillside in Galilee had it exactly right: among the most joyful of heart and, therefore, the truly “blessed” on earth are the peacemakers.

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