So, I ran away with my husband to Tsfat for Shabbat, that city of refuge, where the Arizal, Rav Yosef Caro, Rav Moshe Cordovero, and a few other massive tzaddikim are buried in the ancient graveyard, that dates back to first temple times.
One of my kids wanted the house to herself, to throw an 18th birthday party for her bestie, and the other one had a Shabbat away with her school, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to ‘get away from it all’, for a weekend, and try to regain some equilibrium.
Just one problem: the hotel couldn’t find our booking.
And we got there 10 scant minutes before Shabbat began.
And the hotel was completely, utterly, totally booked up.
I looked at my husband, he looked at me, and for a minute there, I thought I’d be spending Shabbat in the car, just eating the nosh we’d brought with for the meals.
The nice manager type immediately got on the phone, and called another hotel which had lots of room – of course it did! It was so skanky!
But it was a bed. It had a toilet. So we ignored the pink fixtures dating from the 1970s. We made peace with the fact that the entire bathroom was overlooked by a neighboring building and had no curtains. And we were grateful that God put it into our heads to bring a duvet with, as the one thin blanket on the beds was no match for a cold winter night in Tsfat.
A bed is a bed is a bed. Even if it’s right next to a wall that’s as cold as a block of ice, and abuts a built in wardrobe so snugly, you can’t really wiggle your toes.
And a toilet is a toilet is a toilet. Even if it’s salmon pink, older than your children and overlooked by neighbors.
And the nice manager type told us we could come back to his hotel for the meals, so we also had food aplenty to eat, Baruch Hashem.
My husband headed off to the Carlebach-style shul in the Old City, while I headed down to the graveyard, to do some tikkun haklalis. The sun was lowering over the hills that face the Old City of Tsfat, and the fields where the Ari and his disciples used to go out on a Friday night, to greet the Sabbath Queen.
As I looked out over those massive mountains – Meron, Shammai, Hillel, and Nof HaYamim – all I could in the distance was the streaks of red, purple and bluey-grey that announced the sun’s departure. Some of the clouds were piled up in weird shapes that suggested more mountains, and a whole other vista, a whole other world, just there over the hills.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the view. I just stood there for 15 minutes, drinking it all in and somehow feeling as though I’d arrived at the edge of the world, and something much better was just there, over the distant peaks, waiting to unfold.
I cried a bit – I don’t even really know why – and then I started to feel a little better, and a little more hopeful, than I’ve been feeling of late.
I tramped back up the four million stairs leading into the Old City, and went to stand outside the shul my husband was davening in. That shul has a reputation for achdut, or unity. You get just about every type squeezed into its four walls, and they were singing their hearts out when I got there.
The women’s section was full to busting – people were crammed in at the top of the stairs, trying to get a peak at the action – so I decided to wait downstairs on the street, and watch the stars appear over Tsfat.
After 10 minutes or so, an older lady who was also standing outside came over and asked me if I spoke English. I told her I did – and long story short, while my husband was welcoming the Shabbos with 400 Jews and a lot of dvekut with Hashem, I got stuck talking to a staunch Baptist from Oregon, who started telling me about ‘the rapture’ and ‘the tribulation’.
Thankfully, the rest of Shabbat picked up significantly.
The hotel we were eating in had tons of youth groups. The guy who started up Shabbat.com was there, and he was talking about the need for achdut, and Jewish unity. Then there was another group there of English-speaking yeshiva high school boys from Bet Shemesh, and from the way their Rebbes were talking at the meals, I could see that it was a school that was trying very hard to put the ‘inner dimension’ of the student first.
And then, there was the group of black-hatters from America, who also seemed to be on some sort of yeshiva group tour of the holy land.
Long story short, there were a lot of different people together in that hotel – and all speaking English! The only Hebrew I heard spoken was by the Arab waiters.
Later in the afternoon, we took a free tour of the Livnot building in the Old City, which you can learn more about HERE.
Livnot basically organizes for volunteers to come and dig, hike and learn in Israel, and has been going for over 40 years. 20 years ago, they wanted to expand their operations and extend the building they bought in the middle of the Old City of Tsfat.
When they started renovating, one of the workers found an underground passage. After 20 years of digging, and 35,000 volunteers, Livnot uncovered a huge, 16 room community centre in their basement, that dates back to the times of the Ari, in the 16th century.
While they still have another 200 metres to uncover, they’ve fixed up around 6 of the rooms and give free tours around it on Shabbat. As well as a bunch of small, underground houses and water cisterns, we also saw the communal mikva, the communal kitchen (which contains a huge stone oven, that Livnot has got working again, and where you can come and bake challot), and a few other rooms besides.
All Shabbat, I was asking God for some direction, some spiritual inspiration.
It seems so hard to keep going at the moment, for a number of reasons.
When I heard the story of how Livnot found the Ari’s community centre – one of only three buildings from that time that remained standing, after the horrendous earthquake that struck Tsfat in 1837 – it gave me a lot of hope.
Sometimes, it can seem that the light is so covered over, so hidden under layers of dirt and decay. But I felt like God was saying all shabbat: “Keep digging! Keep going! Sooner or later, you will hit the paydirt!”
It may take 20 years of hard work, but eventually it will pay off.
Ken yiyeh ratzon.
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