The 8th Staff Israel Seminar is about to take flight. We will gather together on October 21st in Tel Aviv. Some of us have been to Israel already, and for some of us it is a first. It is a complex region, layered in symbolism, culture and geological strata. It is a place that has captured the hearts and imaginations of humanity since the beginning of recorded history. Over the millennia many tribes have lived there, many people have visited and a million tales have been told there. Our visit will be one of countless pilgrimages that have crisscrossed the globe to walk on that unique land, see her sights and hear her stories, and speak in her tongue.
Alas, try as I might, I’m no Hebrew scholar. Though I’ve studied the language for years I still can’t speak it with any grace and I’m a halting reader, unless I am reading text that I have poured over and over. Part of this is because I am totally in love with the watery, slippery and kaleidoscopic nature of the language, and I can guess that subconsciously I want to keep my relationship to lashon kodesh, the Holy Tongue, mired in a bit of mystery and excitement. When I study Hebrew I’m like a little kid splashing in the surf. One word keeps me busy and engaged—literally for hours. I love taking the words apart and putting them back together, rendering meaning from each letter before exploring the myriad meanings that emerge when they are permutated.
One of my favorite Hebrew words is adamah, which on a literal level means earth—earth that clings to your toes when you walk through a field; earth out of which bushes, vines and trees grow; earth that receives our bodies when we are done here. I love this word because it demonstrates the most glittering linguistic qualities of Hebrew. The first letter, aleph, is in fact the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. While it is commonly taught that Hebrew has two silent consonants, aleph and ayin, in fact the letter ayin actually represents a guttural sound that just goes unsounded by the majority of modern Hebrew speakers. Aleph, on the other hand, represents no known sound. Mystics say that the sound of Aleph is the sound of all the other letters uttered simultaneously; some say it is the sound that was made when the universe was born, and some say it is the sound of no sound. Because it is unutterable, it is considered a stand-in for the unutterable name of God, the Creator, the Source. So, right out of the starting block, adamah is an impressive word. If we break the word into syllables we get ah-dah-mah: dah is knowing, mah is what.
So a punster might hear ah-da-mah as “God knows what!” Another punster might hear eed-amah, which indicates a vaporous stew. Yet another way of parsing it out is that Adam (a person) comes out of adamah—the primodial human comes out of the earth. Dam is blood—and dam, blood, comes out of Adam, a human, who comes out of adamah, the earth, which itself is God knows what kind of vaporous stew! This kind of mystical word play and etymological treasure hunt is what I love about Hebrew. Conjugating verbs? Uh, not so much…
Israel is often referred to as eretz, land. In some circles, upon learning that a friend was about to travel to Israel, one might say something like, “Ah, you’re going to Eretz next week? So, eat a falafel for me, eh?”
The first scriptural mention of eretz is found in the opening salvo of the Torah: Breishit bara Elohim, et hashamayim v’et ha-aretz…v’ha-aretz hayta tohu v’vohu "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and the earth was chaotic and desolate." Which is kind of troubling. Yet, it could also be an invitation to find deeper meaning. Eh-retz. Let’s play with vowels this time and make it Or-ratzah instead. Or: light; ratzah: to desire. Light of desire.
So, back to Israel. I’ve thought about the word eretz as a nickname for the modern state of Israel, and I think it is strangely fitting. Israel is still struggling to find peace, equilibrium and identity. All those layers of history, all those converging cultures, all those cuisines—it is also still in its first century of existence as a modern nation state—and not surprisingly it is tohu v’vohu, truly chaotic. And yet the opening verses of the Torah could also be understood to mean that it is inevitable something tangible will emerge out of erratically swirling energies. Perhaps in time, the multiple claims and backstories, the myriad visions and dreams, will result in something settled and true, a land that at last emits the light we all desire—peace. And though the work is far from being finished, may it be that this little delegation of JCCSF staff is able to find a land that is quiet and still and beautiful, even in the midst of a country that is still tohu v’vohu.