IN THE HOLY LAND
A brief account of a stranger in a very strange land.
Elhanan ben-Avraham 6-2013 Jerusalem
Thus says the Lord God: Indeed I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out as a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep and deliver them…I will bring them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, I will feed them on the mountains of Israel…
I live in the Mountains of Judah. After many years, and several wars, I find myself in this quiet village in a house overlooking a gentle horse ranch, surrounded by a lush and peace-filled garden of grape vines and roses, tall evergreens and fruitful citrus, fig, pomegranate, and even a fish pond with water lilies. The only sounds are the birds singing, my golden retriever barking at them, my wife stirring in the kitchen, and grandchildren trying to catch the goldfish.
The Mountains of Judah are covered with pine forest reminiscent of our previous home in the Colorado Rockies. But it was not always this way.
Millennia of generations came and passed with these hills lying barren and forsaken as the Roman Empire arose and fell after destroying Jerusalem, Europe evolved through the ages, and finally the New World was discovered and the young nation of America won their revolution and prospered. And these hills waited patiently, razed in cycles of war as multiple civilizations overran Jerusalem, leaving their fingerprints and artifacts to bake in the hot Mediterranean sun. The forests were cut down for siege ramps and crucifixions, left bereft and mourning, awaiting the impossible prophesied return of the Jews someday to their Biblical promised land to replant those forests.
The quiet here is real and illusory at the same time, maintained by the constant presence of the military guarding our borders, without which we would be consumed by those who hate. Expanding out from our borders pulses the perennial turmoil and unhappiness of the Islamic world that surrounds us on all sides, in overwhelming numbers. It is hardly five miles from my house that the turmoil begins, and doesn’t seem to end.
As I gaze upon the limestone walls of ancient Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70AD and re-built by the Ottomans in 1536, perspective is gained only by contrast, realizing that these new walls were erected almost two and a half centuries before the American Revolution. And in the shadows of these walls lie the remains of the older walls of King Herod from the time of Jesus, and under them the stones from the time of King Solomon, and of King David the Poet, and of Hezekiah and Isaiah and Jeremiah, and below them the remains of the Canaanites, all whose stony silence is given voice by their words written on the ancient goatskin scrolls.
The relative calm and prosperity of life here is tempered at any given moment by a pervasive angst, as tens of thousands of missiles are aimed at us from our neighbors, who seem to be perpetually angry. Though their anger is aimed mostly at Israel, it is by no means spared their own brethren in those unhappy Arab nations, judging by the cycle of brutal wars they regularly fight one with the other. There are several going on as I write this, which perhaps helps keep it quiet here in Israel.
But we here live with this reality, with stocked bomb shelters in our homes, gas masks, and most citizens required to serve in some branch of the Israel Defense Force. For two thousand years Jews were rarely given the right to bear arms and paid very dearly for it. Today, back in this land where their history began, the Jews sport a gallant army of braves to defend their homes and families, remembering that painful hiatus of two millennia.
What would bring such a soul as mine to this strange and controversial place, at such a time as this? What would bring one to choose to live in a tiny and besieged nation of conflict that is less of a place than a phenomenon, one that words cannot contain, and always fall short of the reality? But perhaps one word that could fit this phenomenon is “contrast.”
Contrast shows its face in the parade of daily life here. Shepherds tend their flocks on the spring green hills as army patrols pass in armored vehicles. Normal morning traffic flows toward the cities and jobs, sometimes slowed by a Merkava tank being transported north toward the Golan, or a quiet picnic might be comfortingly overflown by the roaring of F-15 fighter jets, and the verdancy of the Galilee and its sea contrasted to the barren Judean desert. In the Israeli shopping malls orthodox Jews with side curls sip iced coffee along with Arabs in their traditional kafiyas, next to young secular Israelis in modern dress and shorts. Young male and female soldiers with their weapons of war chat on the streets of Jerusalem, including black Ethiopian immigrants, as Russian orthodox Christians and devout Muslims shop in the open market at Machineh Yehuda, or on the main pedestrian mall of Ben-Yehuda Street where a hundred languages are spoken. It all flows on peaceably without making news.
It had never been my desire to live in Israel, or even visit here. It simply never crossed my mind. As a young artist I had taken a one-way trip from America to Paris where I would remain for five intense years. There I would throw off every restraint that I had been delivered, casting off every idea, to reach out and touch life and history through my own senses, with nothing of manmade foible to blur the input. I was convinced of a profound error in the development of human history, and was determined, at all cost, to find the core of being from which the calamities of our history began, where the error had begun. I would play history backward to its source, or bust.
In Paris I was asked, “Are you a Jew?” I replied, “What is a Jew?” Then she said, “Are your parents Jewish?” “Yes”, I replied. “Then you are also a Jew; would you like to visit Israel?” “Jamais, jamais”, I answered in French, which is never, never. So much for Never Never Land. But as a Jew I had known enough of religion and its grim histories to not fall into its entrapments. Especially Christianity was to me repulsive, speaking of love while committing centuries of the worst atrocities against my Jewish people in the name of that poor Jew. No thank you. No human argument would suffice to alter that opinion of this Jew.
My pilgrimage through time carried me progressively backward throughout Europe to Rome, and then to Greece, the cradle of western civilization. I would read Homer to understand what those folks thought as they walked into those ancient temples whose ruins I too entered. I would touch and smell and feel history directly, through my own unhindered consciousness. But in those five years in none of these places did I find the source, nor did I find the love that does not consume the lovers, leaving nothing but ashes, and leaving only the need to find fresh kindling.
Circumstances changed, and with a contract with an American publisher I moved down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I would remain for the next four years. Brazil is a combination of South America and Africa, the Portuguese having early brought black slaves to its shores, thus producing a strong African flavor to modern Brazil. As it would turn out, my pilgrimage had taken me back to the primitive, to touch life little affected by the European dainties of civilization.
In Rio I arrived at that crossroad age of thirty, and yet still bereft of answers to my questions. There seemed to be no answer or solution to the folly of human existence, its ongoing wars and perplexities, la condition humaine. I had painted and sculpted and written my way around the globe, and yet despaired of the raison d’etre. In those artistic experimentations I had even sought the source of creativity, and the source of my very thoughts and consciousness and dreams, but yet remained in utter quandary.
In 1977 all that changed abruptly and without warning. My friends and I had decided to experience the wild festival of Carnival in its primitive purity in the Brazilian city of Salvador, twelve hundred miles north of Rio. On that long bus ride I pondered the disturbing dream that had come to me the night before our departure. In that unusual dream I had experienced my own death, something, I am told, one should not experience. That dream took me to a state where only the dream existed, and there I walked in the cool evening air by a lovely quiet pond. The pond was covered by glass, with aquatic vegetation and water lilies growing under the glassy covering. There was one opening in the glass, through which I dove into the water. I swam under the water until my breath diminished, and turned to exit by way of that opening in the glass. But feeling my way under the glass I could not find that opening. In a panic, I realized I would now have no choice but to gasp in the water and drown.
But the dream continued into a second part, in which the first part was forgotten. I was again walking by the pond in the still evening, and decided to see if that glass would support my weight, which it did. I walked out onto the glass, as if walking on the water. Well out on the pond’s surface I looked down into the water lilies and leaves, spying something there white and shriveled among the foliage. There I gazed down onto my own dead face, pressed up lifeless against the glass. I awoke with a start, trembling and grasping the damp sheets, realizing that I was still alive. The troubling dream remained with me on that bus ride north to Salvador.
I was met there with a colorful rainbow spanning over the old city where slaves were first introduced from Africa four hundred years before, and sensed that something unusual was about to occur. The details of that which did occur remain etched in my memory forever, but would make this account longer than a reader might be willing to wade through. So I will encapsulate the event that would change my life for the foreseeable future, and beyond.
We entered a house where we would be staying for the next three days, and had the odd feeling that I had somehow been here before, and had met the people of the house previously. In fact, the more I studied the situation, the more it appeared as the people and place I had described in a novel I had written in Paris, which was entirely imaginary. Where do such imaginations arise from, I wondered. How could this be? But this was only the beginning.
It was not long after that we went out to the beach, and there I met a native Brazilian girl. She was wearing a necklace with a small seed embedded in a cube of transparent glass. “What is that?” I asked her. She smiled sweetly and said in Portuguese, “It is the mustard seed of which Jesus spoke.” How amazing, I thought, that the words of a Jew in Jerusalem two thousand years earlier had the power to carry though space and time to this lonely and far-off beach, to a primitive people, and inspire faith in a parable that lay so simply in that tiny seed.
The Bible had never been on my preferred reading list, but it is without doubt that the Book of Books had profound influence on the world I had grown up in, and most have heard portions of it here and there, in films and art and music. It is probably best that I had not read it, as what I was about to experience was not therefore influenced by my reading of that text. I did not know at the time that it was prophesied therein, “In the latter days I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…” (Joel 3).
My intentions for experiencing the Carnival had altered entirely. What followed instead was an encounter with that very Source I had been seeking with all my being. But like a lamp lit suddenly in a room long held in darkness, I was given to see the accumulated rubbish therein. I grieved at the sight, and all the damage it had caused both me and others, and how so much had passed down through the generations. But how could all that be undone, cleansed out of my soul?
I walked through the streets of Salvador that teemed with its pagan antics of the Carnival reveling in drugs and constant loud music and sensuality of every sort, of which I now wanted no part. As I walked aimlessly I experienced what the Prophet Ezekiel had himself described as stepping into waters to the knee, then to the loins, then the chest, increasing until it was over the head. The increasing intensity into unfamiliar realms bade me then to seek out that was familiar, something of comfort. I ducked into a music shop that was playing recorded upbeat music of the samba. Enjoying the familiar sounds, I looked at the art on various album covers until I came to one showing the pyramids of Egypt. At that moment the shop keeper changed the music, and a new song came onto the air: ‘Do you know where you’re going to, do you like the things that life is showing you, when you look behind you there’s no open door, what are you hoping for- do you know?’ There before me were the pyramids of Egypt that my fathers had left in the Exodus. And now I had finally come to my own exodus of some sort, which I would not turn away from.
In the Bible it is written that you will find God on that day when you seek Him with all your heart. I had sought the source of all things in my pilgrim’s journey of life, leaving behind what would have surely been an affluent lifestyle, in the pursuit of that source, whatever it would turn out to be. Now I had come to walk through that veil, whatever the cost.
Walking the streets of Salvador I passed an old church, and saw the carvings of Jesus carrying his cross. I studied with great interest the sculptures one by one as that Jew suffered under the cruel device of torture and death, mocked and humiliated and rejected by his own people, and murdered by the Romans. For the first time I saw into the reality behind the art, and strangely felt a personal identity with him, and a new sense of comprehending this man and his mission.
That night I sat in my little rented room, troubled in spirit. The weight in my soul was now nearly unbearable, and I knew that the accumulated effects of sin in my life like a cancer could lead to the reality of death itself. Like the words to a Dylan song ‘You could die down here and be just another accident statistic’. That reality seized me with great force, and I stood with raised hands and for the first time cried out directly to God from the depth of my being, with these words: “I want to live!”
At that instant a great power as if a liquid light poured down over me from above, and I lifted my hands. I felt the love of God and the power of Life itself pour over me as we embraced each other, like a wayward son returning to his welcoming father. Simultaneously, a cloudburst of rain poured over the little house, like tears of joy mixing with my own. I was then taken out of my body, like a swift blue light passing through the ceiling, and found myself traveling upward through the heavens at great and glorious speed, and then returned to the little room in what seemed to me an instant.
There was a wooden ladder in this small room extending from the floor to the ceiling. Then from the always flowing Carnival music outside came the words of the song Stairway to Heaven, and the room momentarily became before my eyes a small stall in Bethlehem, where I heard the words, I was born here.
That morning dawned in a way I never before experienced, or had ever heard anyone else describe. I now knew that God had called me to draw nearer to Him, and to follow His directives, which I knew I could trust implicitly. I was led to take a boat out to the Isle of Itaparica, just off the bay of Salvador. My worried friends knew that something was happening, but could neither comprehend nor perceive what. And I myself was well beyond words to explain.
On the island I walked to the beach, still bearing the heavy burden in my soul. It was like a festering wound in need of cleansing and healing. Here with the Baia do Todos os Santosspread before me, I was directed to carry that wound into the cleansing saltiness of the sea, into that Bay of All Saints. I would now comply, whatever was to be the outcome, even death itself, if need be. I began the swim into the bay, from the shallows into the deep water over my head.
The heavens opened before me, and it was as if the very elements of the sea prepared my path, leading me out just at the end of my strength, swimming to a cluster of three large rocks with the waves surging over them. Exhausted, I climbed up onto the center rock to which I had been led, and rested. That large rock contained a hole in its center into which the waves rolled and were sucked down, like a flushing toilet. This was the place and time of my deliverance. I thrust my legs into that hole and, as the waves rolled over the rock, felt something black and grainy depart from my body and suck down into the depths of the sea.
It was only later, when I had returned to Rio and sought a Bible which I would then read straight through in the following nine months, that I came upon the passage in the prophet Micah which prophesies these words, to which I burst into tears, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity, and passing over the transgression of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy, He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities, you will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will give truth to Jacob, and mercy to Abraham, which you have sworn to our fathers from days of old” (Micah ch. 7). And in my tears I then proclaimed out loud, “This is the word of God!”
I arose from the depths of that rock like one arising from the tomb in resurrection, light and unburdened, baptized by the hand of my Creator. In tears of gratitude and utter amazement I gazed out across the bay and all appeared suddenly bright and fresh, clear and newly created, like a newborn. I looked out over the city of Salvador, which means Savior. And in that moment I suddenly understood the Messiah, brutalized and shamed and rejected on that Roman cross, made to be, like this rock, as the toilet of the universe to take upon himself and dispose of our sins, our crimes against God and man. None had told me of this, but I now understood thoroughly. And I knew of a certainty that Yeshua had conquered death, and yet lives. And my feet were set firmly upon the unfailing Rock of Ages.
In the midst of my jubilance I looked out onto the new world, and a strange sight struck my soul. As if travelling back in time I saw the events of my life pass in an unbroken vision before me to the city of my birth, and then through the lives of my parents, and then grandparents fleeing Hungary, and before, through the generations of my seed all the way back to their source: Jerusalem. This had been a long and arduous journey through space and time, now culminating in my own young life here and now.
That night back in my room I sat in wonder, knowing my life had changed into something new that would lead me in an unforeseen direction. As I meditated on these things, the presence of God drew very near, and I felt a finger touch my chest, saying “Serve”. Understanding this, I answered, “Just give me an opportunity.” “I am a Jew, and you are a Jew,” said the Presence, indicating my return to Israel to tell my people of that what I had been shown.
Back in Rio the struggle began as more questions than answers filled my mind. How can this be? I thought. How can it be that Yeshua is alive, and yet so much sad history has passed in his name? I visited the local synagogue and showed the rabbi scriptures in the Bible that I thought I was the first to discover. I read to the rabbi the fifty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah, which describes the rejected messiah who is stricken for our sins, and the Prophet Zechariah describing the pierced one whom we Jews will look upon in Jerusalem, and the prophet Micah telling of his birth in Bethlehem. The rabbi could only say, “It has nothing to do with Jesus.” I looked at him and said, “Rabbi, you do greatly err.”
In bafflement, I proceeded to visit every church in Rio de Janeiro, which only added to my perplexity. Few could answer my many questions, and all disagreed with much of what the others held as sacred doctrines. How could this be resolved, and what error back in the past had given birth to such a discordant history of the churches? It had all begun with the Jews in the Land of Israel, in Jerusalem, and it would only be there that my questions might find an answer. Jesus had pronounced, “Salvation is of the Jews.”
I was loath to actually go to Israel, to its dangers and wars. But confirmation came regularly that this was to be my destiny. In March of 1979 I would take that one-way journey to the Holy Land entirely alone. But not alone.
I arrived in Israel at Purim with about three hundred dollars to my name, expecting to find a dry and hot desert of desolation. Instead I found a land revived from desolation, like myself. I took a bus up to Jerusalem and to the Old City, where I prayed and wept at the Western Wall, which bid me Welcome home. In that first week I hitched a ride north to the Galilee, and again wept at the beauty of the land, green with springtime and laced with fragrant wildflowers and flowing streams and verdant fields of cotton and citrus groves, the snowcapped Mount Hermon hovering almost ten thousand feet above the fertile Hula Valley. There, on a kibbutz in that same first week in the Holy Land, I met the woman who was to become my wife and bear my children. I had found the table that King David sang of, prepared by God in the presence of my enemies, and the same Shepherd who would lead us to green pastures and still waters (Psalm 23). I knew now that all things were possible. I had climbed the mount and finally found that bush that Moses had discovered, that burns but does not consume, which is the Tree of Life and the unending love of God.
We began our life as poor new immigrants living in an absorption center, where we studied the Hebrew language for five months. Soon after I was drafted into the Israeli army, where I learned war and served in annual reserve duty on the West Bank for the next fifteen years. My unit did patrols and guard duty at many of the ancient Biblical sites there, including the tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and Jacob’s well and Joseph’s tomb in Schem (Nablus). At such places I was given ample opportunities to discuss issues of the Bible and God with my fellow soldiers. In guarding the settlements and refugee towns there we were engaged in a good number of intense adventures, for which I remain thankful for the honor and the challenge.
We also experienced wars. It is not at all a pleasant experience, but one worth being witness to, in seeing the very hand of God in the midst of such trials. The Gulf War against Saddam Hussein of Iraq was one worthy of telling here.
As President Bush gathered his coalition against Saddam in 1991, we had the luxury here of preparing for the worst, which was stocking up food and preparing a sealed room against a gas attack. Everyone was given gas masks, including for our little children. When my brother suggested we come to California and stay with him, I said to him no, we’ll ride it out and trust God.
Saddam promised that if the coalition attacked Iraq, he would surely burn half of Israel. What that blackguard did not know was that we were already half burned with a long-running drought. Water was scarce, and the news declared it would take the impossibility of ten wet years to fill the depleted Sea of Galilee. But, in fact, that depletion revealed a two thousand year-old fishing boat at Ginnosar, the very place where Yeshua preached from a similar boat (Luke ch. 5).
Then came the war, and I called a friend early one morning to say, “They’re bombing Baghdad”. True to his word, Saddam’s scud missiles came flying our way and the awful howl of the air raid sirens shattered the tense silence. We grabbed the kids and dove into our shelter, and waited. When the all-clear finally sounded we came out to learn that six missiles had screamed into Israel and exploded in the coastal cities, shattering glass for six square blocks. We watched the TV intently as people climbed out of ruined buildings unscathed, or with an arm in a sling. This went on for six weeks and thirty-nine missiles striking Israel, each time with no deaths, but for a fluke where an older person could not figure out his gas mask and suffocated in it. Israel was forbidden from entering the conflict, and turned the other cheek as no nation before or since had done, but sat ready in the cockpits if needed. I wore my combat boots the first week of war, ready for the coded call-up. The war ended precisely in the Festival of Purim, where we celebrate the deliverance of Israel from those who had declared or destruction. Very befitting and more than a coincidence. Even some of the war-hardened Israelis declared it a miracle.
The drought continued. Then Saddam, again keeping his word, lit the oil wells of Kuwait upon withdrawing his defeated army from there. They burned for a year unextinguished, pouring tons of soot into the atmosphere, during which time the temperatures of the middle east dropped significantly. This led to the heaviest precipitation onto the land of Israel of the twentieth century. Lakes that hadn’t existed for a thousand years returned, the Sea of Galilee filled and overflowed in four months necessitating the sandbagging of Tiberias. The aquifers filled and the mountains were all heavily snowpacked. The Jordan River became a rushing torrent. Jerusalem had four major snowstorms which stopped everything but the building of snowmen by our kids. That spring the land became as green as Ireland, and we ate strawberries as big as your fist. Even the Dead Sea was surrounded by wildflowers. What Saddam had meant for evil, God had turned to good, a blessing for Israel. The boasting Saddam, like his forebear Nebuchadnezzar, was found humbled in a hole in a field with dreadlocks and a scraggly beard, and was hanged like Haman, who had also declared the destruction of the Jews, on his own gallows. It was well worth the risk and stress to have weathered this storm in order to be a faithful witness of such events of Biblical proportions in our times. Afterwards, my brother called and told me he had committed his life to God, asking me to immerse him in the Jordan River. “Then you’ll have to come over here”, I informed him.
During this time I met other Jews who had had a similar revelation, and we worked together to form the first Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem, dedicated to the Messiah, in two thousand years. A difficult and challenging task, this, clearing away two millennia of rubble, of pain and corruption, of errant doctrines that had led to inquisitions and crusades and pograms and expulsions of the Jews in his name. We had taken up the task of restoring the faith to its origins, along with the restoration of the ancient land and its Biblical cities. I have had many opportunities to discuss these things at length with my Jewish brethren, including the orthodox. But word got to the zealous orthodox Jews who stand much against this idea, and thus began my first taste of persecution.
I was fired from all my jobs, and posters were put up all over our neighborhood telling neighbors to not speak with us, saying “They love you because they want you to love Jesus!” How true. My life was threatened several times, then I was beaten and accused of assault, among other false accusations, and taken to court. This became rather overwhelming, and my thoughts went to leaving Israel when I heard clearly, “Stand and watch.”
I did, and a year passed before I stood in the courts of Jerusalem, asked to recount what had happened, and was telling this story of Yeshua before the judges of Israel, as was promised by the Messiah. Furthermore, I was given a plea bargain in which I received the punishment of sixty hours of public service. I accepted this as an opportunity to serve, and offered my talents as an artist to do a mural for the city of Jerusalem. It was not long after that I was painting a large mural of Noah coming forth from the ark with all the creatures, in a public library. When completed I was commissioned from this work to paint a larger mural in a gym of a community center, and from that to paint a mural of forty-five by eleven feet on the wall of the indoor pool of that center: the Garden of Eden. I thanked the Lord for His faithfulness, as I could have never worked out such a prosperous scenario as this on my own.
Certainly there is much more of interest to recount to you in detail, but perhaps that will come later, as it is simply too much for a short account such as this. I have attempted as well to relate this in all my work as an artist, poet, and writer. He has passed us through trials and delivered us from each, stronger. He has blessed the work of our hands and prospered our paths. The King of Israel is faithful to His promise to the children of Israel.
Israel is a phenomenon like no other, being at the same time ancient and modern, old and new. I myself am three years older than this re-born nation, which came into being in 1948. It is a gathering back of its ancient inhabitants to the land of their forefathers after two thousand years of dispersion throughout the planet. Though prophesied in the ancient texts of the Bible, it seemed unlikely of ever coming to pass, and Jerusalem would be doomed to lie forever in ruins as a memory of its former and destroyed glory. It would take a devastation unheard-of in human history to bring the reluctant Jewish people again back to these shores. That catastrophe was provided ironically by the Nazi Holocaust which attempted to erase the Jews from the world, but instead succeeded as the catalyst to resurrect the Jewish nation in their former ancient estate. I am a remnant of that Holocaust, part of whose family perished in Hungary, born into this world shortly after the atomic bomb was used to end the global conflagration of what is now called World War Two.
I now walk over the same ground that my fathers did nearly four thousand years ago. I walk among the ruins and remnants they left, uncovered in our days those structures built by their hands, and live in the words inscribed by the prophets of Israel. I have watched as half of the modern history of Israel has occurred here before my eyes, growing from a struggling third-world mess to a modern and prospering nation filled with blessings. And all this achieved in the face of incessant attack and slander and hatred and attempted wars of annihilation and vicious terrorism. Here our children were born and grew upright and brave, serving also in the Israel Defense Forces. I now sing with my children and grandchildren the grateful songs to the King of Israel composed by King David three thousand years back on the hills just outside my home. I even named my firstborn son after that warrior-poet, and our daughter after that fruitful and sweet tree the date palm, Tamar. And we sing those psalms in the only ancient tongue to have died and risen again after two millennia of silence, Hebrew, the tongue of the prophets, of Moses, and of Yeshua. I concord with the words of David Ben-Gurion, that secular first president of the State of Israel who once said, Anyone living in Israel today who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.
We are back.