The last morning in Jerusalem – I awaken early. I’ve been doing that a lot in Jerusalem. The light is brighter here, and it floods the apartment. I leave the shades open at night so it will draw me into the day.
I lie in bed contemplating a run. I’ve been doing that a lot in Jerusalem. Some mornings I lace up my shoes and head out into the street. Other mornings I lie in bed and let my mind do the running. This morning I throw on the shoes and down the steps.
My route takes me down a familiar avenue to an intersection where the old Jerusalem rail line once descended from Jerusalem. The municipality has filled the old tracks to make a boardwalk and lined the area as a long public park. It is often filled with runners, walkers, bikers, strollers. There are young fit Jewish men and middle-aged Arab women trying to stay fit. I turn left to take a long climb to the old train station.
For twenty-nine years I have come to Jerusalem to learn. I came for university, for rabbinical school, for seminars, with my congregation, and for the past three years, for intensive study at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The Prophet Isaiah said: Ki Mitzion Tetzei Torah – Torah will go forth from Zion. He was right. It does.
I live on a street called Malal – it’s the acronym for Moshe Leib Lilienblum. He was born in Kovno in 1843. He became enamored with the writings of Jewish enlightenment thinkers and began rejecting his traditional orthodox upbringing and education. He was one of the early organizers of the first Zionist movements, and though he worked most of his life to lay the foundations for building a Jewish state, he lived his life in Odessa where he died in 1910.
Like him I have spent my life wrestling with how to blend the wisdom of our tradition with the insights of modern understanding. I struggle with how to fit that blend into my membership in the Jewish people. Like him I love the Jewish state and work as hard as I can to help build the Jewish homeland. Like him my heart is here but my home is far away.
Running uphill in Jerusalem requires some concentration. As I run I go deeper into myself: I think, I meditate, I write, I learn.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the Jewish people started to run. We ran from persecution and pogrom. We ran from the shtetl into the city. We ran from Europe to North America and to Palestine. We ran to Jerusalem. It was an uphill climb. We were forced to adapt to new ways and places to live. We had to build homes where we were often unwelcome and unwanted. But as we ran, we thought, we meditated, we wrote, we learned.
At the top of the rise I reach the old Jerusalem train station. It has been renovated and is now a cool public plaza with restaurants, carnival games, shops, and a public theater where there are nightly performances. Many nights there is Israeli dancing. Often on Friday nights there is a public Shabbat Evening service. Last night was an Israeli Beatles cover band – you can only imagine. Like so much in this city – it is old and new.
Theodor Herzl imagined this place in a novel he called Altneuland – Old/New Land. My days in Jerusalem are like that. I start and end my days in the modern city of Jerusalem. The texts I study bring me back to walk the streets with King David, with the priests and zealots who fought with Rome and each other, with sages and mystics and modern Zionists. I am in dialogue with them all. They are all my teachers. I walk and run in their footsteps.
I reach what was the end of the line and turn to head back. Each step brings me closer to home. It’s downhill from here. I think about what I’ve learned these last three weeks. I’ve struggled with how text and tradition guide my individual journey in life, how I can be a better husband and father, brother, and son, what God requires of me as a Jew and as a human being. I’ve struggled with Jerusalem herself, where I feel at home and yet am often told I am not really welcome. Twenty-four days of wrestling knead me like dough – I am softer and am ready to rise.
I return to my apartment – I live on the fourth floor. Each rise has 18 steps – there are no accidents in Torah or Jerusalem. I ascend. I am tired, but energized. In the apartment my bags are almost packed. My last morning in Jerusalem … I am almost home.