“You don’t know your Hebrew birthday?”
A wave of Jewish guilt washed over me, like that moment you remember it’s Passover halfway into your grilled cheese. Oy vey. I knew it was sometime during the month of Sivan, but the exact date? No chance.
The question lingered in the back of my mind, and of course, I couldn’t turn to my trusty iPhone on the Shabbat.
I was staying at the hostel “Ascent,” in Tzfat, for Shavuot. Ascent is anything but your ordinary hostel. It is a place of “relaxation, reflection, interaction, and spiritual exploration,” (according to it’s website) and I can certainly testify to that. It is technically run through Chabad, so its doors are open to anyone.
The last time I had been at Ascent was for the holiday of Sukkot. Upon reflection, it makes sense that my second visit was during Shavuot, because coming back to Tzfat felt like, as we say in Hebrew, sgirat ma’agal — coming full-circle. Sukkot and Shavuot are two of the three “Pilgrimage” holidays in Judaism; between them is Passover, which celebrates the exodus from Egypt. I feel like between Sukkot and Shavuot, I have experienced my own sort-of-exodus. This last Passover, I debated whether to go back to Ascent or go to Zorba, a big-time Hippie festival at an Ashram in Israel’s desert.
Although I knew—in a deep sense—that I wanted to return to Tzfat, I had heard great things about Zorba, and it fit with the free spirit vibe I was looking for during my week off from the army. And so I ventured (alone!) to this 5-day experience of peace, love, meditation, yoga, workshops, dancing all night, and sun. It was exactly what I had expected. I made friends, let myself be free and fluid during meditation/dance/contact workshops, and moved to music without a care in the world.
I left feeling more open and loving, but that lasted about 3 days; soon, life resumed its natural course. Ultimately, the “high” from Festival was fleeting, and when it ended, I felt it was all a dream.
By contrast, I know that my Tzfat experience has forever impacted me. There, I felt in tune with my truth, and was glad to have explored it through a Jewish lens as opposed to a generic/Hindu/Hin-Jew/Bu-Jew one. This explains why at Zorba, during the Friday night “spiritual” singing circle, I craved Karlebach melodies. I missed lighting the candles; I missed Challah bread; I missed Niggunim and the prayers my lips know by heart. And though I can reach a meditative state chanting Om Namo Shivaya, it doesn’t feel as right as when I meditate on the words of the Shema prayer.
I now understand that I needed Zorba to ultimately reinforce my understanding of who I am vs. who I’m not, and various other truths. One of these personal truths that I rediscovered is the concept of gvulot, boundaries.
Understandably, people tend correlate decreasing boundaries with increasing freedom. But in the past few years, I’ve found this to be (personally) false, as I’ve begun internalizing the notion of achieving freedom & elevation within boundaries. For instance, while keeping Shabbat means I am bound to certain laws and rules—such as not using my phone—I have begun to feel the freedom in being phoneless for 25 hours. The moment I finish my Friday phone calls and watch my iPhone screen fade to black, I am free to live Shabbat to its fullest, without the technology-induced anxiety of my generation. When I dress modestly to temple, I don’t feel restricted or repressed – rather, I feel free to focus on prayer rather than my outfit or other’s glances. But the highest reason of all is beyond practicality. It is the fact that these rules are mitzvoth—commandments—that don’t always demand a rational explanation.
So what happens to man without these healthy boundaries? I argue that he is left trying to make sense of chaos. On the other hand, too many boundaries make a person cold, closed, and unapproachable. So understandably, the ideal is balance. Kabbalah outlines this principle in the Sefirot, the divine attribues that created the world.Accoridng to Kabbalah, the balancing trait of Chesed (loving kindness, openness) is Gevurah(strength/boundaries/restraint). When Chesed and Gevurah are balanced, the outcome is tiferet, or harmony.
I felt this harmony in Tzfat. At Ascent, I danced freely, openly, but I wasn’t carefree—I cared a lot, because I wasn’t just dancing for me. I was rejoicing in the glory of the holiday. I held hands with “strangers” in a circle of women, singing Jewish songs in a pure outpouring of gratitude. Unlike at Zorba (where everything was co-ed), at Ascent, I prayed and danced ecstatically with just women. I now know I prefer it that way, both for focus and for a sense of security.
Focus. Security. Harmony. These words nicely portray the themes I associate with the myriad of meaningful experiences in Tzfat…
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I turn the page of holy text delicately. It’s 4 am, and the whole building is awake, vibrating on a high frequency. I am in a study room with Chani, the program director, and a few other women. We sip our coffee and take turns reading and analyzing the text. We begin by discussing the importance of the Jewish months, as they pertain to the holiday of Shavuot: Nissan – divine emanation; Iyar – dualism; Sivan – holy unity. Sivan is considered a “holy unity” because it is the month in which the Israelites received the Torah (Shavuot). As I begin to better understand the holiday’s context and deeper meaning, I wonder where my story fits into this ancient story.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
On Friday night after services, Hanna (an Ascent friend) and I end up on an unintended adventure on our way to Shabbat dinner. What I expected to be a 15-minute stroll to the Goldberg’s home turns into an hour-long quest. We trek through thick gardens and wind around dark pathways of residential Tzfat, desperately seeking our host family. To our misfortune, our map (which is more of a light sketch) doesn’t help. We knock on at least 5 house doors; meanwhile, I imagine the Goldberg’s soup getting colder and the residents of Tzfat getting frustrated by these two girls disturbing the Shabbat peace.
But to our pleasant surprise, nearly every family who’s door we knock on appear ready to take us wandering Jews in for dinner, despite the rather short notice.
We do eventually find the Goldbergs (without even going near a smart phone I might add!)
The rest of the evening entails hours of stories, eating, and singing. Sitting at this stranger’s house in an unfamiliar city, I am overcome with a sense of emotional and physical security. And without even noticing, it’s 2 in the morning and we are still at dinner. Hanna is asleep on the family’s couch, the other guests are nodding-off into their dessert plates, and the conversation on Kabbalastic meaning in numbers is now incomprehensible to me. Time to go “home.”
By 3 in the morning we arrive back at Ascent, plop on our beds, and exchange looks to each other that seem to say: what a night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
My feet slide on the cobblestones while I pass ancient synagogues filled with men and women in flowing white garments. It is that special hour right before sunrise—a bit chilly, a bit dark, yet hopeful.
I notice that all around me, the monochromatic Jerusalem stone is punctuated by turquoise blue accents – a blue that can be found on every windowpane, door, and store sign.
Out of the synagogues, I hear familiar melodies; prayers of gratitude and awe vibrate through the narrow streets, echoing the joy of generations past and those to come.
When I finish praying, I slip out of synagogue and begin to wander the streets. I climb a staircase that leads to a rooftop, and from there, watch the sun rise. In this mountain city, I can breathe. I am at ease.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Shabbat morning I awake remembering something a friend said a few nights before:
Friend: Oh, you don’t know your Hebrew Birthday? Do you have an Israeli identity card? In that case, you can find it there, on your tehudat – zehut.
Me: NO WAY. All this time and I didn’t know...
Before even brushing my teeth, I reach for my Israeli I.D card and find my Hebrew birthday: כ"ח בסיוון. Numerically, it’s number 28 of the month of Sivan.
I think, how interesting, these letters spell out “Koach” which means strength in Hebrew. I am suddenly glad to know this birthday, because it’s not just a number. The numbers are correlated to letters, which spell out words, and therefore hold a greater meaning.
Only later that evening, after about an hour of sitting around the table singing niggunim(melodies), does everything come together. The realization dawns upon me when an Ascent Rabbi asks someone to share some wisdom they learned over the course of the weekend. Usually, I’m not the first to share share such speeches. Perhaps I’ll think of something interesting, but my stage-fright usually triumphs.
But this time feels different. My hand raises almost without me controlling it, and I begin to connect the dots. I remember that the house number of my host family for dinner was the number 28, my room number at Ascent is 28, and my newly discovered Hebrew birthday is 28.
And so I share a little something with the group:
" Recently, in my prayers, I've been asking for strength - the strength to make the right decisions, the strength to know my limitations, and the strength to stay motivated, even when forces seem to be acting against me. This holiday at Ascent, I experienced the recurrence of the number 28, Koach, or strength. I am certain that this is a positive sign - that my choice to return to ascent was the right one, and that this visit would give me a strength I need to continue on the right path. May you all continue on your own paths, and along the way, find strength in unexpected places."