Every year we have a biannual essay contest that Passages’ alumni are invited to participate in. The winner for the Spring 2017 contest is Avery Smith. Read his article below.
by Avery Smith | University of Florida
In the Holy Land, there are mountains. This was my first thought as I glimpsed through the towering glass windows that lined the causeway that connected me to the larger concourse of Ben-Gurion International airport. As I made my way through the bureaucracy of escalators, passport checks and baggage carousels I could think of nothing but mountains. Moving from the sterile concourse to the warm Mediterranean breeze and back onto the crowded bus that would be my home for ten days, my eyes were fixed upon the horizon. I was in the holy land, and there were mountains.
While I had grown up in Florida, a state famously devoid of topological variety, I had seen mountains before. It was not a novelty that caused these mountains to demand my attention. Rather, I experienced the sublimity that occurs when you first experience something that for your whole life has existed only in the imagination. The images constructed in my head of a place so central to my faith was made vivid and real. There was no longer a need for fantasy. I was seeing with my own eyes the same mountains that kept watch over Abraham, David and Jesus thousands of years before. It was like standing with one foot in 2017, the other thousands of years past. These mountains introduced me to this feeling. The feeling that there was something special about what I saw. The feeling that there was something special about this place.
I had this experience many times during my trip to Israel. Every so often I would become aware of where I was and could feel that something was different about the ground under my feet. It was as if my soul was somehow in sync with the earth below me. This feeling only was amplified when I visited particularly unique sites: standing under the dome of the Holy Sepulcher, looking across Jerusalem from atop the Mount of Olives, watching the tide lap against my feet on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. It was if God had placed his hands on my shoulder and whispered to me, “Remove your sandals, this place is Holy.”
This feeling confused me at first. I had been taught as a child that the Holy Spirit was everywhere. There should be no reason that I would feel as if God was more present in one place than another. While I was in the land of the Holy of Holies, God’s presence had been released to the four corners of the world. The land could have historical meaning, but I had no reason to believe that it was more holy than any other place or that God was any more present here than at home. All the reasoning in the world could not explain why I felt the way I felt.
It was at the Western Wall that the Lord began to lend me His understanding. I arrived and made my way through the buzz of kippah’s and tallit’s that had come to welcome in the Shabbat. As I drew closer and closer I knew that I was in a sacred place. I reached the wall and touched one of the massive stones that unblinkingly watched the crowd of worshipers. The wall blessed my hand with a surprise. It was smooth like marble. I thought of the thousands of hands that had touched this wall. The thousands of blessings. As I looked up skyward I thought of the thousands of prayers that had been said in this place. The thousands of whispers and wails crying out to our Father. I felt a place that had been soaked in prayers.
There is something about our shared humanity that makes us aware of the holiness of God by means of one other. God’s presence is everywhere, and when we open our heart to the Lord the gift of empathy amplifies our awareness of that presence to those around us. We can see this in our daily lives. Corporate worship somehow seems more potent. Group Bible studies illuminate the word in profound ways. Jesus came down in human form. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” Matthew 18:20.
The Western Wall is a place where you viscerally feel the vulnerability of humankind opening its soul to the beyond. The prayers made over thousands of years fill the courtyard of the Kotel with an ephemeral Shekinah that enriches and sanctifies. The land of Israel, I found, is filled with thousands of these holy places. Wellsprings of sanctity releasing the prayers of millennia and filling the streets with the presence of the Lord. These prayers rush through the cities, above the orange groves, into the desert, over the Sea of Galilee and eventually come to rest against the cloud-capped mountains of the Golan and the towering fortresses of the Jordanian Highlands.
In the land of Israel, millennia ago, we began crying out to the Lord. Today still dwells in the land the living and eternal prayers of Abraham, David, and Jesus. There too in the Land are the prayers of me. In the Holy Land there are mountains, but beyond those mountains, across an oceans, deserts and valleys, rivers and plains there are millions of people in all corners of the earth releasing their prayers to the heavens and the earth. Prayers fill the Holy Land but also they fill our homes, churches, and cities. Israel taught me that the land of Abraham is sacred, yet so too, through us, God sanctifies the world.