by Mark Neely, Jr. | Azusa Pacific University
I am an athlete. I grew up playing sports, watching sports, and dreaming of sports. I am drawn to competition and loved belonging to a team that could accomplish something I could never attain on my own. Many of my most cherished relationships, emotional memories, and formative lessons in life have come from being an athlete. Sports construct the way in which I view the world. I love sports. But through this, I realize how much I have missed.
The geopolitical climate of Israel was an experience I was eager to encounter. My friend Dan would coax me (and on some occasions others) out of bed for a morning jog around the different communities in which we had the opportunity to stay in during our visits. Just as at home, the first thirty seconds of being awake is like a perpetual war between getting up to put my clothes on in victory or rolling back over to accept defeat. I can never let Dan down, and never once have I regretted it. Especially during those 10 days that included the brisk air of a Tel-Aviv morning, seaside runs along Galilee, or sunrise encounters of tranquil Jerusalem. Each morning in Jerusalem, we had the privilege of exploring a treasure trove of the city. A cultural, religious, and geo-political epicenter, truly unlike any place on earth. While some mornings we found ourselves carving through the ancient pathways of the Old City or getting lost among the different quarters that comprise this holy metropolis, we always encountered new discoveries. To fully embrace the scenery and setting of a place during a jostling jog is nearly impossible (simply another reason why I much prefer handlebars and two petals). For six days we had passed by the Knesset Menorah; and every time I was too busy gasping for air trying to keep up with my fitness partner to notice. On the seventh and final morning we were there, our route included the circumference of the Old City and thus not taking us back to the hotel via our normal route near the Knesset. Yet later that morning our group experienced a walking tour that passed by the Knesset, and to my surprise my eyes were immediately drawn to a stunning piece of art. Throughout the last few years, through the incorporation of jazz music and photography, I have become more attuned to the stories that art shares. The Knesset Menorah is a national symbol comprised of detailed images of Jewish history as people of a distinct identity, covenant, and country. Depictions of narratives from the Torah, ancient Jewish tradition, and cornerstones of the modern Israeli state are interwoven in no particular order to tell one grand narrative comprised of multiple sub narratives. It truly is remarkable.
As our guide began to unpack the extravagant production that was unfolding right before our eyes, I was drawn to the stories of Abraham, King David, and Moses juxtaposed to those of Haninah ben Teradion and Hillel the Elder. I am a very linear thinker by nature, and was attempting to find some sort of pattern or reason for the organization that was present, but I simply could not. There appeared to be no way to categorize what was in front of me. And then I was hit, attempting to separate, or even categorize the geopolitical narratives, from the religious narratives, from the cultural narratives is like attempting to disassemble this piece of art. If a portion of the story was removed, the menorah would only have six stems. Attempting to erase the Shema Yisrael and re-imagine a new phrase to inscribe on the foundation would allow for the entire piece to crumble.
As the tour began to move along, I found my feet leading me to the next site, but my mind was left behind. As the thought of the Menorah began to fade, my mind signaled to my feet; wait, I cannot miss this one. I spun around and turned the 40 paces I had taken away from the Menorah into 20, and found myself back in front of this masterpiece. I was struck, the Menorah is only a Menorah in its entirety; the story of Israel is only the story of Israel in its entirety. I marinated in this thought temporarily, snapped a photo to attempt to reconstruct this moment later on, and quickly returned to my peers in time to load the bus for our next encounter.
In my high school experience, I was not able to imagine myself ever appreciating art, much less enjoying it. My perception was that the world of a jock and the world of an artist were too different. Each spoke different languages, followed different leaders, and performed different liturgies. But something has changed. When I stopped and truly noticed, I began to allow my own experiences to be reshaped by that of another experience. My perspective has only allowed me to see what I wanted to see. Yet through the encounter of another worldview, that of art, I was able to access another perspective that I have grown to deeply cherish. And ultimately, I encountered a sobering truth, the story of Israel is a multilayered narrative of religious, cultural, and political history; a beautiful array that cannot be separated from this land. Something that is often neglected, ignored, misunderstood, or in my case almost missed; the story expressed by the Knesset Menorah is a story I have caught.